How I fell in love with canned fish and other Portuguese tales [Vol. I: Porto]

I want to start this post by apologizing to Portugal.

I must admit, Portugal was our second choice for a trip that for months we had been envisioning as a Greek adventure. I’m pretty sure Brian and I were talking about doing our one year anniversary in Greece when we were still in Thailand for our honeymoon. Disgusting, I know. Timing, flights and curiosity slowly led us to consider Portugal more and more. First it was going to be a second stop in our trip but as we uncovered all the potential we decided we were going to dive in completely and we are so glad we did. (Don’t worry Greece, I’m still coming for you!)

I will be doing a series for every stop we made in Portugal in order to truly make it justice. I will be sharing what we did but also, a lot of recommendations I collected before the trip (and during it) that we were not able to discover.

Let’s start with the wonder that is Porto. Jetlagged as we were and with some time before we could check into our Airbnb, we did not miss a beat and found ourselves having breakfast by theriver. We had no set plans, just a list of choices. What did we do? We propped ourselves outside a local restaurant, drank wine and watched the people walk by. To be fair, we did walk in the church of Saõ Francisco on the way and explored some of its barroque beauty.

Let me tell you, Portuguse wines are so underrated. Maybe it’s because I am not a sommelier but when I hear people rave about European wines, it’s always French, Italian and Spanish wines… but Portugal? Not so much or at all. Sure, we hear all about the wonder that is Porto (the wine) but I was pleasantly surprised to see (and taste) all the different varieties they have to offer.

For our first dinner in Portugal, we went to Wine Quay Bar. This was a place we had seen mentioned in various lists and I really liked that it brought together a lot of Portugal delicacies in a “tapas” style menu. The cheese, meats and olives were superb but oh my goodness… the bacalhau. Not sure how you feel about cod (bacalhau) but I grew up with my grandma’s Puerto Rican “bacalaitos” (cod fritters) and to me cod has always been associated with fried greatness that you should not have too often. Well, Portuguese have been doing it right all these years (sorry, grandma!). The cod we had here was soft and full of so much rich, yet delicate flavor. I don’t think my description can do it justice. 

I knew canned fish was a delicacy in Portugal and I was excited to try it but to be honest, I never expected to fall in love with it like I did. There are currently about 12 cans of different fish varieties in my kitchen. No day feels special enough for us to dig in just yet. Brian wants me to add that he was not a huge fan of the cod but was obsessed with the spicy tuna that they serve (also in a can). The saddest part is that I could not buy the exact cod they had at the restaurant because they ran out. The waitress was telling us about how cod is not as abundant as it used to be. There are issues with over fishing and people respecting sea borders. Really a shame since a lot of people, like them, have grounded their business around cod.

You really can’t go to Porto and not experience a Porto wine tasting. Like I said, we did not have set plans but for this, I recommend you do a little research and look to reserve beforehand. We were lucky to be able to walk in and just get a spot in Cockburn’s Port and had a great experience. First of all, I didn’t know port came in whites! Refreshing to start the tour with a port and tonic, even though I realized once more that I just don’t like tonic.

Did you know that port wine has about 20 % alcohol volume? You feel it. It’s good.

Porto (technically Gaia) houses all the port wines for aging but the grapes are actually harvested in the Douro Valley region. Just like champagne is not champagne if it’s not from Champagne, France – port wine is also only port wine if it comes from this region. Lucky us, Douro Valley was our next stop! More to come on that in an upcoming post.

So yes, this is a Francesinha (missing the fried egg on top). It’s a signature plate in Porto that I feel I have no authority to criticize. Essentially, this plate is available in almost every restaurant that serves Portuguese food but I was being such a brat that I didn’t want to order it if it wasn’t from the places “the internet” said are the best. The way our day ended up flowing, we were not near the famous Cafe Santiago when it was time to eat so Brian convinced me to let it go and just order it where we were. It was alright. Plot twist, we ended up having the best Francesinha in Lisbon from a restaurant with a chef from Porto. I will share more on that when I write about Lisbon!

