Postcard from Porto: A port naturally noted for seafood

Grills grace the sidewalks in front of many mom-and-pop restaurants throughout Porto, filling the air with the aroma of smoking fresh dorado and sardines, a flavorful distance from oily canned ones. Porto is heavenly for seafood lovers.

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Our introduction to food in Porto was a basic riverside café, perfect for the jet-weary travelers. We opted for the classic starters – pastel balcahau, or codfish balls – surprisingly good. The garbanzo salad was great, and the seafood stew was flavorful. Can’t remember the restaurant name; the inclusion of krab in the stew seemed absurd in a port city and made the spot memorable only for its view.

At first I thought the owner of Adega Vila Mela disliked tourists, but, as regulars continued to pour in for lunch, I realize he was a tiny gruff with everyone. As observations continued throughout our stay in Porto, I realized increasingly why: often owners are the sole person managing the front of the house. Owners are seating patrons, taking orders, busing tables, cashing out customers and keeping an eye on how things emerge from the kitchen. Waiters make their money primarily from salary in Portugal; tips are meager. This means few are hired to cover the tables, which leads to stretched-to-the-max owners. But owners make sure everything is right.

Adega Vila Mela restaurant is tricky to find, so most of the customers are regulars – always a welcome sign. An abundance of flavorful olive oil was wonderful on the swordfish and the grilled calamari served with generous helpings of vegetables, but a couple of the squid were extremely sand-filled, ruining that dish. Reading reviews by others, I think that was a fluke. So I still would recommend Adega Vila Mela.

We were owner-served again, more cheerfully though, at Papavinhos, with large windows overlooking the Douro River. Here, we enjoyed a traditional vegetable soup and an artfully presented beet soup. The mussels topped with cheese and drenched in olive oil were a little rich for our taste, the cheese overwhelming the flavor of the underlying mussels. The grilled pork tenderloin was perfect. And, again, we would recommend this restaurant for traditional fare.

Located on a picturesque street that angles directly off the riverfront, Cozzza Rio looks appears way too touristy but we had surprisingly good meals there – grilled dorado, grilled sardines and a goat cheese and tomato salad. The Mister thought the dorado the best he tried anywhere, and the house green wine was refreshing and better than elsewhere. It’s best to steer clear of the frozen desserts, though.

We crossed the river via a one-euro ferry boat to sample the grilled seafood  of Casa do Pescador in Afurada. Tasted my first barnacle here, salty and tender. My father grew up on the Chesapeake Bay and the ocean and never could believe people ate mussels; can’t imagine what his disgust would have been over barnacles. A cup of seafood stew was mildly spicy and good; the bones were easy to avoid. We went again with the sweet, white dorado, surrounded by mountains of vegetables.

The ultimate bargain seafood was right in our neighborhood – about 15 euros for a dinner for two of vegetable soup, a huge serving dish of octopus rice and a liter of house wine at Tia Aninhas. The octopus was perfectly tender at this spot filled with locals.

More tastes from Porto ahead….

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