It’s very unusual for a man of my age to be on a cruise ship. This isn’t a young thing to do. It’s not even a middle aged thing to do. This is what you do when you retire. You go on cruises and you meet other retired people, and you experience parts of the world that you didn’t get to see earlier in your life because you were busy working. I feel lucky that, essentially, what I am doing is living out somebody’s retirement trip at 34. Today, four different people stopped to ask me why I’m on this cruise. One older gentleman flat out said, “What are you doing on this geezer mobile?” I explained that I was a writer, and his response assumed quite a bit, “Wow. Fun way to make a living.” Yes. A fun way to make a living. It’s beautiful that this experience has made me forget that I’m still quite a deal in debt and churning out a few articles a month for freelancer money.
The crew loves that I'm in my 30’s. As soon as I walked onto my ship everybody was like “Hey, you old son of a bitch! Where ya been pal? You want a glass of wine? How about a bottle?” People keep making jokes that I’m never actually on the ship, and they crack wise when I stumble out of my cabin at 11AM hungvoer. Everyone is super accommodating, excited I’m here, and it feels like I’m going to be eaten. I have humble Pennsylvanian roots; it is difficult for me to accept luxury.
Porto is this beautiful, river-docked city that’s beaming with character. It’s also a docile town, but it has these little pockets of surprises, too. One minute you can hear nothing but your footsteps, and then the next you stumble upon a lively wine bar packed with people. I’m already getting the sense that Porto is about pork, and I’m down with it. Sebastian, the ever helpful program director on the Viking Helgrim (my ship), suggested I go to Casa Gueda to get bifanas, the tiny pork sandwiches which are sold for about 4€ a pop. I like the aesthetic of these things; it’s essentially the size of a half-sandwich, smaller than a burger but bigger than a slider - these little pork rolls makes it easy if you’re only kind of hungry. Casa Guedes serves some of the best pork sandwiches I’ve ever had. Their process is simplified to ensure intense focus on the pork flavors - They roast entire legs of meat, which are dripping with juice, slap it on a bun, add some sheep’s milk “mountain” cheese, and then a man with blue plastic gloves squeezes it all down on a bun. Packets of Heinz mustard are available if you want condiment. At Casa Guedes, there’s little need for anything else; just some basic yellow mustard; anything too complicated will take away from the stars of the show. The part of the my brain that can’t turn off “evil, opportunistic, colonizing white guy” thinks bifanas absolutely smash in LA.
The lead cook that evening, Pedro, was a kind man with whom I identified. We both apologized immediately for not speaking the opposite’s language more clearly. We did finally land on a good stream of broken English, though, which was absolutely necessary if we were going to get to know each other. I chatted with Pedro about Los Angeles, and we exchanged a list of things to do in each other’s cities. Pedro has a whole list of things to do in the cities his customers are from. He showed them to me - New York, Toronto, Sydney, all these lists with very basic things to do like see a sunset or go to a baseball game. We began to chat about Spanish liquor and he brought me a shot, a rose, and some Portuguese coffee on the house. I left charged up on booze and caffeine, and continued to my nightly activity of wandering the streets aimlessly. Porto is a safe city. It is a video game of a town. There is seemingly no danger, and it feels like it would be impossible to die. I get lost for hours at night and feel no hostility by anyone in the streets. Maybe this has nothing to do with Porto and everything to do with Los Angeles. Maybe this is just what a pleasant city is like.
Night 2 at O Alonso
An Anthony Bourdain pilgrimage is a rite for anybody interested in writing about food. I didn’t see the Portugal episode of Parts Unknown, but I knew he went to O Alonso, and I knew the restaurant served franceinhas, one of Porto’s culinary notables.
As soon as I sat down at O Alonso, the waiter brought be some lupini beans and what I can only perceive to be roni rolls. Pepperoni rolls are an important part of Pennsylvania/West Virginia food culture. They are mostly dough, usually bland, but with a soft, pillow-y texture that almost makes the lack of invention and flavor acceptable. So, to recap, right off the bat this place in fucking Porto, Portugal brought out two foods I grew up eating as a kid in Pennsylvania. Maybe there’s a lot in common with Western Pennsylvania and Portugal. Maybe Portugal is Europe’s Pittsburgh. Those appetizers certainly served as a hot tip for what was about to come - the francesinha is essentially an amped up, Spanish croque madame. It is a sandwich made of ham and linguica (smoke-cured pork sausage) pressed in a griddle, topped with melted sheep’s milk cheese, and then covered in a reduction of beer, beef stock, and tomato. The whole thing comes with a side of golden french fries that you’re going to want to throw in that sauce like a poutine. This was a substantial meal, and that’s the thing I’m realizing about Porto: The food is surprisingly heavy. There is some weight to the notion that all cities of bridges are the same. Serving pork sliders and pressed sandwiches with beer sauce and french fries feels pretty blue collar to me. This cuisine could exist in Chicago.