The whole thing was so silly and has really got me thinking about the way I want to travel. I don’t want to miss out on the good stuff that other people have discovered but I also want to take my own chances and discover for myself  the wonders that are out there. We worry too much about what other’s have lived that sometimes we forget to make adventures of our own.

This was the case for our anniversary dinner. We tried to get reservations in some of the popular places but they were all full. We ended up walking by this small and cozy restaurant that was playing live Fado – exactly what I wanted for such a special evening. I was hesitant to trust our anniversary dinner in a restaurant that was unknown to us but Brian ignited the explorer in me and we went for it. I am so glad he did, as our dinner at Terreirinho Restaurant was the most special dinner of our entire trip. Who would have thought?

And that, my friends, was the view from our AirBnb. It was affordable and with a great location, here’s the link if you are interested!

Here are some other food spots we did not get to try but totally encourage you to consider. If you do end up going to Porto and trying some, let me know what you think!

Any Porto food recommendations you think I should add? Let me know!

You can see more from my Portugal travels on my Instagram. 🙂

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[Brunch] Al Vez

Al Vez Enchiladas - Cristina Nogueras

“Let’s have brunch in the financial district!” is not quite what would come out of my mouth any given Sunday. What’s great about New York is that if you look close enough, there will be an amazing spot anywhere you need to be. That’s how I ended at Al Vez on a Saturday morning.

One of my good friends was visiting and he wanted to go up the One World Trade Center. I used my trusty Urban Daddy app to find a brunch place worth taking a tourist, a balance of quality and excitement. Al Vez for the win!I had been to Al Vez in Philadelphia and had a really nice dinner. Sure, their dinner was nice, but oh boy, their brunch I dare say is even better.

Al Vez Brunch Breakfast Quesadilla - Cristina Nogueras The breakfast quesadilla was toasted to perfection, filled with scrambled eggs, black beans, pico de gallo, cheddar & jack cheese.
Platains Al Vez Brunch Cristina NoguerasWe ordered a side of plantains con queso or like we Puerto Ricans like to call it, amarillitos. They hit the spot.
Al Vez Huevos Rancheros Brunch Cristina Nogueras  My friend ordered the huevos rancheros. The combination of the two eggs sunny side up, chorizo, black beans, guacamole and salsa ranchera over a crispy tortilla was the perfect mix. Topping any bite with the plantains was just glorious.

On top of the great food, it had a really nice vibe for a Saturday morning. Looking forward to trying this spot for dinner some day.

What brunch spots do you recommend around the financial district?

[Puerto Rico] Orocovis: Roka Dura & Casa Bavaria

Orocovis Casa Bavaria

As you may have seen earlier this week, I was recently home in Puerto Rico and while I was there I got to do some fun zip-lining. Toro Verde Adventure Park is located in Orocovis, right in the middle of the mountains of Puerto Rico. A lot of people don’t think of mountains when they think of Puerto Rico, they just focus on the beaches but it really is a beautiful area. I mean, we do have amazing beaches, but our mountains offer a very different kind of beauty.

Orocovis Roka Dura

On our way down from Toro Verde we made two nice stops. After a morning filled with adventure and thrill, we were obviously starving. Locals to the area recommended we had lunch at Roka Dura, just a few minutes outside of the park. They said food was delicious and portions were generous.

Orocovis Roka Dura

They were not lying. This mouthwatering “mofongo” filled with chicken was even more delicious than it looks. The plate below is chicken with garlic cassava, better known as “yuca al mojo”. The chicken was nothing special, but the “yuca” was on point. I love “yuca” but have never ventured to cook it myself, I’m not even sure if I would be able to buy some around here so it’s always one of those special plates I treat myself with when I’m visiting home.

