Thankfully, Portugal is a small country (smaller than Pennsylvania and a only wee bit bigger than Maine!), so getting from the largest city to the second largest city doesn't take more than a few hours.
We shipped out of Lisbon mid-morning. Destination: Porto. And as usual, we didn't have a plan beyond that.
Finding an interesting place to eat wasn't going to be a problem. This we knew for sure. Finding such an outstanding meal in such an interesting town, well, that was a bit surprising.
During the journey, the missus was poking around the internet, trying to find some food about midway between Lisbon and Porto. The stars aligned that morning, and we discovered an article on the town of Mealhada. What is so special about Mealhada? Suckling pig is what's so special about Mealhada. And lots of it. Stopping for lunch in a town in the middle of nowhere for a local delicacy? We couldn't have designed this morning any better.
Mealhada is known for their Leitões da Bairrada, which is suckling pig, basted with garlic and roasted til crispy. Bairrada is the central area of Portugal in which this is all going down.
The main drag in and out of Mealhada was littered with restaurants serving suckling pig. Pictures of pigs, the word leitões in every other restaurant name: we knew we were in the right place. It was all a bit overwhelming, with so many restaurants. And these were sizable restaurants, catering to a lot of locals, and maybe some visitors. We had to pick one, and landed on Meta dos Leitões. I'm not sure what this means in Portuguese, but it might mean "run little piggy, run!"
We walked into a surprisingly crowded restaurant, considering it was relatively early for lunch. These folks by and large seemed to be Portuguese. I got the impression that we were the only tourists in the place.
While Lisbon is filled with young, worldly folks, who know at least a bit of English, the smaller towns in Portugal may not offer that convenience. This was one of those towns. We basically knew what we wanted to eat, but had a bit of trouble getting it across. The first waitress threw in the towel right after I tripped over "fala inglêse?". She sent over a second server, who at the very least recognized us as being of the same species. She pretty quickly caught on to our attempts at Portuguese pointing, stuttering, and mumbling.
Within minutes the food was hitting the table. The pig meal consisted of bread, salad, potato chips, and crispy, roasted pig. It felt like we hadn't seen a vegetable in 3 days. Apparently, everyday restaurant eating in Portugal is not a vegetable-intense affair. It's piggy, fishy, potatoe-y, but not veggie-y. Is that why the salad tasted so damned good? I don't think so. I think it was a simple salad, done very well. Barely dressed with oil, vinegar, and salt. Bright and acidic and crunchy and refreshing. That's why it tasted so damned good. It was done well. We still talk about the freakin' salad 2 years later. The potato chips? Equally as well executed.
But the pork. My goodness, the pork. These little pigs, I believe, are still surviving on mothers' milk when they are slaughtered. It's all very sad and troubling, but the end result is undeniable and irresistible: luscious, fatty pork, with crazy crispy skin. And these aren't pork loin chops. This is a whole hog deal, loaded with fat and flavor and texture. You get what they cut off. I think there was a sauce on the side, but I don't think we even used it. Simply outstanding pork.
The internet advised us that we should be ordering a local sparkling red wine These wines are slightly effervescent, with great acidity. A perfect compliment to the salad and dressing, and foil to the fatty meat. I think it was just barely a few dollars, ta boot. I should note that you should buy and drink more Portuguese wine. They are generally tremendous values, and pleasant overall.
On the way out of town that day, I had to make an excuse to pull over, as I found we were coming up on a big truck filled with living breathing baby pigs' heads sticking out from every hole. The missus just wasn't going to react well to that, I knew. I wasn't either, quite frankly. We ended up catching up to the truck just outside of Porto. And I don't think they were in town for a port tasting.
The experience was so wonderful, aside from seeing the little piggies in the truck, that we ended up repeating it on the way back to Lisbon the following week, taking a considerable detour in the process. Well worth it.
This time we ended up at Pedro dos Leitões. By now we were pros at speaking Portuguese and the ordering went very smoothly. That's a lie. But, we managed to get what we wanted, which was exactly what we had the prior week: sparkling red, salad, potato chips, and suckling pig.
Portugal has a curious restaurant culture. When you sit down, they'll bring to the table little plates of food, which may include olives, cheese, tuna spread, sardines, slices of meat, generally good stuff to kick off a meal. But unlike Koreans, who give you their banchan for "free," if you don't want to pay for it, don't touch it. They'll take it away. But if you touch, you pay. It's annoying and inefficient, and I have to wonder if they take advantage of the ignorance of tourists a bit more than they should. Probably not, but anyone visiting Portugal should be armed with this knowledge.
At any rate, as I bitch about the little plates policy, I have to acknowledge that some fried cheesy fritter looking things were set in front of us, and with the sparkling red wine and all, well we just had to go for it. We splurged.
I'd be lying if I said I was as blown away by the second meal as I was by the first. But I do chalk that up to it not being a brand new and exciting experience. Was it excellent? Of course it was. Would I go back and do it all over again? I'm looking forward to it.