Chef Abe Conlon can remember every detail about his favorite Portuguese dish his Madeiran great-grandmother used to make for him: her preparation of bacalhau, a salt cod spread with vinegar, oil, and hot bread. “It was bursting with umami and packed with flavors of deep ocean salt, vinegar, and sweet, pungent onions,” says Conlon, who credits her recipe as being his great-grandmother’s legacy to his family. “It’s a reminder of our togetherness and a connection to our Madeiran roots — I have never in my travels had a similar preparation.”
The recipe had such an effect on Conlon that he knew it would be the first item to hit the menu at Fat Rice, a restaurant that explores the varied cuisines of the Portuguese-speaking world with an emphasis on Macau, that he and partner Adrienne Lo opened in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood in 2012. Since then, the always-abuzz corner spot has garnered an impressive number of accolades, including two Jean Banchet wins (in 2013 for Best New Restaurant and in 2015 for Restaurant of the Year), Michelin Bib Gourmand listings (every year since 2014), and, just last year, a James Beard Awards Best Chef: Great Lakes win for Conlon.
He credits much of that success to his roots in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he honored his Portuguese heritage during the holidays and at cultural fests like the Our Lady of Loretto Feast.
“I grew up eating a lot of grilled sardines, stewed fava beans, and Portuguese pork sandwiches,” he says. He also remembers plenty of espetadas — grilled beef kebabs marinated in wine that were served during times of celebration. “Those were a favorite,” he says. “Especially watching the older folks in the community pouring wine on the kebabs before eating them.”
That early exposure to Portuguese flavors sparked a curiosity in Conlon as a young chef, who began to look more closely at the culture and the countries its inhabitants had reached in the past 500 years. “Not many people realize that sailors from [Portugal] have traveled the globe to Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Macau, and Brazil — and that’s a story that we try to tell at the restaurant every day,” he says.
That early exposure to Portuguese flavors sparked a curiosity in Conlon as a young chef, who began to look more closely at the culture and the countries its inhabitants had reached in the past 500 years. “Not many people realize that sailors from this tiny country have traveled the globe to Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Macau, and Brazil — and that’s a story that we try to tell at the restaurant every day,” he says.
It’s a mission Conlon maintains with the help of annual visits to Portugal and its many food-centric cities, especially Lisbon (where you can now fly to directly from Chicago on TAP Air Portugal). “I love Lisbon because anywhere you turn, you can see Portugal’s worldwide influence at restaurants with ties to Mozambique, Goa, Macau, and beyond,” he says. “It’s an eye-opening experience every time I’m back.”
Now that it’s never been easier for Chicagoans to fly directly to Lisbon, thanks to TAP AIR Portugal’s new route, you’ll want to go experience Portugal for yourself. And why not eat like an award-winning chef does in Lisbon? Here, Conlon shares his favorites tips on where to eat, drink, and shop now in the Portuguese capital.
“I come to this restaurant every single time I’m in Lisbon. They do just three things — beer, bread, and seafood — and they do those three things incredibly well. It’s a casual, lively spot, and the food is simply prepared but pristine. You drink beer in line and hang out as you wait for your table, then you pick out whatever seafood you want — whole fish, lobster, crab. When I go, I get these huge grilled prawns with crusty garlic bread, and, of course, the crab. It’s a whole crab head, which they mix with piri piri chiles and crab fat, and they give you sourdough bread to dip into it. It’s fantastic, and it’s what Portugal is all about — no-fuss, delicious seafood.”
“Pastelaria Aloma, a small bakery in the Campo de Ourique quarter, is absolutely worth the trip. They’re best known for their pastéis de nata, a famous Portuguese pastry that I liken to a crème brûlée wrapped in a crispy croissant. The one here has a soft crust and a custard filling that isn’t quite as sweet as the other contenders out there. You’ll also find delicious almond tarts and a fantastic bolo de berlim, essentially a fluffy pastry cream-filled donut.
“But to truly experience the many different varieties of Portuguese convent sweets, head to Pastelaria Alcôa. Once you’re there, you’re met with dozens of other egg-based pastries including these great little fried cones filled with doce de ovos (sweet egg cream). Definitely try those, but don’t miss the boucinho de ceu — they use pork lard to make the cake, giving it its name (bacon from heaven).”
“This rare bookstore is situated in the city’s Bairro Alto district. All of the books here are in Portuguese, and it’s fun to visit and sift through them. I’m always looking for traditional Portuguese cookbooks, in particular, and I’ve found a few here that I really love — especially one that includes many Portuguese-inspired dishes from around the world. I reference it often for dishes like Goan pork vindalho (from India), Tacho-Macanese cozido (from Macau), and venison with lime garlic and chile (from Angola). I call upon another book I bought here — a compilation — for a variety of regional Portuguese specialties.”
Cape Verde Embassy of Lisbon
“On the fifth floor of the Cape Verde Embassy, they have a restaurant with Cape Verdean food and live music. During lunch hours it fills up with locals drinking wine, eating, dancing, and singing — it’s really rad to get a sense of the culture in such a low-key environment. We had some excellent food here, our favorites being the chicken curry, papaya jam with São Jorge cheese, and cachupa, the country’s national dish with hominy, cassava, and sweet potato. Not many travelers know about it because it’s in an unassuming office building, but if they did, they would definitely want to go.”
“This is a really hip spot located on the highest point of the city, in the Graça district. On first appearance, it seems just like a cool restaurant, but later in the evening, it turns into a bar-meets-club-meets-gathering-place where people come to hang out. Their cocktail menu is written out on a tile wall, and they serve an array of classics like mojitos, gimlets, and pisco sours. When we went, they had this amazing DJ spinning funk music late into the night, and the place was packed with young Lisbon locals hanging out, dancing, and having a good time. It’s a must for those looking for good vibes in the heart of the city.”