You would walk right past it and never know.
I did, several times. And I was looking for it.
And then you’d notice all these people walking quickly inside, with a certain sense of urgency. As though they were going to miss out on something very special if they didn’t hurry.
People were walking out too, clutching a package wrapped in white paper – clutching it as though it were precious. There was a palpable sense of anticipation as they scurried away.
I looked for a sign to tell me this was a restaurant. The restaurant. There was nothing. No signage at all. Just a bland shopfront with a wide open window. So I wandered over to take a closer look – curious.
As I approached I saw a man inside, standing at a large barbeque. He had a long handled fork, and he was flipping cut-and- splayed chickens, Portuguese style. He was enveloped in a shroud of smoke from the chicken fat burning on the coals.
It gave the whole thing a mystical dream-like quality, as though it wasn’t quite real.
I’d finally found it – the fabled place. The place I’d been looking for all evening. The place the locals said served the best Portuguese chicken in town.
This was no ordinary town. This town is renown throughout Portugal as producing the best chickens in the land. Like Bresse in France, Barcelos in North Portugal is world famous for its chickens.
So if this was the best Portuguese chicken joint in Barcelos, surely that would have to make it the best Portuguese chicken joint in the world…
I’m no aficionado of Portuguese chicken. But I was determined to find out.
The Furno Restaurante & Churrasaqueira is about 3 minutes walk from the main square in Barcelos, but you have to know where to look if you want to have any chance of finding it.
I walked inside and saw that there was a long line of people waiting anxiously for their take-out chicken. The guy at the barbeque by the window had about fifty chickens on the grill. And they were selling as fast as he could cook them.
The Furno sells about 500-750 chickens a day. Double that on the weekend. That’s about 5000 – 6000 chickens a week.
It costs €5 for a full chicken to take away.
The birds are sourced from local producers. They only choose the best birds. Barcelos chickens are famed for their soft delicious flesh, and the Furno cooks them with cripsy skin and a secret tomato based sauce, full of spices.
The Colonel’s Kentucky Fried Chicken 11 Secret Herbs and Spices this ain’t. This is something sublime.
I watched the theatre of it play out – the line of restless customers, eager to get their chicken – the young lass at the till expertly cutting and slicing a chicken in seconds, and the guy at the barbeque shrouded in smoke, always smiling. As though he knew he was at the wheelhouse of something very special.
I then walked into the restaurant.
The restaurant was a large nondescript room with paper tableclothes and a knife and fork wrapped in a napkin. It looked more like a corporate canteen. On each table there was a plastic container with toothpicks. And on a wall up one end of the room hung a tv. There was a football game in progress.
No one seemed to care. They were too busy eating.
I was handed a menu that was double dutch to me – or at least double Portuguese. No English or tourist version of the menu in the Furno. But no matter. I’d come for the chicken. Which on the menu is Frango.
I could have the chicken two ways – Frango, and Frango Simples.
Frango came with the whole she-bang – fries and pickles. Frango Simples was just simply Frango. No fries and pickles.
I ordered the Frango.
I wanted to order a full serving but the waiter wouldn’t let me. He said a half serving would be plenty. I argued, he insisted. Always with a smile. So I ordered a half serving of Frango.
The waiter shuffled off, writing up the order. He looked pleased that he’d convinced me.
I looked around the restaurant. It was a weekday night – 7pm and early for Portuguese diners. There were a few families, some couples, a table of elderly gentlemen. Everyone had come for the Frango.
I ordered a Portuguese beer – a half serving – and waited.
I’d had Portuguese Chicken before in Sydney – in Petersham, the Portuguese part of town. I liked that it was cooked flat and flame grilled. And invariably there was a sauce which was both exotic and delicious. But it always tasted like regular chicken with a fancy sauce slapped on top. I was hoping the Barcelos chicken would be different.
I’d also had chicken in Bresse, but that was a whole other ballgame. There the chickens are Appellation Controlle, like vintage wines. The chickens on sale in the markets are marked according to their producer, which region of Bresse they’re from, and their quality ranking. They have very fancy labels on them and are hugely expensive.
In a Bresse restaurant, order chicken and it’s a life changing experience. The meat is unlike any chicken you’ve ever tasted. The French have taken the cooking of Bresse chicken to a masterful artform.
In the Furno, it’s nothing like that. It’s wonderfully down and dirty.
My Frango came. It was buried in fries, but lying there underneath all those beautiful chips was the best damn chicken I’ve ever had, anywhere.
Bresse aside, I’ve had chicken in various places around the world. Up in Harlem, in Sylvia’s. Southern fried chicken of the highest order. I’ve also had southern fried chicken at some of the dingiest dives in Louisiana, and in a vast hall in Madrid, and I’ve had chicken encrusted in a jacket of salt in Paris bistro. I’ve also had Beggar’s Chicken in a railway station somewhere outside of Canton, and in a local haunt in the nether reaches of Hong Kong Is.
The chicken I had that night in the Furno in Barcelos goes down as the best chicken I’ve had, ever.
What made it so good? It was the flesh of the bird, perfectly cooked, the skin crispy grilled. It just melted in my mouth. And the fries were perfect – crisp and hot and flavorsome.
What’s interesting about Portugal, and the Furno, is that they place no condiments on the table. No salt and pepper, or tomato sauce. You have to ask for salt and pepper. But this meal didn’t need it. The spices were enough.
The meal was €4.95. If I’d had the Frango Simples, a half portion serving without the fries and pickles, it would have cost me €2.75. That has to go down as the best value chicken you’ll find anywhere.
I paid the bill and walked out, feeling as though I’d had the best Portuguese Chicken in the world. I walked off down the street, then turned and looked back.
If you didn’t know it was there, you’d walk straight past…