It’s not possible to arrive somewhere at 1:00 pm and leave that same place at 11:00 am on the same day – a fact I spent exactly 90 euros in long-distance calls trying to explain to the professionally inept ladies and gentleman of TAP Airline’s Bookings Department. The only way to fix this screw-up was to fly to Lisbon the day before and stay overnight before continuing on to Boston, where bridesmaid responsibilities at my best friend’s wedding awaited. Having spent so much time calling, worrying and paying for what was very clearly not my mistake, I decided it was best to take a breath and try to make the best of a 22-hour layover. After all, I’d be staying in a beautiful city, where it is 29 Celsius at the end of October, the land of abundant Atlantic seafood and pasteis de nata, where prices are half what they are in Bordeaux (and about a third what they are in the US).
So I booked a bed, threw on a pair of white shorts and set out for a walk around the sunny Portuguese capital. Along the way, I passed that famous elevator thing, several bright yellow trolleys (so similar to those of Budapest…) and a cafe for the city’s signature pastry. At sunset I was at Praça do Comércio gazing out over the 25th of April bridge and the big Jesus across the harbor. After a few glasses of local wine at the Tasting Room of ViniPortugal I walked back up Rua Augusta, ogling at the monstrous blue lobsters awaiting their fate in the window of cervejarias, and buying awful little Lisbon magnets to add to my Ugly Magnet Collection. As I headed up Av. Almirante Reis, on my way to a restaurant recommended by a friend, I came across a very long line outside a place called Cervejaria Ramiro. I did some swift googling and liked what I saw so I decided to commit.
This place, as all real cervejarias in Lisbon, began as a beer hall in the 1950’s and eventually introduced seafood to quell the appetites of tipsy clientele. The place has since come to specialize in fresh seafood, especially shellfish, proudly displayed live at the entrance. The line on the street takes roughly 20 minutes and it will get you past a glass wall to an open waiting area. You then take a ticket and wait for your number to appear on the screen outside. Mine was 3830. In the meantime, pay a few euros for a token and pour yourself a beer. By the time you finish, you’ll probably be heading in.
Inside the place is lively and loud, with a vibe similar to that of a wet market in Hong Kong. I swear I didn’t even see the waiter set a basket of crunchy bread (smeared generously with melting butter) down in front of me, he must have been moving so fast. He also brought out a thick white mallet and cracking board, to be used on pretty much everything on offer here. I scanned the menu and immediately regretted being alone, only because it would mean not being able to try more dishes. The amêijoas à bulhão pato and lengthwise split, grilled tiger shrimp looked particularly tempting, but I decided on the Sapateira recheada, a classic Portuguese preparation of Stone crab. And a bottle of aromatic dry white wine Planalto from the Duoro to pair.
Out came an absolutely gorgeous Sapateira crab, with two beefy chelipeds, hairy segmented legs, two “shoulders” and the carapace filled with a kind of creamy pudding made from the meat and roe, blended into a combination of mustard, mayonnaise, hard-boiled egg, beer and paprika. Holy God, was that good… The briny, sweet essence of the crab was perfectly accentuated by this combination of salty flavors and acidity. The sauce was fluffy and smooth, save for lumps of bright red roe, flaky meat and silken crab fat. Chilled and moist, it spread beautifully over hunks of warm, buttered toast and the combination of textures that resulted – the crunch, the warm hug from the butter, then the cool, creamy sauce, all followed by a sip of crisp white wine whose acidity cut the fat – was mesmerizing.
The crabs extremities were steamed and chilled, delicately pre-cracked in a way to give the guest an idea of where to come down hard with the mallet. The best, of course, is to split the shell straight up so that the juicy claw meat flops out in one big, juicy lump. That’s exactly what happened with this hunk of claw meat pictured below. The thing slipped delicately out of its shell, coated with a peeling layer of eggnog-colored, silky smooth fat. I still remember biting down into the sweet, translucent flesh to scrape it off the cartilage in the center, and how it fell apart into moist fibers on my palate. I had one in the beginning, but saved the second for the end, the best bite. Next came the legs, cracked carefully to reveal skinny little bits of meat. And then, what I like to call the crab’s shoulders, those white labyrinths of hardened cartilage attaching the claws to the core of the body. Sucking the marine juice out to begin, I prodded the narrow crevices, scooping out bits of bright white flesh until I couldn’t anymore. All in all, eating a crab is a pretty lengthy, loud and raunchy experience and a person wrapped up in the heat of crab passion is not an attractive sight to behold from across the dinner table. So I didn’t particularly mind being alone to focus on and enjoy my meal better.
Stuffed from crab and crab-roe-topped toasts, I was about ready for the bill when I spotted a table nearby ordering something that looked like a hamburger from far away. Shocked and confused about how anyone could order anything beside seafood in a place like this, I leaned over and, in my best American tourist voice, asked, “Hey. What’s that? Looks good.” The mom in the Portuguese family whose dinner I had just interrupted leaned back and told me, “Beef.” Then, for some reason, I decided to switch to Spanish to ask, “Es tradicional pedir esto aqui?” Because Portuguese is not Spanish, she understood only the word “tradicional,” to which she nodded, then took another bite of her sandwich.
It was only after googling it, while waiting for the bill, that I learned that this had been a prego, one of the three most popular sandwiches in Lisbon. Before the trip I had actually planned to get a bifana, a marinated and fried pork cutlet sandwich, and looked up several known for it. Unfortunately, I’d be spending only Sunday in Lisbon, limiting my options in terms of what’s open. None of the bifana spots were. But this prego, a savorier and meatier dessert than what I’m used to, really hit the spot, especially at a price of 4 euros.
The bread was wonderfully pillowy inside and crusty on the exterior. Dangling out between the two slices was a long and wide but very thin filet of beef, no doubt pounded into this shape and thus remarkably tender and juicy. It was cooked perfectly, to rare, with just a light sear on either side and bright red, but warm, in the center. Perfectly seasoned (minimally) and laced with toasted, half-caramelized-half-burnt bits of sticky garlic, the meat melted after a quick chew into buttery bits of protein and fiber. I had mine with a touch of mustard, as is tradition. What I loved about this prego, besides the gorgeous beef in the middle, was how the meat jus had soaked into the crusty bread, creating a layer of moist, salty softness before the crunch, as in a(n American) “French dip.” It doesn’t look like much in the photos, but I can honestly call this meaty dessert a must-have, just as Cervejaria Ramiro is a must-visit for anyone in Lisbon looking for good seafood.
And so ended my lone, but far from lonely, dinner in Lisbon, a product of an unhappy mistake turned into one of the nicest dates I’ve ever been on with myself. As someone not accustomed to eating alone, I’d been worried about all that heavy silence and judgement from fellow diners, who seemed to be present in parties of over 4 only. As it turned out, though, none of that was a problem. Literally every person at that place had their face buried in some sort of crustacean or mollusk, eyes glued to the table, scanning what’s left. Nobody even seemed to look up for long enough to notice an awkwardly pale foreigner in white shorts and a backpack. Caught up in the act of devouring my Sapateira, I was distracted and lost in thought enough to have not made a very good dining companion anyway. And when it all finished, and I wiped the last bit of crab and beef juice off my lips, throwing my crinkled napkin onto my plate, and slurping down the last bit of room-temperature white wine, I leaned back in my seat and thanked my lucky stars for this spontaneous layover.
When life gives you Lisbon, eat a crab.