It was not until we saw waves and waves of party-goers all dressed up and ready in Baixa that we realized it was a Friday night! We were wandering in the neighborhood, and we didn’t know a good place to have dinner. Lookin, for food, my friends always told me: “just follow your nose.” As for me, I’d say “just follow the crowd.” Wherever someplace is packed with diners, it’s got to be… good.
DAY 1: Dinner on a Friday Night!
Following the herd of all-dressed-up-and-fancy, we excitedly walked into the allies where later I learned was a hip dining and drinking district in the city of Lisbon. Soon enough we spotted a rather secretive door of a restaurant that had a crowd lining up outside. More than that, we found a TripAdvisor label on the door that said: “TripAdvisor recommended.” Without hesitation, we went in. Luckily, it didn’t take long for the hostess to find a table of two to squeeze us in. As we shared the table with a local couple who just visited China a month ago, we started to chat about their adventures in Shanghai over a couple of Sagres beers. One thing different they said, between dining in Europe and Asia, was that the diners usually don’t wave or holler at the servers. They will eventually attend to you.
DAY 2: Dinner with the locals!
The next night we had an excursion to Sintra, which ended up with some drama (let’s talk about that later). We dragged ourselves back to Baixa at night and entered a deli which was apparently very local. They didn’t have an English menu, and the servers could not speak much English. We sat at the counter and ordered some Portuguese food by gesturing and pointing the dishes on the other table. Then I started to look around as we were waiting. I saw a few tables around me had a very diverse mix of nationalities – Europeans, Asians, and Africans were chatting in fluent Portuguese (definitely not English), and were having a good time. They seem they had known each other very well. It was new to me as it would be rare for me to see a group of culturally diverse people hanging out in a local language in any Asian countries. I was wondering if that meant ‘international.’ Some Asian countries do not have an immigration or colonial history, and it was usually difficult for the expats to blend into the local society. In other words, (although I know a co-worker from the US could speak fluent Japanese), it was not a common sight in Seoul or Tokyo that a group of diners from all around the world is speaking Korean or Japanese in a local deli.
I expressed my point of view with my friend Lee later, but she had a different theory. She thought the expats would not have to learn Portuguese to survive in Lisbon, had the city is multi-cultural ‘enough’ to provide an ‘international’ environment for them to blend in with just English. Well, either way, I guessed I had to let it go.
DAY 3: Pastéis de Belém
Our quest for Portuguese cuisine continued as we were determined to try a genuine Portuguese Tart in Balem on the last day of our stay in Lisbon. By that time we already had a couple of tarts in other places, and those tarts just tasted too sweet and filled with buttery custard that I didn’t really like. I was not sure if custard was supposed to be in the recipe, I was convinced the tarts tasted much, much better in Macau until I tried one in Pastéis de Belém. I believe the district of Balem require no introduction as it appears in every tourist guide books. The district is filled with iconic landmarks, as well as the famous Pastéis de Belém – one of the oldest bakeries in Portugal opened in 1837.
By 10 am, the bakery was already packed – but only on the outside. Squeezing our way through the roaring crowd and we were surprised that the place was huge. We found ourselves a table and went back to the counter for the long-awaited Portuguese tarts and coffee. THAT was what I have been looking for – buttery crispy warm crust filled with rich yet light custard. Some might not like it, but it was the best tarts that I had in Lisbon.
Afterward, we walked on the colorfully and artistically paved pavements under the blue sky towards the nearby Tower of Belém and Monasterio dos Jeronimos. The ornaments in the cloister of the Monastery were something to see. Together with the Tower of Belém, they were both classified a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the year of 1983. They were built in the Late Gothic Manueline style is a unique Portuguese architecture genre united artistic features from Spanish Plateresque style, Italian urban architecture, and Flemish elements. The whimsical, curvy and diversified columns on the Tower of Belém reminded me a little bit of Gaudi’s work in Barcelona. 🙂