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."

The taxi driver says there are no more tascas in Oporto.

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.

"Tascas are the place for families. Portugal is probably the country that is most happy to have children in a restaurant. The waiter will look after them, even if they misbehave."

—Dirk Niepoort


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.

"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."

—Dirk Niepoort


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.

"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."

—Jorge Quinta


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."

Tascas Wines

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)
Vinho Verde is summer tasca wine and this estate-grown blend of loureiro and alvarinho is hard to beat for its mouthwatering flavors. Bright scents of lime, white rose and pink grapefruit will take easily to a chill.

Quinta de Azevedo 2012 Vinho Verde ($10)
You could easily blast through a bottle of this crisp white while you wait for your order to arrive. Its fresh lime and kumquat flavors are brightened by a touch of CO2.

Quinta de Gomariz 2012 Vinho Verde Avesso ($18)
This avesso from a relatively warm, inland zone of Vinho Verde has ripened to fresh fruit sweetness and peach perfume. Acidity powers the flavors, with an edge to take on pernil.

Rich Whites for punhada (salt cod crudo), grilled lulas, fried bacalhau

Aphros 2008 Vinho Verde Reserva Bruto Loureiro ($23)
Vasco Croft makes this golden-hued sparkler from biodynamically grown grapes, capturing their fragrance in scents of sorrel and lilies. The texture is creamy, marked by a flinty edge. This, or the Bágeiras, would add some elegance to a tasca night out.

Quinta das Bágeiras 2010 Bairrada Bruto Super Reserva
Mário Sergio Alves Nuno farms old vine bical and maria gomes for this cuvée, letting the mineral acidity shine through without any dosage. It has more depth than most sparkling wines you'll find in Iberia, yet it still delivers clean refreshment.

Soalheiro 2012 Vinho Verde Alvarinho ($24)
This preserves the cool nights of August 2012 in a scent of crushed herbs and pale white pear. It's youthfully fresh, immediately seductive, substantial in its depths of flavor. A joy to drink now with percebes (goose barnacles) or any fresh catch. The Cerdeira family started bottling their alvarinho in Melgaço in 1982, this marking their 30th vintage, a long run that would make a tasca-owner proud.

Anselmo Mendes 2012 Vinho Verde Contacto Alvarinho ($20)
One of Anselmo Mendes's most ambitious wines, this grows at riverside vineyards in Monção and Melgaço, the grapes cold macerated in contact with their skins prior to fermentation. In 2012, the peach density of flavor matches the architecture of its structure in a luscious, monumental alvarinho. What could be better with bacalhau?

Tart Reds for sardinhas grilhadas or sausage sandwiches at Guedes

Niepoort Projectos 2011 Verde Tinto
Richer than your average Vinho Verde Tinto, this has enough body and fresh purple fruit to balance its fierce acidity. The wine comes from Jorge Quinta's Val-Boa vineyard at the western edge of Tras-os-Montes.

Muxagat 2011 Douro Tinta Barroca ($20)
Mateus Nicolau de Almeida makes this wine from high-altitude vineyards in Mêda, a relatively cool area of the torrid Douro Superior. He makes it without added yeast, and presents it like a cru Beaujolais, bright raspberry flavors coasting over a velvet nap.

Luis Pato 2010 Beiras VR Vinhas Velhas ($24)
Luis Pato brings out the pinot noir side of baga, cajoling his old vines to produce this pure, berry-scented wine while holding to the variety's narrow structure.

Robust Reds for tripas with white beans, rejioes, blood sausages or queijo

Niepoort 2010 Douro Twisted ($20)
You won't find this in Portugal, as the blend carries a different label in each export market. It's Niepoort's most accessible Douro red, supple and satin-textured, saturated with cool berry fruit.

Quinta do Portal 2008 Douro Mural Reserva ($12)
This wine's scents of purple basil and tobacco will blend right in with braised meats, as will its potent, schist tannins.

Quinta de la Rosa 2010 Douro DouRosa ($16)
With its dark scents of anise, blueberries and beeswax, this is a modern style Douro that kicks up schist tannins in the end.

Quinta do Vallado 2010 Douro ($20)
Violet scents and juicy blackberry flavors meet schist-black tannins in search of something meaty.

Tascas in Oporto

Cervejaria Gazela
Travessa do Ciro de Vila, 4, 4100 Porto

Casa Guedes
Praça dos Poveiros 130, 4000 Porto
222002874

Flôr dos Congregados
Travessa dos Congregados, 11, 4000 Porto
222002822

Conga
Rua do Bonjardim, 318, 4100 Porto
222000113

Restaurants

O Gaveto
Rua Roberto Ivens,
826 , 4450-250 Matosinhos
229383812