Portugal: Porto

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Porto was our other main destination on our trip (mainly because I wanted to see this bookstore), and it was interesting to see the difference between the two cities, though we only stayed a few days. Porto is so old, with neighborhoods dating back to medieval times, and the city had much more of an old world European feel, as opposed to Lisbon’s much more Mediterranean feel. We both felt like the economic downturn in Portugal was a lot more apparent in Porto as well. There were huge gorgeous buildings around the main square that were empty and crumbling from neglect, giving it a much more haunting atmosphere. Overall, Lisbon was hands down our favorite city, but I’m really glad we ventured north to experience another facet of Portugal.

Note: Francesinha is the iconic dish of the area, and is a delicious gut bomb. We wound up trying one in a small town north of Porto where we met up with a college friend of mine, so I don’t have a good spot in the city to recommend, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to track one down.

Favorite restaurants in Porto:

  • Traveller Caffe– This is a fun little spot to get a light meal. Lots of juices and fresh smoothies. They really do try to appeal to travelers (hence the name), so it’s a good spot to hit up if you’re feeling a little homesick.
  • Pedro dos Frangos– We loved this inexpensive little local spot. A whole grilled chicken, french fries, sauce picante, and two bottles of sangria later, we were feeling pretty good.
  • Solar Moinho de Vento– One of my favorite meals from our entire trip. If we had stayed in Porto longer, we definitely would have gone back. Basically, this placed serves the food that your imaginary Portuguese grandmother who happens to be an incredible chef would serve. Classic dishes, executed perfectly.
  • Leitaria da Quinta do Paco Baixa– A lot of our meals/snacks in Porto were from whatever bakery we happened to pass at that moment, and this one specialized in eclairs. So good.
  • Sandeman Port Winery– Neither of us had any experience drinking port, and we really enjoyed both the tour and the tasting, as well as learning more about the history of this beautiful city. Well worth the price of admission.

To see my list of recommendations for Lisbon, click here.

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Portugal: Lisbon

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Lisbon is a magical city, and we spent most of our recent two week vacation wandering its (steep) streets and inhaling as much of its food as possible. The people are friendly, a surprising amount of English is spoken (and they aren’t rude about pathetic attempts to speak Portuguese), and there is so much history around every corner.

If you’ve ever contemplated visiting, you should go now. If you haven’t ever thought about it, still go now. Make sure you take comfortable shoes, because you will be walking more than you thought possible. It works out, because you can eat and drink as much as you want and still come home in better shape than when you left.

Here are some of our favorite restaurants we hit up:

