There's no such thing as a free lunch, but at some open-air grills along Lisbon's waterfront you can graze on sardines all day for $12.
The first person to alert us to the wonders of Portugal's sardines was Alma Vactor, a globe-hopping cruise hostess and pioneer Tucson restauranteur. Alma presided with enduring grace over the five-star Tack Room in Tucson. After listening to Alma, it became my decade-long quest to taste Portuguese pilchards. And, as you may have guessed, thereby hangs a tale.
After driving 11 miles across Lisbon's futuristic Vasco de Gama bridge to the industrial port of Setubal, we found a closed-for-vacation sign on the front door of our destination, the Verde e Branco restaurant. Well, why not at least settle for a bit of sightseeing. The Setubal fish market overwhelms the senses with its aroma and bustle, but any olfactory inconvenience is compensated by a majestic series of blue-tile murals depicting the lives of those who go down to the sea in small boats.
When we finally found our way out of the labyrinthine fish market, showcase of every seagoing creature the Atlantic has to offer, we were rewarded with an altogether more alluring aroma coming off what looked for all the world like a smoldering shed. Before calling 911 we investigated. The shed turned out to be a makeshift tent, slightly separated from some other tents packed to the gills (pun intended) with what we later discovered to be enthusiastic all-you-can-eat diners. They paid about $12 apiece to sit on an industrial, busy dock and consume grilled sardines. (Some of these diners sat through two tidal changes!)
Amazed by the never-ending fish trays, we also found that our seating also included Vinho Verde wine in a jug whose fuel gauge never reached empty.
Fresh sardines are a revelation to those who thought they are hatched from a pull-top can. For one thing, Portuguese pilchards are not tiny fish, but average about four to a pound. Unlike their wimpy canned cousins, these street-wise sardines present a crispy crackle outside with moist meat that contains little but the natural fish oils.
The Portuguese have 201 ways to prepare their beloved cod, but only one overwhelmingly popular method for sardines—lodge the fish in bunkers of ocean water to await its turn, toss it on the grill and sprinkle with olive oil and sea salt. When the sardine schools are running, every coastal town has an enticing, smoky air about it.
Thanks for the tip, Alma. You and the Tackroom once set the finest dining table along the entire length of U.S. Highway 80 from Savannah to Los Angeles.