Preserving Tradition: An Ode to Lisbon’s Endearing Tascas
The busiest time of the day for José Saudade e Silva is that blur between 1 – 2 p.m., when the lunch orders just won’t stop. There is bacalhau à minhota (salt cod with onions and fried potatoes) coming out of the kitchen. Bochechas de porco (braised pork cheeks) are ready to leave the stove. Açorda de gambas (bread-based stew with shrimp and cilantro) is already on one of the tables.
Saudade e Silva, 29, is the chef and owner at Cacué, a small restaurant in Lisbon’s office district of Picoas, just a few blocks from Calouste Gulbenkian Museum and Eduardo VII Park. In 2017, he took over the space, which, for almost 25 years, was called O Tomás, and improved its appearance with lighter wood on the walls and a counter in front of the kitchen. Some things he didn’t change: He kept on Dona Rosa, a cook who worked at the original restaurant from day one. And he has barely touched the prices, with daily dishes costing between 10 and 12 euros.
In Portugal, tascas are small, popular family businesses, where locals eat traditional, filling Portuguese food daily, especially at lunch time, and pay honest prices. Cacué is a tasca, neither a French bistro nor an Italian Osteria. Saudade e Silva has kept the former restaurant’s spirit alive, which was a favorite among locals, not only for the convivial atmosphere, but also for its inexpensive daily specials.
Like Cacué, there are a number of other unpretentious tascas scattered all over Lisbon. Their histories date back to the early part of the 20th century. Back then, most were owned by Galician immigrants, sold cheap wine and petiscos (small sharing dishes), and coal. They were half-tavern, half-social places, where underpaid factory workers went for a drink after a tiring day — for many, this was their only connection to an idea of home. Migrants from other regions in Portugal followed suit and later opened their own tascas. Because of their specialties like petiscos — such as bifana or prego (pork and beef sandwiches), croquetes (pan-fried, minced cow’s tongue in bread crumbs), and pataniscas (cod fritters) — and late closing hours, this type of Lisbon restaurant then became the favorite hangout place for bohemians, artists, and writers.
Tascas, as we know them today, are central in the urban dynamics, both in the routines of the locals, as well as in the process of touristification. Monumental luxury apartment billboards in the streets of Lisbon that protrude from deteriorated buildings to five-star chain hotels that mushroom in the most neighborly city’s districts, might be a sign of Portugal’s capital’s recent food price excessiveness. Yet these transformations, a consequence of the city’s revival after the economic crisis, did not preclude a resurgence of affordable, authentic restaurants that serve delectable Portuguese traditional food. Tascas still offer honest meals to the vast majority of the population and serve as social and gastronomical reference points.
They offer honest meals to the vast majority of the population and become social and gastronomical reference points, equally appealing to anyone looking for well-cooked Portuguese food.
At Cacué, Saudade e Silva even continued the culture of the day’s special, which defines that each day there is at least one dish that is chosen as the one that is always ready to serve. Sometimes it’s a dish of favas com entrecosto (fava beans with spareribs), other times it can be linguadinhos fritos com arroz de tomate (tiny fried sole with tomato rice). This routine helps in the creation of habits that have locals return again and again, which makes them connected to that place, and thus generating culinary and affective landmarks in the city. Some regulars visit their favorite tasca for lunch every day, some only go when the daily special is their favorite dish.
Many tascas have now closed, sadly. Aging and tired owners — some in the business for 40 years — decided to close doors; the skyrocketing of the city’s real estate prices choke families who sacrificed their lives to preserve the neighborhood tasca, and the emergence of international dining trends in Lisbon made some restaurateurs and chefs replace tascas with fashionable restaurants.
Other tascas — Taberna Sal Grosso or Petisco Saloio — were opened by trained chefs and cooks, following a new budget-priced dining trend that aims to revive the city’s tascas. The new owners bring a touch of refinement, by replacing the paper tablecloths and beautifying the interiors, but the Portuguese traditional tasca cuisine and spirit continues to be there.
If either you want to have a homey lunch or prefer to share some excellent petiscos in Lisbon, tascas continue to be your safe haven. Visit Cacué, or other tascas such as Toscana Casa de Pasto or Zé da Mouraria, for a familiar, honest experience, where everyone feels good regardless of the sports team one supports or the career position one might have.
Curious to learn more about Lisbon’s tascas and the food culture in Portugal’s capital city? Check out S.A.L.T. Lab Radio’s podcast episode below, Saving Lisbon’s Restaurant Soul, to hear Zé Saudade e Silva talk to S.A.L.T. Director Adam Sachs about his quest to preserve the tradition of tascas and why it’s so important for Cacué to survive the pandemic. Plus, journalist Miguel Andrade unpacks Portugal’s colonial past, Adam goes shopping for tinned fish, a steak sandwich for the ages and our visit to the House of Eels.