Rally das Tascas: Speed Tasting the Small Plates of Oporto
By Josh Greene
The real tascas, the ones that define the category, seem to be always in another city, or are closed for the evening, or are in some other way mythical and unattainable. There is always some reason why the tasca where you are is not a tasca.
"A real tasca will have a menu with traditional dishes. Lots of different things, depending on the raw material available nearby," says Luís Lopes, the editor of Portugal's Revista de Vinhos. I meet him in Oporto, along with Mário Sérgio Alves Nuno, who produces old-vine baga, sparkling wines and whites at Quinta das Bágeiras in Bairrada. Dirk Niepoort, winemaker and proprietor of Niepoort Vinhos, joins us as well as we head out in search of tascas.
"Tascas are the place for families," Niepoort says. "Portugal is probably the country that is most happy to have children in a restaurant. If you take children out to eat, the waiter will look after them, even if they misbehave. At a tasca, you can eat for five euros."
Sérgio Macedo, a sommelier who works with the Portuguese magazine Wine Passion, had recommended several tascas, including Conga, where I had stopped the day before for bifanas—thin slices of pork loin in a spicy red sauce. They're served on a crusty roll, which you dip into the sauce.
Conga is a renovated tasca, and though the feel is modern, the service is sufficiently surly and tattooed to give a sense that it's been here a while. The bifanas are worth a trip, as are the sardinhas grilhadas, if you happen to be in town when they are in season.
Macedo also recommended Cervejaria Gazela, which is jammed when our tasca team arrives at nine in the evening. The place looks like it hasn't been tinkered with since it opened in 1962, other than the installation of a flat screen TV on the back wall, permanently tuned to a soccer match. We could sit upstairs, but why bother? A narrow bar along the wall provides a better view and plenty of space to scarf a cachorro especial, what locals call hot dogs, though they are nothing like American hot dogs. These are pork sausages with some of the spice of linguiça, grilled, then sliced thin and layered on a baguette-like stick of bread with cheese and grilled in a sandwich press. They are served sliced into bite-sized pieces. "This is the Portuguese version of junk food," Luís Lopes says, though it tastes far better than any junk food when washed down with a crisp Vinho Verde.
At Casa Guedes, a short walk away, the focus is on pernil—roasted pork shoulder—bathed in a red sauce. There are tables outside on a small plaza, and a few bunched inside by the bar. Niepoort runs into friends packed into a corner table, owners of a top-flight fish market in Porto, Peixaria Maria Antonia in Foz.
As we stand in a long line waiting to order, we watch a waiter deliver a wooden platter of cured pork to their table, along with cheeses, a stack of fries and a plate of pernil.
We order the simple pernil sandwiches and carry them outside with our glasses of Vinho Verde rosado. The pernil on its own is delicious, a generous amount of pork on a small toasted bun. And evidently, the various cured sausages and fries are pretty great as well—according to the fishmonger and his family, who admit this is their first time at Guedes. They are now committed clientele.
Flôr dos Congregados, near the train station, is a clean, modern place that feels intentionally old fashioned, complete with an original dumbwaiter that the women behind the bar crank up and down all evening. An Iberian ham hangs from the ceiling, along with some fish sculptures about the same size. A tasca is usually dirty, Dirk Niepoort says, as if to complain about the clean, well-tended feel of this place. Luís Lopes adds that he's heard there are a lot of tascas in Oporto that have been renovated to appeal to the tourists, since there's been a tourism explosion in town over the last five years.
The food here, however, has not been modernized. This is the place for tripas, the food of Oporto, the city whose citizens are called tripeiros. Braised in a rich sauce with white beans, the tripe is worth a visit, though we have less luck with the wine list. We swing and miss twice before Niepoort opens his backpack and pulls out a bottle from his new Bairrada project at Quinta do Baixo in Cantenhede. A baga fermented in lagars with stalks, it's an elegant companion to the tripe—a more sophisticated wine, perhaps, than you're likely to find in most tascas. Instead, these are places with beer and a few simple, rustic wines.
Matosinhos, on the far western edge of Oporto by the sea, has its share of tascas, yet where I end up isn't one of them, exactly. O Gaveto is a proper restaurant, with tanks of crabs in several sizes and colors, lobsters, langoustines and tubs of ice that keep a chill on percebes (goose barnacles), clams and whatever else the fishermen brought in that day. But Niepoort and his friend, Jorge Albuquerque da Quinta, a former Oporto restaurateur who now makes wine in Vinho Verde, focus on the menu choices they describe as "tasca food."
Quinta is a bonafide expert in tascas—Neipoort had mentioned him to me when we were at Cervejaria Gazela, recalling the day he witnessed the man eat nine of the sausage sandwiches. (Quinta defends himself by noting that a friend of his—a direct cousin of José Mireilles, the New York restaurateur—had eaten 14.)
"A tasca is a place where the peasants eat, not at lunch, not at dinner...but at the end of the afternoon, or mid-morning, to eat some bread, or ham, or sardines," says Quinta as we drink Vinho Verde—white and red—with fried bacalhau, sardinhas grilhadas and punheta, uncooked salt cod with onions, olives, olive oil and pepper. It's sort of salt cod crudo with a dirty name (punheta, evidently, translates as masturbation, perhaps derived from the motion of pulling apart the cod).
"Tascas are Portugal," Niepoort says in between sips of Vinho Verde. "Portuguese food is very simple but with great ingredients. All Portuguese know that you can go anywhere and ask for soup and you will get a miracle."
Or ask for a Francesinha and you'll get a sandwich based loosely on the croque monsieur. It's ham, cheese, sausage, more ham, a thin piece of steak, then cheese again, then sauce. "It will kill you," says Niepoort, "but you die happy."
Most tascas serve inexpensive beer alternatives made from fermented grapes. Some are drinkable, some not so much. A tasca wine should not be fancy, and it should not call attention to itself. It's for knocking back, for cutting fat or for building appetite. Here is my own personal list from recent tastings, wines I'd like to find on the back of a tasca menu. Since Oporto is the hub for wine travel to Bairrada (south), Douro (east) and Vinho Verde (north and east), I've focused the list on those regions. Any tasca worth its pork should be specialized, after all.
Refreshing Whites for sardinhas grilhadas or spicy pernil
Aveleda 2012 Vinho Verde Quinta da Aveleda ($9)
Quinta de Azevedo 2012 Vinho Verde ($10)
Quinta de Gomariz 2012 Vinho Verde Avesso ($18)
Rich Whites for punhada (salt cod crudo), grilled lulas, fried bacalhau
Aphros 2008 Vinho Verde Reserva Bruto Loureiro ($23)
Quinta das Bágeiras 2010 Bairrada Bruto Super Reserva
Soalheiro 2012 Vinho Verde Alvarinho ($24)
Anselmo Mendes 2012 Vinho Verde Contacto Alvarinho ($20)
Tart Reds for sardinhas grilhadas or sausage sandwiches at Guedes
Niepoort Projectos 2011 Verde Tinto
Muxagat 2011 Douro Tinta Barroca ($20)
Luis Pato 2010 Beiras VR Vinhas Velhas ($24)
Robust Reds for tripas with white beans, rejioes, blood sausages or queijo
Niepoort 2010 Douro Twisted ($20)
Quinta do Portal 2008 Douro Mural Reserva ($12)
Quinta de la Rosa 2010 Douro DouRosa ($16)
Quinta do Vallado 2010 Douro ($20)
Tascas in Oporto
Flôr dos Congregados