These coffee cups on our flight really say it all. There are infinite adventures in the Azores, and that includes the local food scene on Sao Miguel. I always think the best way to learn about a culture is through the local food. Recipes – techniques and flavors – are one of those traditions that is passed down through generations and tend to be an honest reflection of any culture. Values, hardships, economics, politics, environment – are all reflected in the local cuisine.
SNACK BARS are pretty much the best thing ever. They are all over – at the beaches they exist in ice-cream-truck form, at attractions they are in tent-form, and in the towns they are sprinkled around the street corners – some of these also have kitchens and serve food. You can usually tell the snack bars by the small crow of locals hanging out near the door. The food is generally pretty good and local. They serve beer, coffee, cocktails, ice cream and food (usually) ranging from basic pastries to full meals.
One of our favorite snack bar is TuKa TuLa in Ribiera Grande. The food is excellent – not to mention it’s a poppin surf spot with live music and is literally on the beach (with a wind shield). We ordered an awesome squid ink pasta dish to split, and pineapple with blood sausage – a staple on the island.
The BEER SCENE is pretty dismal, but the price is right. Especial was our favorite by a slim margin. Super Bock and Sagres are your other two choices on the island – all local Azorean brews. The best move is to get whatever is on draft -it tends to taste better out of a glass. You just order “a beer” – It’s like America’s beer scene in the ’70s. You might hear rumblings of the fabled Santo Graal beer bar, but it recently closed permanently, and we weren’t able to find another place offering a decently selection of crafts beers, despite our efforts. There is also a local liquor producer in Ribeira Grande – they give free samples and have some pretty tasty fruit liquors – I’d recommend the passion fruit brandy, made with local passion fruit.
You might think the AZOREAN DIET is full of fresh fruits and veggies- the island is lush and green and the community is largely agricultural. But that is not the case. Expect meat, fish, bread, cheese, and more meat. Maybe a potato. The fish is fresh as can be, and is served grilled and whole with lots of bones – be prepared to get a hands-on marine anatomy lesson with every meal.
One night, we bought fish at the market to cook in our Air BnB kitchen. It was a large Mackerel for 4 euro – the fishmonger gutted it on the spot and wrapped it up for us. There was an incredible selection of fish – many I’d never heard of. We baked the big mackerel whole on super high heat, and wow is was great. We also bought lettuce and had a salad, and made mashed cauliflower, potatoes and leeks, which i was craving badly after days without my usual veggie-heavy diet.
The BEEF is also extremely fresh – it’s one of the islands main agricultural products, along with pineapples, butter, cheese, and milk. All excellent. (Seriously, I stuffed my suitcase full of mini-butter packs, and I am not a butter person). The eggs were also impressive – with deep orange colored yolks. How do we get eggs like this in America?!
In Furnas, the must-order-dish is Cozido das Caldeiras, a stew slow that is cooked in the volcanicly active earth. It’s like a boiled dinner – cabbage, potatoes, an meats – all slow cooked for 8 hours in a tasty sauce. We ate it twice – Terra Nostra experience was lovely, but twice as expensive as Restaurante Tony’s down the street. Both dishes were equally delicious, so if a ritzy experience isn’t your thing, opt for Tony’s.
If you want a truly local food experience, stumble into Restaurante Lagoa Azul in Sete Cidades on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. The busy buffet is full of local grub, and you can try it all – fish, octopus, pork knuckles, beans, quails, limpets. 12euro for the buffet includes beer and coffee. And this local place in Porto Formoso has the best octopus stew and fish soup (for 2 euro!) – a very local vibe, compared to the other places tourists frequent. The octopus on the island was the best I’ve ever had – I don’t know how they do it but you can cut it with a fork and it’s full of flavor.
For a more high-end foodie experience, head to the big city of Ponta Delgada (more like a big town). The good restaurants require reservations, even in the off-season. We had dinner at A Tasca and it did not disappoint. The upscale tapas-style place has a sprawling menu printed like a newspaper and a fun, lively atmosphere. We got a few tapas to share including the fish stew, which was delivered in a huge bowl covered with a puff pastry. There were probably 10 kinds of sea animals in the stew, including multiple fish species – bones and all. Incredibly good.
We also wanted to eat at Boca de Cena, but it would have been a long drive after we moved to our Furnas AirBnb. Boca de Cena is a small place, operated by a single visionary chef who waits and cooks. I hear there is now a second person to help wait on tables. The space is small, hot, trendy and moody – with only 10 small tables – reservations required at this place. It’s a little hard to find with Google maps, but look for the round lit Heineken sign over the cobble stone street, and it’s just around the corner. Consistently rated as the top restaurant in the Azores and definitely a place we will visit next time.
There is a lot more to talk about: The Ole Ice cream bars that are sold everywhere, the historical importance of sardines to the Portuguese economy, the limpets that are on every menu (not my favorite), the white farm cheese they serve with bread and chili sauce before meals, the piri piri pepper hot sauce – so good and super spicy. And of course the sweet breads and Portuguese muffins! But it’s time to move on to part 4 of 4 of my Azorean blog posts: What to wear in the Azores.