Yes, you have indeed read that correctly, Lisbon has an illegal Chinese restaurant scene.
You won’t find this out in your trusty guidebook, no. Instead you need to know someone who knows what to do and where to go. And luckily, we had just the person who had already been living in Lisbon for quite a while!
See Natassa’s blog here where you can follow her Lisbon adventures!
It’s not like these restaurants have a TripAdvisor page with full directions and fantastic reviews on what to expect. There isn’t even a sign at the main entrance to reassure you’re in the right place. This restaurant didn’t even have a name, people just know it as an “illegal Chinese Restaurant” and that’s the way it is. You know exactly what you’re getting into that way and therefore they are by no means deceiving you. Enter on your own discretion; I guess there is a somewhat thrill to it too.
We met at Martim Moniz by the Rooster statue and made our way to a nearby side-side/alley.
Walking down the badly-lit cobbled street, dodging the odd bag of rubbish, we came to a door. This was just a normal door to a residential block. “I think this is it,” Looking around, there was no sign to hint that what lay behind here was delicious Chinese food goodness. We pressed the buzzer and were let in immediately. Okay, this seems promising.
We entered a dodgey-looking entrance hall with low ceilings and which smelled rather grim – decaying rubbish. Still, rubbish seems to be an issue everywhere at the moment in Lisbon in my opinion, so it’s nothing new.
Ignoring the smell as best we could, we climbed up a few flights of stairs until we came to a door which was left slightly ajar. An invitation? This door also had some paper cellotaped to it with Chinese words written on it. We breathed a sigh of relief as we realised that we must be in the right place, and we gingerly opened the door.
A lady ushered us into the room with all smiles and greetings “Olá, boa tarde!” to try to make this situation a bit less awkward – well done, you have found us!. There were seven tables and it was not very busy for a Thursday night. We sat down and she brought over a menu with a writing pad. The menu was in Chinese, Portuguese and English but the waitress/owner conversed with us fine in Portuguese when she got us our drinks. Looking around the room, it’s interesting to think “wow, so this is what an illegal Chinese restaurant looks like!” They must get this expession of intrigue a lot. There was even a TV. Other than that, it was just your typical, cheaply furnished restaurant. This restaurant just happened to be in an apartment block, totally normal. I started to wonder how annoying it might be to be neighbours with this place; random people coming in and out all the time, the constant smell of food cooking… no thank you. The owners must own the flat next door where they live. This flat was only big enough for the restaurant and the kitchen.
The menu was quite extensive but it didn’t give a great explanation for things. One option was “Drunk ribs,” another was “cow something.” I’m sure they taste better than what the menu lets off though. I settled for a vegetable spring roll *best I have had) to start, followed by the “Sizzling Chicken” which was pretty amazing compared to all of the Chiense food I ate during my time in Spain, so that’s something. We also had chicken noodles and rice to share and were even given complimentary watermelon to finish. Watermelon!
For a drink, spring roll, a share in the rice and noodles and a dish of Sizzling Chicken, 10€ was not bad for some pretty tasty Chinese.
Helen’s food was the last to arrive and we were wondering why it was taking so long. I understood how she must have been feeling, seeing everyone else’s food arrive but her plate remaining empty sucks. This always happened when I was younger and my parents never failed to reassure me that it was because I was “special” and that because of this, the chefs were taking extra time to make sure my meal was perfect. It always worked on me but it wasn’t really helping the food appear..
We inquired to see what was the issue (maybe they forgot?), when the lady pointed to my Sizzling Chicken dish and explained she was “waiting for this.” When I had eaten as much as I could of my food, the waitress returned and scrapped my leftovers into Sarah’s Sizziling Chicken Dish and walked away with my plate. It suddenly all made sense. Basically, they didn’t have enough dishes for all of us and she was waiting for me to finish, so she could use the same plate for Helen’s food. She came back a few moments later with Helen’s much anticipated Sizzling Beef on my old plate. It was quite strange but then again, this is an illegal Chiense restaurant and are you really going to complain? Give them a bad review? It was more amusing than anything, really. I wonder if they washed the plate in between though?
It was interesting to do “something different” and discover somewhere off the-beaten-track.
Lisbon doesn’t pretend to be perfect. It is beautiful, full of charm, falling apart and accepts its imperfections. It doesn’t entirely act upon all its problems and yet we’re still here, loving it.