This post is part of our Behind the Bite series, deep dives into the dishes that we can’t stop thinking about.
Garlic-flavored pork with hints of spice and rustic bread in each bite make the bifana our go-to snack in Lisbon.
When thinking about eating in Lisbon, images of bacalhau (codfish) and seafood usually come to mind, but Portuguese cuisine also relies on the land. And, it’s fair to say that Portugal has a special love affair with pork. Pork is everywhere, from the hearty, belt-busting stews and sausages to the sandwiches. We love each savory dish, but there is something extra special about the bifana, a marinated pork sandwich.
It’s as comforting to locals and weary travelers as pizza is to American college students. It’s just as ideal alongside a cold beer. And a bifana is the perfect snack before heading home after a long night out.
From Snacking On The Farms To The Cities
It’s true that the Portuguese love to snack. Between breakfast and lunch, or lunch and dinner, tables are set with small plates of croquettes, cheeses, cured meats, seafood, and/or sandwiches. Snacks, or petiscos, are an excuse to break from work and a reason to catch up with family and friends. An appetite may be the most important thing you bring when traveling to Portugal.
Bifanas come from Vendas Novas in the rural Alentejo region. This is a region of wines and cork, olive trees, rice fields, and the black Iberian pig. In some parts, the farms and vineyards stretch as far as the eye can see. Now, you can find bifanas everywhere, especially in the cities.
Our senses sing every time we bite into a quality bifana. That these sandwiches are cheap, easy, and quick-to-make snacks makes us love them even more.
What makes this simple sandwich taste so good?
The answer varies depending on who you ask. Each cook, Portuguese mom, or Vovó (Portuguese grandmother) will have their own trick and suggest that theirs is the best. My Azorean mother learned to make bifanas after moving to a fishing village in mainland Portugal. Her trick includes adding mustard to the marinade.
According to Milena Santos, owner of Bifanas & Companhia in Vendas Novas, “the secret lies in the finding the ideal combination of meat and papo seco (bread).” She also states that (the bread) was “designed exclusively to welcome a good (piece) of pork loin.” Of the margarine-based sauce, the other ingredients are part of what Milena calls a “secret of the gods.”
Milena’s mouthwatering recipe is a step-by-step process that starts with slicing the pork loin and then pounding it until it’s very thin. The meat is then fried in the secret sauce. After frying, the pork is placed inside the papo seco and served to the customer.
The Great Debate
Where can you find the best bifana in Portugal?
Be forewarned: the bifana that you eat in Porto, Braga, and other northern cities will be different than the bifana you eat in Lisbon, the Alentejo, and the Algarve. Head north if you prefer smaller pieces of pork slow-cooked in pots of spicy broth. The broth is then drizzled into each sandwich. In Lisbon, on the other hand, expect bigger cuts that have been grilled or fried after marinating overnight in an aromatic, spice-infused mixture. Bifanas in Lisbon are served with the option of yellow mustard. Some cooks use beer or wine in the sauce or marinade. Nearly everyone adds plenty of garlic (another nationally-favorite ingredient).
Lisbon’s locals usually beeline to their closest favorite tasca, but Beira Gare (Praça Dom João da Câmara, 4) and O Trevo (Praça Luís de Camões, 48) are boasted as two of the best spots in the Portuguese capital. Even the late Anthony Bourdain fell under O Trevo’s pork-infused spell.
And, of course, there are the bifanas from Vendas Novas. If you’re craving a foodie adventure as much as a juicy piece of seasoned pork inside a slightly toasted roll, we recommend making the hour drive from Lisbon. In addition to Bifanas & Companhia, two other restaurants that get a lot of attention are neighbors Café Boavista (Rua da Boavista, 68, Vendas Novas) and Casa das Bifanas (Rua da Boavista, 66, Vendas Novas).
Portugal’s love for bifanas may have no limit. In May 2018, Vendas Novas organized their first Feira das Bifanas, a food market centered around this favorite sandwich.
A Transitioning Classic
Head into Lisbon’s Bairro Alto in the evening or at night, and you can order a simple bifana from almost any tasca. They’re normally served with the same thick roll of bread and alongside a bottle of yellow mustard (similar to what you see served with hot dogs and hamburgers in the USA). A few tascas serve them with cheese. And they rarely cost more than a couple of euros.
We know the saying “if it’s not broke don’t fix it” but there are a few twists that we can’t help but drool over. And even though the bifana is as simple a recipe as one gets, today’s influences are taking it to another level.
Now and then, restaurants will serve their bifanas with a variety of bread and pastries. And even though the bifana is a pork-lovers dream, vegetarians can now enjoy them too. At Ao26 – Vegan Food Project in Lisbon, the “bifanas” are 100% plant-based.
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Nina is an American-Portuguese travel writer who bounces between Madrid, Lisbon, and central Portugal. When she isn’t writing or adventuring, she likes to visit local restaurants and snack on as many Portuguese and Spanish treats as she can.