This week, I went to an illegal Chinese restaurant. Martim Moniz, Lisbon, is Portugal’s Chinatown and is the best place to source Chinese groceries and a really great bowl of noodles. Martim Moniz is also home to the city’s not-so-secret illegal Chinese restaurants. In family homes across this neighbourhood, lounges have been stripped out to make way for small but perfectly formed Chinese restaurants. In fact, once you’re inside, it’s easy to forget you’re in someone’s home until you go to the bathroom and notice the toothbrushes lined up by the sink.
Late to the Party
These illegal joints aren’t new – they’ve been operating for a while now. Vice wrote about Lisbon’s secret restaurants two years ago so it’s probably not even cool anymore (I have it on good authority that Bolivia’s secret cocaine bar went rapidly downhill after those guys wrote a story about it – the same probably happened with these restaurants). But I still felt like a massive hipster as I set out on my mission to track down illicit Chinese food.
After a bit of asking around, a friend gave me an address from a friend of theirs. Always one to blindly trust complete strangers, I popped the address into Google Maps and headed off with complete faith that I would be greeted with heavenly eats.
Comparable to Everest
On arrival, me and my pal we were instantly flummoxed. Google Maps led us to an apartment building with eight buzzers, and there was no indication of which one might lead us to a world of Chinese delights. We took a punt and pressed the biggest one, which turned out to be correct. Once inside we were flummoxed for a second time. We were greeted by a dark stairwell leading to a landing and several unmarked doors. Using the torch on my phone, we ascended and decided to take another punt and just knock on one of the doors (we thought we could smell food coming from inside). Finally, a Portuguese man opened the door and my mate asked, “are you a Chinese restaurant”. The confused/irritated man explained that the ‘restaurant’ was another floor up, so we sheepishly set off again, still guided by my phone’s torch. It felt like a proper quest. Like, I imagine how we felt is how climbers feel when they attempt to summit Everest. Will we make it to our destination? Who knows, but we’re going to get there or die trying.
Everyone Loves Brunch
We nailed our final ascent to the second floor and we were greeted by a young girl wearing a t-shirt that said she loves brunch. At that moment I knew we were on to a winner.
The girl led us through the family kitchen into a living area that has been turned into a bright and comfortable dining room. We were presented with menus (which, thankfully, had all the dishes translated into English), and were left to make our choices. Me and my pal decided on a vast selection of food and drink, and within minutes the waitress was bringing out a steady stream of some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever tasted.
Disclaimer, though. I’m from the north of England and many of my local suburban Chinese restaurants serve up nothing but sticky, deep-fried, MSG-heavy dishes. You know how we bastardised Indian food? Well, we did the same with Chinese cuisine. In fact, I currently live with a girl from Beijing and when I explained sweet & sour chicken balls to her I swear I saw her heart break a little. So my point is, my palate may not be the most decerning. But, I was blown away by how delicious the food was. Conversation at our table was quickly replaced with sounds of appreciation (lots of “mmmmmmm” and “fuck me, this is delicious”).
OMG it was great.
Have you been to an illegal Chinese restaurant in Lisbon? Was it the best day of your life like it was mine? Let me know in the comments.
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