  • Pateo 13 Lisboa– this gem in the middle of the Alfama district is always packed, but the wait is worth it for simple grilled fish and vegetables. The smell of sardines on the grill drew us in, and we wound up eating here twice. Tip: make one person stand in line, and send another person inside to the bar for a few cervejas.
  • Sol e Pesca– Another place that we hit two times, this is one of the places that the patron saint of gluttonous travelers, Anthony Bourdain, visited on his trip to Lisbon. The restaurant focuses on canned fish, which are excellent, but I’m still dreaming about the mussels on their appetizer menu. The. Best.
  • Bistro 100 Maneiras– I turned 30 while we were traveling, and we thought we had made reservations to 100 Maneiras for their prix fix menu. Turns out, our reservation was at the Bistro, a more relaxed a la carte space. While I obviously  can’t compare the two from experience, all I can say is that the Bistro was beyond excellent, and I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate my birthday.
  • O Beco– One of our Air B&B hostesses recommended this spot, saying that they had the best authentic bacalhau (salted dried cod, a staple here) in the city. I got the bacalhau rice and it was some of the best fish I had on our trip.
  • Mini Bar– Jose Avillez is a star of the Lisbon food scene, with a wide variety of restaurants scattered through the city. Mini Bar is a fun spot for drinks and a variety of small bites. Our experience there was an odd one, I’m not going to lie, and we had to wait often for half an hour to get our next course (which when a course is only 1-2 bites each, that’s a loooooong time). However, our waiter at the end of the night was very kind and extremely apologetic and explained that due to the festival over the previous weekend, they had several staff members call in “sick” and were seriously shorthanded. We would definitely give it another shot, because the food was incredible, imaginative, and very different from anything we’ve had before.
  • Cervejaria Ramiro– Another Bourdain spot, this place is all about the seafood, and we braved the insane line twice for a chance to eat the best shellfish I’ve ever had. Get the garlic shrimp, pay for the bread, order whatever else looks good, and finish with the steak sandwich. Just do it.
  • Nova Pombalina– A fun little sandwich spot, also serving great fresh juices. The suckling pig sandwich is so damn tasty, and make sure you ask for the special sauce, some magical blend of pig drippings, vinegar, and lots of black pepper and garlic.
  • Uncle George Cafe– We stayed in two different apartments while in Lisbon, and we found this place towards to end of our stay at our second apartment. The old woman who runs the place could not be sweeter, and she made excellent pastries, sandwiches, fresh squeezed orange juice and coffee. We were sad that we didn’t know about her for more of our time there, because we would have eaten breakfast there regularly.
  • Mercado da Ribeira– TimeOut Magazine opened a food court of sorts next to the historic farmers market in Lisbon, and it’s a fun spot to try a lot of different foods, and judging by the crowd, it’s extremely popular. We got a few dishes each from Sea Me, Alexandre Silva, and Marlene Vieira, and everything was great.
  • Santini– The best damn gelato in the world. Stick to the fruit flavors, the passion fruit being my hands down favorite. Don’t ask how many scoops I ate during our trip. Just don’t.
  • A Ginjinha– Bourdain yet again. This tiny shop sells one thing, ginjinha, a cherry liquor that is crazy delicious. Make sure you get it with cherries in your tiny cup, and don’t count how many shots you sip per visit. It’s cheap and delicious, and we decided to check our bags coming back from Portugal just so we could bring back a few bottles of the stuff.
  • Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém– One of the quintessential pastries in Portugal, Lisbon in particular, are sweet little egg custard tarts. They go by a variety of names, pastel or pasteis de nata being the most common, but only this shop can claim to make true Pasteis de Belem, named after the famous monastery down the road. We ate these tarts in a lot of different places through our trip, but these were our favorite.

I’m going to go dream of the food and the winding streets and hills now.

Lisbon, we love you and miss you.

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Xi’an Famous Foods

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I would apologize for the quality of the photo, but since Josh and I could barely pause to speak while inhaling this food, I consider the fact that I managed to get one photo a massive victory.

I had been hearing about Xi’an Famous Foods for a while and wanted to try it out. We were both off Friday, and we decided to hit up the Upper West Side location on our way to see the Whitney Biennial.

The restaurant is small with limited seating, so I quickly grabbed two stools after agonizing with Josh over which menu items we should try this round. He ordered at the counter, and we only had a brief wait before our order number was called. Then, conversation virtually ceased.

We tried the spicy cumin lamb burger, the spicy cumin lamb hand-ripped noodles, the spicy cucumber salad, and the spicy and sour lamb dumplings.  Notice a few trends? We do love lamb and heat, but you should know that there are a variety of different meat and vegetable options, as well as items that are more mild.

The burger was very savory, sandwiched between two pieces of flatbread and full of a well spiced ground lamb mixture. Anthony Bourdain, my hero, is a known fan of the burger, and for good reason. Very simple and would make a great snack if you were in the area.

The spicy lamb noodles were so good. The noodles are made fresh in-house, and you can immediately tell the difference. There is such a fantastic chewy texture to them that you can never find a in a pre-made noodle. The lamb chunks were tender and spicy, and the juice coated the noodles.

We have a deep and abiding love for dumplings, and these didn’t disappoint. They were a little bigger than you typically find, definitely a 2-3 bite dumpling, filled with ground lamb and covered in a delicate spicy and sour sauce. The sauce bears no resemblance to the cheap and gloopy sauce that covers food court chicken, but instead was really a perfect balance of hot and sour, with a very pleasant heat in the background. I found myself dipping the dumplings back into the sauce after every bite.

The spicy cucumber salad was cool, crunchy, and delicious. I don’t think I’ve ever craved another bite of cucumber the way I did when eating that salad. It provided a nice contrast to all of the other textures happening in our meal, and was a great, light accompaniment to an otherwise relatively heavy meal.

All in all, this might be one of our new favorite restaurants. The combination of perfect seasonings and the joy of finding noodles of that quality have earned our deep loyalty. We’ve already started planning our next trip, and wondering which of the more unusual menu items to try next ( lamb face salad? lamb offal soup? The ox tail will definitely find its way onto our plates).

Note: while the prices are very low, especially for the extremely high quality of the food, it is cash only, so come prepared!