It’s 8 pm on a Friday evening and you find yourself in an apartment building just a few blocks from the Martim Moniz metro stop. You glance around the dimly lit white hallway with its low-hanging lights and you consider reversing your steps, but the low clatter of dishes on the floor above gives you the confidence to press on. You creep up the staircase, pausing from time to time to determine if those really were dishes and the faint sounds of voices that you heard, until you reach the top and are face-to-face with a hand-painted Chinese character on the door in front of you.
You’ve found one of Lisbon’s famed Chinês clandestinos.
Chinês clandestinos, or “clandestine Chinese,” are underground Chinese restaurants that crop up in the immigrant-heavy neighborhoods of Lisbon, such as Mouraria. Once hotspots for delicious eats (at reasonable prices) that only a select few Lisboetas knew about, these Chinese restaurants have become one of the main draws to Lisbon among bold eaters worldwide.
Around the turn of the century, Lisbon experienced a wave of Chinese immigration. Many of the people who made the journey were the entrepreneurial sort who started their own restaurants. Not all of these restaurants acquired a business license, though, which is where the “clandestine” part of the name comes in.
Instead, the restaurants were set up and exist today in people’s apartments--you can still find some that have a dining area right next to a sofa and family photos! Because the Chinês clandestinos of the early days were supposed to be undercover, many of them were known by their addresses or streets alone, and hungry adventurers had to search for clues like red lanterns or Chinese characters on the second floor of apartment buildings to find the exact locations.
Nowadays, a good portion of the former clandestinos have gone fully legal and you can find them on Google maps. They still provide massive portions of unique and tasty foods at unbeatable prices, but now they have business licenses and the health inspector’s approval, even if they are run out of an apartment.
Every now and again though, you might find a new clandestino if you poke around Mouraria or chat with some Lisboetas in the know.
Would you try one of the Chinês clandestinos during a trip to Lisbon?
Author: Debra Harris
As founder of Life’s Journey Travel, I’m deeply passionate about creating custom travel experiences that allow my clients to truly savor the journey.