Mouraria is to Lisbon what Brooklyn is to New York. Once an enclave for dispossessed émigrés, it now bristles with all the hipster trappings that come with the slow-and-steady flush of gentrification. Where Mouraria used to be avoided for its poverty and diversity, it now holds pride of place as a multicultural hub, home to a hive of worldly cafés, Bengali boutiques and Chinese supermarkets. However, despite its gradual evolution into one of the Portuguese capital’s coolest districts, Mouraria retains a pinch of its original edgy charm. Including Lisbon’s once "illegal" Chinese restaurants, also known as the Chinês clandestinos.
Mouraria’s Martim Moniz is Lisbon’s China Town. It’s marked by the peppering of supermarkets stacked with exotic vegetables and noodles. Step beyond the commercial façade into the area’s narrow back alleys and discover a labyrinth of graffitied apartment blocks with a local neighbourhood feel. It’s here that Lisbon’s "illegal" Chinese restaurants established a roaring trade, not only among the city’s Asian residents, but also with Lisbon’s more adventurous gourmands. Operating from the tiny kitchens of private apartments and serving up platters of authentic and utterly delicious regional Chinese cuisine in cramped but lively living rooms, the Chinês clandestinos are now (mostly) legitimate. However, they were once entirely illicit, ducking far beneath the regulations that govern official eateries.
It’s for this reason that some of these restaurants are almost impossible to find. Marked only by fluorescent pink Chinese script scrawled on a front door, the savoury scent of Szechuan spice or the collective murmur of diners, Chinês clandestinos are known to few. But Martim Moniz is a good place to start. There’s a clutch of these ingenious eateries in the immediate vicinity: one on Beco Oliveira street, another on Rua Guia and two more in a rough-and-ready block on Rua do Terreirinho. From there, follow your nose and ask around.
It might take a few exploratory forays into various residential blocks before you eventually come across an unassuming apartment door that hides a restaurant within. Knock and it will open to reveal a cosy living room clustered with dining tables, a television flickering with Chinese soaps in the corner. It’ll be clean and modest, if not verging on the surreal. Pull up a chair and choose from an extensive menu of Chinese favourites. A pad is provided for you to jot down your order, which you can then hand to your host. They are unlikely to speak English, but the linguistic challenge is all part of the fun and there’s a genuine warmth and willingness to please that overrides awkward exchanges. As your order starts to arrive—steaming bowls of noodles, pillow-soft baozi, silken tofu drenched in savoury sauces—you’ll realise how reasonable it is. These platters are piled high with excellent food and are spectacularly cheap.
Our advice: steel your nerves and get stuck in. Tucking into authentic Chinese food in a modest apartment in the backstreets of Lisbon may not be the most Michelin-starred meal you’ve ever enjoyed, but it will certainly be memorable.