Orocovis Roka Dura

This spot had really nice views. It was early Friday afternoon and you could see the little bars around or “chinchorros” starting to get busy with people celebrating the weekend’s arrival. Although I was on vacation, I also joined the celebration admiring the killer view.

Orocovis Roka Dura Medalla

Second stop was Casa Bavaria. This one holds special memories for me. With a fusion of Caribbean and German traditions, Casa Bavaria was founded by a German couple who fell in love with the island and decided to make a life here. Its claim to fame has been their great Oktoberfest celebrations, that’s how I first got there. It is (or was?) tradition to organize “party” buses to take groups of people up the mountains and bring Oktoberfest to life in Puerto Rico. Each bus had different t-shirts and unique stories, often captured and plastered on Facebook. It was, well, a hot mess. Ahh, memories.

Stopping by this time with a fresh (and sober) pair of eyes, I was able to find so much more beauty in this place. People are so nice and the views are to die for. We only had drinks here, but a lot of people were enjoying a full meal around us. Oktoberfest or not, definitely worth the stop.

Un Poquito de Sazón

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Puerto Rican food is amazing.

I grew up eating rice and beans with almost every single meal. All my meals were full of flavor and color (although I probably did not add green into the mix until I was older). I grew up expecting some sort of plantain as a side and wondered how people could ever eat anything else. Nothing said comfort like the smell of delicious food coming from my kitchen, whether it was my mom’s doing, my grandma’s creation, or a whole family effort for a special occasion.

I love all sorts of food, serve me a plate of pasta and I’m sold. Put a sushi boat in front of me and watch it sink into my belly. Living in New York City, you get spoiled with food. You are able to tour the whole world, one plate at a time and that, my friends, is the dream.

Still, Puerto Rican food is at my core. It’s the bite that makes me feel at home even when I’m a thousand miles away, that’s where the inspiration for this piece came from. I have a brand new kitchen (which I’m loving, by the way) and I wanted to bring in a little bit of home into the mix. I looked at some cool prints from Etsy but then I realized I could easily do this myself. So I bought a frame, made a list, printed it out and done.

Here’s a little bit of background into what each of these mean…

Sofrito – This is the essence behind pretty much every single Puerto Rican plate. I’ve always thought about sofrito as that weird green paste that my grandma made. Mix some garlic, peppers, onnions and God knows what else and you get sofrito!

Adobo – People make fun of Puerto Ricans because apparently we use a lot of adobo (as seen on this Vine, which I actually love). But hey, adobo is awesome so no shame there. This special seasoning is used on anything from chicken to scrambled eggs. It’s better than your average salt and pepper, but that’s just my humble opinion.

Mamposteao – If rice and beans is not a wonder on its own, this takes it to the next level. Take your average rice and beans, mix it with your choice of anything from onions to sweet plantains, do some magic and you’ve got yourself a nice mix.

Pegao – Pegao is that crunchy, almost burned rice that’s stuck to the bottom of the pan when you’re making rice. Not exactly what the dentist ordered, but oh my, it’s good. Some people may see it as a mistake to burn the rice, but in my house people actually fight for that special bottom.

Sazón – What helps make yellow rice yellow? Sazón. This special seasoning brings a lot of flavor to the plate. It’s also used for non-food references when you want to state that something needs that extra little something, or sazón.

Bacalaito – Bacalaitos are hard to describe, my first attempt sounded too gross, but trust me, they are awesome. Thanks to Wikipedia, I can now better describe them as salt cod pancake like fritters. Think less pancake and more fried, way more fried. Still a little gross, but give it a try.

Pastelón – Imagine a lasagna but instead of pasta, you use sweet plantains and then you add all that ground beef in between (no salsa). This is, of course, served with rice and beans. Again, not so sexy when I write it, but so delicious.

So, one thing is clear. I’m definitely not fit for writing a Puerto Rican cuisine dictionary but I can attempt to make words look pretty in a piece of paper. To strangers, it looks exotic and that’s cool, right? To me, it looks like home and that’s all I need.