Portucau is a Portuguese-cuisine infused restaurant located at the very heart of the historical downtown of Macau. But it is not a regular one. A vintage touch spreads throughout its walls and ceilings, transporting customers to a space and time long gone but still familiar to the senses.
Everything is unique in Portucau, from the old automobile welcoming customers or the intricate jungle of decorations above the head to its portmanteau name which melts Portugal and Macau into a single word or even its food selection.
Although a well-known venue in the local cuisine scene, IAG has come to know Portucau firsthand after the 8th edition of quarterly networking social, Macau After Dark, in March.
However, there is no better way to scratch a little deeper below the surface than to spend some time with Pedro Almeida, the Portuguese chef behind Portucau’s memorable cuisine.
Needless to say, cooking is in Almeida’s DNA.
“I started very early, between 10 and 12 years old,” the chef recalls.
“My parents opened a restaurant and I was pushed to work. I took care of the service with my father while my mum and my brother were in the kitchen.”
After that early kick off, Almeida devoted his teens to learning all aspects of the trade, including developing his cooking skills. Those apprentice years lead him to work in a casino, in a 5-star hotel and in a Michelin-starred restaurant, providing the experienced needed on his pathway to become a professional chef. After several ventures in the F&B industry, he crossed paths with Asai – a Macau entrepreneur and frequent visitor to Portugal – and grasped the opportunity to take the reins of a set of culinary venues Asai managed in the city.
In Macau, Asai and Almeida began by overhauling an iconic venue in the Sāo Lázaro district: Albergue 1601. The restaurant had been successfully serving à la carte that combined Portuguese and Macanese cuisines. However, the Portuguese chef felt the need to define the personality of Albergue 1601 as a 100% Portuguese cuisine spot.
“We lost customers, but then we built again,” he recalls. “We came up stronger and we already beat the records from before. But it takes time. We passed that big step, but we already had an idea in mind … Don’t stop. We want to have something else.
“I am from Chaves in Portugal, so we brought the Pastéis de Chaves to Macau as well.”
The opening of a shop selling pies marked the company’s next step in its evolution. Pastéis de Chaves is a Portuguese traditional veal-stuffed puffed pastry with a very particular scent and whose value has been recognized by the European Commission as a protected product.
Asai was also fond of the delicacy. He had tasted the dish during one of the first trips to Portugal and thought the flavor and crispy textures perfectly matched the Macau taste. Now Pastéis de Chaves are part of the gastronomic microverse of Macau.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Macau’s tourist numbers shrank to near zero, but rather than let the setback impede them, Asai and Almeida regrouped and took the opportunity to revamp their assets. The changes involved refurbishing Albergue, moving the Pasteis shop to a new location closer to Albergue and respelling Portucao to become Portucau.
By this time they had also opened Three Sardines, a petiscos locale that enjoyed a booming launch.
“We were full for more than four months and you needed to book with three weeks in advance,” says Almeida, who clarifies that petiscos are small dishes a-la-tapa style but with Portuguese denomination. Once the opening hype stabilized, they realized the concept was solid and thought the model could be transposed to Portucau.
Portucau had been the third project just after Pasteis but had been oscillating between Portuguese style and Macanese-Cantonese cuisine trying to adapt to the tastes of the scores of tourists flocking around its privileged location at the heart of Macau’s historical downtown.
However, the low tourist numbers demanded reinvention.
“We decided to make a bigger Three Sardines. And it worked,” Almeida smiles. “We started to get customers back and started to share customers with Three Sardines and Albergue. People started to know that we are here not with just one project. We have a lot of projects.”
The change included the tweak in its name to Portucau to give a Portuguese aroma and adding main courses to the petiscos list in order to offer a more diverse experience. Now, Almeida says, Portucau is “a mix between Albergue and Three Sardines. And you can have both in one experience, if you want to have petiscos you go to Three Sardines, if you want to have main courses you go to Albergue, here you can have that good part of both.”
When asked to reveal his all-time favorite dish, Almeida doesn’t hesitate: “The seafood rice!
“I’ve been developing the recipe for many years, even in my school years. In the restaurant of my parents I always tried to make the best seafood rice. My mum would always say, ‘Rice again?’ And I said, ‘Yes, but it’s going to be better than the last time’.”
And while tourists seem to be gradually coming back to Macau’s streets in the bumpy way that COVID allows, Almeida already has his eyes set on the next project.
“It’s the brewery,” he says. “The objective is to supply craft beer to Three Sardines and it’s going to be exclusive for Three Sardines.”
Sounds like another “must try” from Pedro Almeida, Asai and the team behind their vision for Macau foodies.