You’re an uptown guy, but today we head downtown. Here in Porto, capital of northern Portugal where there is a cathedral on every corner and a dream beckoning in each glistening inch of the Douro River.
You head downtown, away from the river. Gone from the tourist-spots. It is summer, and there are hundreds of thousands of legal aliens. Crew-cut British bull-dog breeders in tight jeans. Germans, surly faces and pale knees above the white socks and Birkenstock sandals. Squinting Orientals donning berets, maps and selfie-sticks.
You head downtown to where the Porto folk go to eat and drink on a Friday afternoon. The roads are narrow. The tile-faced apartments look comfortably lived-in. The pavements are cobble-stoned, and the people sit around in cafés and squares, talking and eating and just biding time in a city, Porto, that seems to be built on a sense of community. On common values of a shared rural and maritime origin. We are Tripeira.
Your guide is Raul Valle, a colleague from cork company Amorim who recommends a mini-tour of food-stops. Places he and his buddies go to. “Nothing fancy,” he says. I like, you say. You want to go downtown, and here you are.
You are in Gazela, a snack bar the size of a two-vehicle garage in Claremont. It is packed and it is loud. There is a counter, and behind the counter a lot of stuff is going on. Two big sandwich-toasters and a grill are donned by busy guys in Gazela T-shirts. There is also a deep-fryer. And that is, well, the Gazela kitchen.
Muscling your way to the counter, Raul orders cachorrinhos, the small hot-dogs for which Gazela is so famous that Anthony Bourdain pulled in recently. You sip cold Super Bocks draught beer as the kitchen guys prepare your meal.
It arrives in minutes, and you get a plate of sliced toasted bread-roll with some meaty stuff inside. The sausage is pork, and the spice a secret. It has been grilled on the bread, and then covered with some cheese before receiving a smudge of peri-peri.
The stuff is delicious. Toasted fresh bread soaked in sausage fat, followed by a meaty chew and mellow cheesiness. All cut up in little morsels, ready to be popped in the mouth whole, crunched and washed down with a glug of cold beer. You stand and eat, and accept the greeting from the Porto office worker standing next to you. Bon dia. Because, it is a good day.
With round one over, you take a drive a few blocks away to Casa Guedes. The joint is famous for pulled pork sandwiches. Seating is outside across from a park. But ordering is done at the till inside. Raul takes charge and we wait a few minutes while a scholarly-looking guy slices meat from a roasted leg of pork the size of a small wine barrel.
Your order is ready, a heap of sturdy bread rolls with unctuous strips of meat peeling out from inside of the edges. Also, a bottle of fizzy rosé known as Espadal. Outside, away from the talk and gesticulating, you can study your spoils.
The buns are round and crusty and coloured a light brown. You open one up to check out the contents, and find a creamy layer of melted cheese atop of a heap of meat, which is pork.
These rolls are cut in half and you engage in an immodest bite to take in as much as you can. First thing that hits you is the cheese, salty with a bit of Camembert-like intenseness. Then follows the meat, tender tentacles of spiced pork cooked for what tastes and feels like days. The bread is not just a vessel for holding this sublime combination of meat and cheese, but also cleans the palate for the next bite.
The wine is fruity and acidic and cuts the fat, flushes the grease creating a fresh palate in preparation of the next bite. You look at a Porto girl next to you and realise that Porto girls look good with tattoos.
Up until now, it has been pork. In the hot-dogs. And the pulled sandwiches. So where’s the beef?
At Venham Mais 5. A walk away, the place is undercover and you sit down among a crowd a bit younger and less working class than what has been the case at the previous two places. There is a hen party at one table. Girls in white drinking beer and eating stuff and singing.
A table is found, and it is Super Bock again, although this time you try the stout. It is dark and cold, with an intense roast-hops flavour.
Then the beef. A pile of prego rolls. The simplicity is beautiful.
Thin steaks, grilled medium-rare with nothing but salt, are placed in a fresh bun. The beef is perfectly, perfectly done and tender as the final kiss from a retiring Fado singer. They lie on a bed of creamy melted cheese as white as the eyes of new born bambino.
Downtown you are, for just over an hour-and-half. Outside the streets start bustling with workers who have called it a day ahead of the week-end. There is a sense of leisure in the air as a cool breeze comes blowing off from the ocean and you can be happy, too, because there are a lot of good things still to come.
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