Thursday, September 16, 2021

Solar dos Amigos (Caldas da Rainha, Portugal)

All Portugal trip reports in chronological order:

Oddly Bookended Food Day in Portugal (Nepali and Goan in Almada)
My Portuguese Rosebud (questing for a second helping of the arroz de mariscos that changed my life 30 years ago)
Bacalhau Score (glorious restaurant version of a homely grandma dish in Almada)
Grappling with Chowhounding Hubris (good-not-great pork cheeks in Sintra)
Taskinha Do Chef (Torres Vedras, Portugal) (exquisite family-run restaurant in Torres Vedras)
False Friends, Inadvertent Penetration, and Coimbra (diagnosing the Coimbra Problem)
Solar dos Amigos (rustic culinary splendor in Caldas da Rainha)
Burguezia do Leitão (the best roast suckling pig palace near Coimbra, in Casal Comba)
A Casa do Jorge (smashing wine country steakhouse in Santana, near Azeitão)

If you're new here, you'd be smart to question how I, a stranger blasting through quickly, could claim to have found some of the best possible bites in lots of different places. You might be satisfied by my explanation that I'm a professional with a preternaturally good nose, 40 years of experience, and a reputation for making killer finds. If that's not persuasive, I understand. I, too, wrestle with the presumptuousness and hubris of it all.

There are two types of great restaurants:

1. Frenetically chaotic places which somehow manage to route food into mouths and money into cash register.

2. Well-oiled machines run by tyrannical maniacs.

Solar dos Amigos, in Caldas da Rainha, is somehow both.

The benevolently tyrannical maniac in this case is the estimable Sra Nunes. But her strict, ancient (the place has been going for an eternity) guidelines are indecipherable and often counterproductive. It's all kookie banana pants, strictly regimented. God bless Portugal.

I went on a Sunday, confronting a tumultuous mob of waiting diners spilling through the miniaturized streets of the wee village of Salir de Matos, which looks a bit like Bedrock. I bailed and returned on Monday, when there was no wait at all. Yet I stood in the doorway for all eternity.

Fortunately, the desserts are displayed up front for entertainment. While Portugal is definitely a pastry country, it's not big on ambitious restaurant desserts...except Solar dos Amigos, which offers such a dizzying variety that this might as well be a diner on the Jersey Turnpike (only 10,000 times better). I spent loads of time peering at these:

I was invisible to the staff until Sra Nunes deigned to notice my existence and told me to wait a minute (as if I hadn't already been there for all eternity). The utterance filtered down the chain of command through the teeny girls operating this place (surely all nieces and daughters and grand nieces and granddaughters...I'm figuring it's like a game of Sim Restaurant where you only win by breeding workers fast enough to keep pace with the restaurant's sprawling expansion). So at this point, acknowledged as a pre-customer, I felt tacitly involved. We all play our part. Me? I was that guy in the doorway.

Another 15 long minutes later, I was led to a table presided over by a prepubescent yet robotic waitress speaking not a word of English and with an absolute intolerance for imperfect Portuguese. Mismatch a gender, mispronounce a vowel, and you might as well be speaking Martian. The difficulty rating was mighty high, but I finally managed to communicate my order, and the kitchen swiftly yielded this platter of sheer delight:

This is only a half portion of secretos (an elite Portuguese cut) of porco preto, the legendary black pig. I ate only half of this half, though it was the best pork anything I've ever had. Including KC and NC barbecue...and including the roast suckling pig I'd soon enjoy just north of Coimbra (the college town).

I should note that, yes, this is a grilled meats place. Portuguese restaurants specialize in either meat or fish, though they all do well with both, so the distinction, like so many Portuguese affairs, is puzzling.
There's a streak of illogic in Portuguese culture, but just a delightful tickle. Not enough to make you pound your forehead into brick (e.g. southern Italy), just sufficient to keep things interesting and perhaps a bit magical/realist. Alice in Wonderland, though it's not widely-known, was an allegory for a trip to Portugal. At least that's my theory.
I'm a sides guy. I like sides. I like options. I was imprinted early as a child by Pennsylvania Dutch food, and their myriad fabled side dishes served en masse, and I never lost hope that life's really like that. And, here, it is. Everything comes with a bowl of migas (spicy bread crumbs), a bowl of what chowhound Tom Viemont terms "wet rice" (the Portuguese love them some bland wet rice) with red beans, and a bowl of black beans because beans.

Plus salad. Plus french fries. Plus bread. And let's discuss that bread.

