Restaurants & Bars

Day 4 in Portugal

Tom Armitage | May 25, 200007:00 AM     9

Wednesday, March 24. All Chowhounds who are able to spend some time in Portugal must—and I do mean MUST—travel to the small town of Mealhada, just north of Coimbra, about a two hour drive north of Lisbon, and a one hour drive south of Porto. Mealhada is Mecca for roast suckling pig, called “leitao” in Portuguese. There are an unbelievable number of leitao restaurants in this small town. Two of the most famous, and therefore most recommended, are Pedro dos Leitoes and Meta dos Leitoes, which are a stone’s throw from each other. If I were to free lance an article at this moment in time, I think I would spend two or three weeks in Mealhada, trying each of the 15 or 20 or more leitao restaurants in order to opine about the “best” leitao in Mealhada, which would also probably be, based on my experience to date, the best suckling pig in the world. I could care less if the article were ever published.

I first fell in love with roast pig during the three years I lived in the Philippines, where lechon is a national dish. I always looked forward to barrio fiestas and other special events when a pig would be stuffed with leaves, put on a spit, and hand turned over a wood fire until the skin was golden and cracker crisp and the meat was tender and juicy. In Los Angeles, where I now live, I’ve had a hard time locating good roast pig. The most reliable source I’ve found in L.A. so far is the dim sum at certain Chinese restaurants, such as Ocean Star and NBC in Monterey Park. But the roast suckling pig I’ve been eating at dim sum doesn’t hold a candle to the experience I had last night.

I chose Pedro dos Leitoes, a large restaurant that has clearly reaped the benefits of its reputation. When you are seated, you are brought some good rolls (the bread and rolls are consistently wonderful in Portugal) and fresh goat cheese. The leitao is served with homemade potato chips and a green salad with onion, tomato, and cucumber. A house sparkling white wine was recommended, and proved to be a perfect accompaniment. I watched with anticipation as I saw one deeply golden whole suckling pig after another carried to a counter, where it was snipped into pieces with shears by the countermen. When our order arrived, I thought to myself, “Can it really be all THAT special?” My first bite answered the question. Beneath the fragile, cracker crisp skin was the most succulent, flavorful meat imaginable. On the serving platter, underneath the meat, was a peppery, garlicky “sauce” (more on that later) that added to the ecstasy. After my wife and I polished off the platter, my wife demonstrated her usual restraint, while I, my culinary engine still revving at high RPMs, asked for another serving of ribs. And was I glad I did!

After dinner, as my wife and I were leaving, we stopped to tell the staff what a wonderful experience we had. The response was an invitation to see how they prepared and cooked the pigs. “Would we be interested?” Duh! We went first to the special ovens where the pigs are cooked. The pigs, which are about a month old, weigh about 10 kilos each. They are cooked on long skewers in the lowest part of huge wood burning ovens, which use the bark of a eucalyptus-type tree as fuel. Our host explained that the pigs are turned frequently at the beginning of the cooking process, which takes about two hours, and are turned less often at the end of the cooking process. We then went to the area where the pigs are prepared. Into the cavity of each of the pigs is placed a brown colored paste, which contains fat (lard), garlic, salt, and lots of pepper. I asked our host if all the suckling pigs in Mealhada are prepared in a similar fashion, and he answered yes. "Are yours the best?” I asked. “We try,” came the humble reply.

Oh, by the way, our meal at Pedro dos Leitoes (which I would guess is among the highest priced of the leitao restaurants in Mealhada) was the least expensive meal of our trip so far.

Heaven. I’m in Heaven.

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