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Inside Chinês Clandestinos, Lisbon’s Underground Chinese Restaurants

The most vibrant Chinese food in the city is made in unregulated kitchens

One balmy night this past spring, I squeezed down a narrow, well-trafficked street off the Martim Moniz metro stop in Mouraria, a neighborhood largely populated by immigrants and kids in their twenties. As I passed through a mix of tourists who had wandered down from Castelo de São Jorge, university students returning home from class, and shop owners posted up in front of their storefronts, I scanned the second floors of the buildings, looking for open balcony doors, decorations on the railings, or Chinese signage — anything to tell me that I was in the right place.

I knew I was in front of the address I was looking for, but I was staring at an apartment building that didn’t exactly beckon strangers to come in off the street. Seeing the second-floor balcony doors flung wide open though, I pressed the buzzer. As I walked up the stairwell, which was devoid of light, the sounds of a screaming baby and an exasperated mother slamming a door on the floor above didn’t add to my certainty. But at the top of the first flight of stairs, I found a door with a neon pink stamp of a single blurry Chinese character.

I hesitated for another second, wondering whether this was actually the place, then rang the bell. A man in his late thirties opened the door into a narrow room with a stove: It was a typical apartment kitchen. “Chinês clandestino?” I asked.

Sim,” he replied.

After some awkward banter in my broken Portuguese, I was led through the kitchen into a combined living/dining room full of unoccupied tables. A few of the restaurant’s employees who were lingering and chatting while they waited for customers made themselves scarce once I walked in. (As it turns out, this is not an uncommon first-time experience.)

I settled in, then was handed a menu in the form of a numbered list, along with a notepad and a pen. I wrote down each thing I wanted, then handed the slip to my waiter, who quickly handed the paper back demanding that I identify the dishes I wanted by number, not by name. Roughly 10 minutes later, I was staring down a small feast: egg drop soup with fresh tomatoes, crispy duck in pineapple sauce, fried rice, and a cold Sagres beer to wash it all down.

This is the world of Chinês clandestinos, Lisbon’s network of underground, off-the-books, quasi-illegal Chinese restaurants.

Generally speaking, no two Chinês clandestinos are exactly alike, but they do share some key features: Namely, they almost all exist in apartment buildings and sidestep formal regulation, such as business licenses and health permits. They also share some culinary DNA: Fried rice, chow mein, and fried pork dumplings (under the alias of ravioli frito) are virtually ubiquitous, and pão frito, a Chinese bun that is fried instead of steamed, is one of the true gems of the Chinês clandestinos ecosystem. Served as an appetizer, the unfilled bread goes from crunchy to chewy when you bite through its fried shell.

Look beyond the Westernized Chinese dishes, like the ever-popular gong bao (kung pao), and you’ll find the especialidades de casa: At one restaurant you might be able to order camarão de Macaense (shrimp and vegetables in a Macanese yellow curry sauce), while another may offer pato com ananás (duck with pineapple). One spot in particular — Rua da Guia 9 (Chinês clandestinos generally do not have names and are known only by their addresses) — was home to my favorite dish during my tour of the clandestinos, carne de porco. The dish had thinly sliced strips of pork, along with cabbage, swimming in a chile-cilantro broth that didn’t shy away from spice yet wasn’t overwhelmed by it, either.

Overall, when it comes to quality, the average Chinês clandestino lands somewhere between a Chinese-American takeout joint and a more traditional restaurant, with the average entree costing between four and seven euros. Lack of paperwork aside, there’s not much separating these spots from any other indie spot: The interior layout, menu design, and service are all what you’d expect from a low-key local restaurant. One place, tucked away on a side street a few minutes from the main clandestino hub, goes one step further in giving its establishment more of a restaurant feel: A full bar is built out in the dining room, along with an industrial-grade dumbwaiter that drops food down from the floor above.

Chinês clandestinos first became popular in Lisbon in the mid-aughts, amidst a wave of immigration from China and growing interest in international cuisine. Originally a curiosity among Lisboetas, the restaurants have also become attractions for tourists in recent years. But Chinês clandestinos emerged during an odd time for Chinese cuisine in Lisbon: Following reports of food poisoning and unsanitary conditions, the city’s inspection board, ASAE, organized an undercover sting in 2006 dubbed “Operação Oriente,” which reportedly resulted in the closure of 40 percent of Lisbon’s Chinese restaurants. The raids damaged their reputation to the point that ever since, it’s been hard to find a story about Chinese restaurants that doesn’t eventually touch on sanitation in some way.

While some of the surviving restaurants became more diligent to escape the watchful eye of Lisbon’s food authorities, some clandestinos went legit: Zhiaming Lu, reputedly one of the best chefs in northern China during the 1990s, opened a Chinês clandestino when he arrived in Lisbon with his family in 2004; a few years later, he had enough money to apply for the proper licenses and permits. His full-fledged restaurant, Mr. Lu, is now hailed as one of the best Chinese spots in the city, serving up dishes from China’s Shandong region, an area known for its seafood and attention to spice.

Although Chinês clandestinos are trying to blend in with the restaurant status quo rather than reinvent the dining room experience, there are still quirks at the average spot that remind you that a Chinês clandestino isn’t entirely ordinary: You might come across the personal effects of the kitchen staff in one particular restaurant, or a pile of children's toys in the dining room of another. One restaurant lets customers freely draw all over the walls, while another has a canister of sleeping mats along the wall in the dining room. It isn’t unlike the experience of staying in an Airbnb that is actually someone’s home — they both provide a voyeuristic glimpse into the private lives of strangers.

But to experience these odd and endearing moments, you first need to know where the clandestinos actually are. They tend to be clustered in the areas around Rua do Benformoso, Rua da Guia, and Rua do Capelão in Mouraria, and Foursquare, Yelp, and Google Maps can point you to the most popular ones. But the real trick is to look up: Since few of them are on the ground level, the visual cues will typically be on the second floor — some have flowers or garlands on the railings, while others have banners with Chinese characters posted in the windows. At the more popular spots, you’ll see groups of people sitting just inside the building, and some buildings even have more than one restaurant inside. Though Rua do Benformoso 59 is generally the first stop for most people, I prefer Rua da Guia 9 because of that carne de porco.

By the time I finished my meal, more people had begun to filter into the restaurant, kicking off what was sure to be a regular flow of diners for the next few hours. Before I walked out the door, I had forgotten that I was on the second floor of a residential building, but stepping back into the hallway provided a swift reminder of the appeal of Chinês clandestinos: For the same reason music heads love a secret warehouse party or a show at a DIY venue, these restaurants evoke an anarchic, unpredictable vibe the first few times you visit them. In short, they’re punk, right down to the graffiti on the interior walls of Rua do Benformoso 59. So if you come across a Chinês clandestino in one of Lisbon’s winding backstreets, try it before it’s gone — no good punk lives forever.

Adrian Covert writes things for the internet.
Joana Freitas is a photographer based in Lisbon who specializes in food and portrait photography. You can follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

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