I'm standing in the graffiti-daubed stairwell of a down-at-heel apartment block in Lisbon, my ear pressed to a scuffed white door as I try to work out whether I can hear the sound of clinking plates from within.
I've been given an incomplete address for what a foodie friend assures me is one of the best places to eat Chinese food in the city. It also came with the warning: "There's no sign, I can't remember the apartment number but I think it's on the second floor. Just get into the building and you can follow the smell."
The rich scents that hang in the air help calm the inner voice telling me that knocking on the door will, at best, disturb a family's dinner and at worse, turn into a scene from a horror movie.
I'm here because I've recently heard about Lisbon's "illegal" Chinese restaurants, known by locals as Chinês clandestinos. Family-run joints operating from the homes of local Chinese residents, these spots were once genuinely illicit operations. Although most are now above board, they remain hidden in the backstreet apartments of Martim Moniz, a multi-ethnic corner of Lisbon little visited by out-of-towners, but the place to come for Asian supermarkets stocking ingredients that are elusive elsewhere in the city.
I finally manage to enter the building by catching the main door just as it swings shut behind a young man, who disappears up the stairs before I can ask him where I might find the restaurante Chinês.
Literally following my nose, I stop at a door on the second floor, and am pretty sure I can hear a clatter of plates from within. I take a deep breath and knock. A somewhat startled-looking Asian woman opens it (I didn't ring a bell downstairs, after all). She's standing in what looks like a family kitchen, so I apologise and ask her where I can find the restaurant.
In broken English, she tells me that she doesn't speak Portuguese. I'm about to leave when she picks up a menu from a pile, and ushers me through the kitchen into the space where you'd normally see a living room. Instead, I find myself in a miniature restaurant and although I'm the first to arrive (it's 7 PM on a Saturday night), a dozen or so tables are fully set. From a door behind me comes the sound of a televised football match, accompanied by loud roars of support.
The lady leads me to a table in the corner, and hands me a notepad and pen, gesturing at the menu to show me that I should note the item number, quantity, and price of each dish that I want. It feels oddly like shopping for side tables at IKEA.
The menu runs to at least eight pages. House specialities include several variations on frogs' legs, but I decide to play it a little safer and choose seaweed and egg soup to start, followed by spicy tofu and a chicken stir fry. Prices are cheaper than elsewhere in the city, and I'm aware that I've just ordered enough to feed a family.
While I'm waiting, I nip to the toilet, passing through what appears to be a family dining room. The pictures on the wall are all askew, adding to the already surreal atmosphere of the place. I walk past the room of shouting football fans. The door is ajar, and reveals a group of young men, smoking cigarettes and drinking beers as they watch the game.
The bathroom is packed with stockpiled toilet rolls and cleaning products, but it's functional and clean.
When I return to my seat, I'm presented with complimentary prawn crackers, then the seaweed soup. It's a beautiful thing—enough to feed four or five people—and comes with a ladle for doling out into dainty bowls. The texture is slippery and delicious, with a rich umami flavour and no telltale MSG tang.
Next, in quick succession, comes the spicy tofu (the silken kind, cut into cubes and dressed in an equally silky sauce with a good kick of chili seeds) and chicken stir fry. Crisp bean sprouts and thin slivers of crunchy bamboo shoot take the place of noodles, and there's a mix of fresh and dried mushrooms among the chicken.
The dishes are all delicious—and vast. I've arranged to meet friends here, but they keep calling to say they're struggling to find the street, and it's clear that the food will go cold before they can help me put it away.
By now, the restaurant has started to fill up. Every couple of minutes, somebody buzzes up from the street, and the hostess busies herself seating and serving them. It's a mix of ages and nationalities, and smoke hangs in the air as diners take advantage of the lax attitude to Lisbon's no-smoking laws. On the table next to me are two young Brazilians living Lisbon, who tell me they've come on the recommendation of a workmate. The chattier of the pair is Walace Lopes, a 22-year-old who has been in the city for six months.
"I never even knew these places existed," he says, "but once I heard about them, I wanted to see for myself. I had my doubts when I saw the outside, but the food's really good and it's cheap."
I linger over my meal for as long as possible, but when the busy hostess asks if she can take the plates away, I have to admit defeat. I ask for a coffee and what the menu lists as "Chinese licor." She returns with a thimble-sized porcelain cup and a bottle of something clear, with what looks like plant roots inside. There are chili peppers at the bottom of the bottle. I give it a go. It's vaguely sweet and tastes like no other spirit I've tried before, but it's not unpleasant.
Having finally found the apartment, which is by now packed, my friends arrive just in time to take a couple of thimble-fulls each of the mysterious licor, before I settle the very reasonable bill.
As we step out onto the street, I wonder which of the nearby apartment blocks hide similar clandestinos, and how I can dig out their addresses. The discovery of these hidden restaurants feels like going down a Chinese food rabbit hole, and I know I might not emerge for a while.