Broa, the dense Portuguese corn bread, is one of my grails. Current best I know is from Teixeira Bakery on Ferry Street in Newark, but the broa in Portugal is, naturally, way better. And this is like ten times better than that. This is Michael Phelps broa (enjoy the last vanishing morsel, the food porn equivalent of a snuff film):

It didn't hurt that it was hot from the oven (remember Leff's Rule of Baked Goods: "Anything tastes great right out of the oven”). Though, in this case, I'm sure it would thrill even after a cool-down.

Also: yellow broa, which I don't understand:

My waitress was temperamentally ill-suited for explanation, but I thought I tasted eggy oiliness...though I'm highly color-impressionable (e.g. anything purple tastes grapey).

Here is one frozen moment from the stirring blur of ravenous ingestion (I’ve squirted incendiary Portuguese-African hot sauce, piri-piri, on the rim of of my plate):

After the meal, I requested the check, but, in its place, there appeared a gratis flask of ginjinha, the Portuguese cherry wine. It's always a particular favorite of mine, and this was by far the best version I'd had:

Plus a small bag of freshly baked cookies:

At this point, I was hallucinating ecstatic Christmas mornings from my false-nostalgia gentile childhood, manically unwrapping gifts. Gleeful as Eric Cartman alone in his amusement park, I gobbled errant bits of cookie, broa and golden broa, circulating between slurps of cherry liquor, wine, and mineral water, and was absurdly eying the dessert case (I hear it's all great - especially the cheesecake - but, in the end, I just couldn't).

At some point, sanity was restored as my stomach shut down and refused to play, and, like a spent stallion, I began to feel bored and restless. Finally my waitress reappeared (perhaps she'd been huddling with a math tutor), so I repeated my request for the check, and she pointed to the register manned by Commander Grandma. Like in the Wizard of Oz, my ticket home had been with me all along, if only I'd realized. The route back to Kansas runs through Commander Grandma at the cash station.

"Uma coisa mais," I irritated the child laborer. One more thing. Can I buy a little bottle of the cherry liquor? Yes, yes, yes. Yes you can. And she was gone.

I tentatively approached Commander Grandma with the same query, and she had the same reaction: Yes, yes, yes. Yes you can. And she went back to busily processing customers, counting change, and kissing babies, all while barking copious orders at her Ugandan child army. I assumed one such imperative involved my cherry liquor, but a good while later I was still frozen in my familiar doorway position.

"Get him cherry liquor STAT," she suddenly commanded, and one of the tots scrambled into the back and, ten minutes later, emerged with not one bottle but two. They were gifts, she said. I thanked Commander Grandma, who sternly acknowledged my thanks. I actually went with "muito obrigado" here - thank you very much - which, this being a modest country unlike Japan or Italy or the other Axis powers, is a meaningful escalation. Not enough to make people gawk or revelrous diners to fall silent, but not something you hear every day. Commander Grandma registered the gravity of my appreciation without quite looking at me. She was busy running her tight ship. Customers to process. Vast armies to coordinate. And.........SCENE!

Here are the house specialties, straight out of 1975, and also the bill (25 Euros for either a New York food writer or else a small family):

While I've enjoyed riffing on the tight ship/absolute chaos and Mother Hubbardism of Commander Grandma, I try to extract some crumb of insight from significant life events like this. So here's the crumb:

I was certain I'd enjoyed the most generous meal of my life. But I was also aware that Solar Dos Amigos serves family style, so I'd essentially gobbled the dinner of an entire family. This was generous in the way a hotel suite might strike a lone traveler as generous for its towel offerings. Man, will you look at all the towels! Wheee!

So, reader, how should I think and report? Should I have tempered my enthusiasm? Should I have reigned in my glee and just wryly noted that if one is served a meal for four, the sides and breads and drinks and pork cutlets and whatever will naturally feel like a sensational feast?

I've stuck with my initial impression. The meal sure felt generous to me. I was served warm oven-fresh cookies IN A BROWN PAPER BAG for christ's sake. I aim to tell the truth here, and this was my truth, and sometimes the truth is wrong, or colored, but I'd be a liar to pretend to soberly post-process my glorious freak-out.

I'll never get the NY Times gig (if any of those people were to ever freak out - impossible to imagine - they'd diligently button themselves back up tightly in the recounting). Life and food, after all, must occupy a manageably narrow dynamic range. No room for ecstasy. Dial it down, lil' buddy.

One final note. I may not possess Kreskin levels of telepathy, but I'm certain I know how Sra. Nunes would respond to my description of her indecipherable and counterproductive guidelines, and the overall kookie banana pants vibe at Solar Dos Amigos:
I have delighted hordes of diners for decades, supported generations of family-members and local friends, and, with no training or investment, established a business whose quality can "freak out" a jaded big-city food critic who has been everywhere and eaten everything. So, sure, tell me about how I'm doing things wrong!

1 comment:

Ivan said...

Broa! Portugese hospitality, it's a thing.

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