From mouth-watering plant-based dishes to innovative vegan desserts, Selene Nelson uncovers the hidden gems of Porto's thriving vegan food culture.
While there are many countries that aren’t very vegan-friendly, Portugal might be a contender for the top spot. After all, this is a country that’s the second highest consumer of seafood in Europe, where the national dish is bacalhau – salted cod.
Almost all traditional dishes contain either meat or fish, and even vegetable-based dishes, like caldo verde – cabbage and potato soup – come topped with obligatory slices of chouriço sausage.
In Porto, the country’s second city, things are – at least on the surface – even less vegan-friendly. Porto’s most famous culinary creation is the francesinha, a huge sandwich stuffed with beef steak, cured meat, smoked sausage like linguiça, and fresh sausage like chipolata.
If that weren’t enough to make most vegans grimace, it’s also topped with melted cheese. The bread itself and the spicy beer-and-tomato sauce it’s smothered in are the only plant-based ingredients.
So far, so very un-vegan. But just like everywhere else in the world, times are changing, and today Porto offers countless options for vegan travellers. Last month I spent a week here with one mission in mind: to find the best vegan food in the city.
From plant-based versions of local dishes like the francesinha and pastéis de nata – cinnamon-dusted egg custard tarts – to innovative international restaurants, exciting fusion food, and vegan junk food hotspots, you’re almost spoiled for choice.
Porto is a coastal city in northwest Portugal with a thriving food scene waiting to be discovered down its historic cobbled streets. Photo © Alexander Spatari via Getty Images
Where to find the ultimate vegan francesinha in Porto
My first challenge was finding the best plant-based francesinha – after all, this is Porto’s signature dish, and one the locals are extremely passionate about.
During the course of the week I managed to eat four francesinhas – which is no mean feat considering each enormous sandwich comes served with a big side of chips, and clocks in at around 1,500 calories! This is a dish that it’s definitely best to eat for lunch rather than dinner – that way, you can walk it off in the afternoon!
I’m happy to report that each vegan francesinha was delicious, and different in its own way. Some, like the one from the pretty, laidback vegan restaurant Kind Kitchen, contained slices of tomato and other veg, which added a crisp freshness to the layers of smoked tofu, sausage, and vegan cheese. The tomato and beer sauce was also milder than the other francesinhas I tried, so it’s a good choice if you’re not a fan of too much heat.
Francesinha is Porto’s signature dish and is a layered sandwich typically filled with slices of meat, topped with melted cheese slices and served in a tomato-and-beer sauce. Kind Kitchen's vegan version is stuffed with layers of smoked tofu, sausage and fresh veggies.
Interestingly, however, the best francesinhas I tried weren’t from vegan eateries, but classic francesinha restaurants that just happened to serve plant-based versions of this beloved sandwich.
Santa Francesinha, in downtown Porto, is one of the most popular francesinha joints in the city, yet its vegan sandwich, with seitan steak, soy chorizo, portobello mushroom, melted vegan cheese, and grilled onion, courgette, and tomatoes was a standout – as was its rich and spicy sauce.
Santa Francesinha's vegan francesinha was filled with delicious layers of seitan steak, mushrooms, veggies and melted vegan cheese. Photo © Selene Nelson
Jostling for first place for best francesinha was Cassanova, a restaurant that’s a good 25-minute walk from downtown Porto, but well worth it (plus, it’s always good to work up an appetite before tucking into this hefty vegan sandwich).
Popular with locals, Cassanova has a full vegan menu, and serves everything from plant-based hotdogs to vegan burgers – but its francesinha, drenched with melted cheese and crammed with seitan steak, sausage, and ham, is by far and away its best-seller. Due to the absence of any vegetables, it’s probably the most authentic vegan francesinha, too.
Cassanova's best-selling vegan francesinha is a must-try for those looking for an authentic experience as it's jam-packed with plant-based meats. Photo © Selene Nelson
Where to find the best pastel de nata in Porto
Now, onto the next classic Portuguese dish we just had to try: the pastel de nata. Any vegan with a sweet-tooth who’s visited Portugal will have experienced the disappointment of walking by bakeries with their trays of pastéis de nata gleaming in the windows, yet knowing you can’t try to try them. Considering the key ingredient is egg yolk, can these tarts really be veganised… and will the plant-based versions actually be any good?
Happily, I can confirm that the answer to both questions is yes. Just like the francesinha, I took the mission of finding Porto’s best vegan pastel de nata very seriously, and spent much of the week reading reviews on HappyCow, making notes on my map, then traipsing from bakery to bakery. I’m not sure how many tarts I actually ate in total; all were decent, although some were much better than others.
One of the best was from Pastelaria Tupi, a non-vegan bakery with a vegan counter. The pastry on these pastéis de nata was perfect: crisp, flaky, and satisfyingly chewy. The custard filling was sweet, golden, and creamy… although a tad on the runny side if I’m going to be picky.
Pastelaria Tupi's pastéis de nata were perfect: crisp, flaky, and satisfyingly chewy. Photo © Selene Nelson
The very best plant-based pastéis de nata was sadly only found towards the end of the week – although we still managed to fit in a couple of visits (and several natas).
We returned here a few times to sip black coffee and sample their beautiful cakes and pastries, which are mostly veganised versions of classic Portuguese sweet treats. Their pasty-like savoury bakes were delicious too, and came stuffed with a variety of fillings – from stroganoff to bean chilli.
Our favourite was the spinach and house-made ‘ricotta’, which was made from tofu, and was the perfect on-the-go lunch.
A Padoca is a fully vegan bakery in Porto who make perfect plant-based pastel de nata with a flaky crust and a thick custard centre. Photo © Selene Nelson
Best vegan restaurants in Porto
But, of course, there’s more to Portuguese food than the francesinha and pastel de nata. While there’s no shortage of veggie restaurants in the city, some of the names I came across most often while researching were pretty average, serving up the same food vegans can reliably turn to in most European cities; buffet-style places where you can find falafels, hummus, bean burgers, and an variety of salads. While undeniably cheap, filling, and healthy, if you’re looking to raise the bar, there are several other, better, options.
If you’re hoping to try authentic Portuguese dishes (or as authentic as they can be once all the meat, fish, dairy, and eggs are substituted…) then head to Remédio Santo – “holy remedy”.
Vegan restaurant Remédio Santo is filled with vegan delights like this lime and mustard gnocchi served with toasted almonds, jalapeños, sun-dried tomatoes, and mint. Photo © Selene Nelson
Located about 30 minutes walk from the centre, it’s definitely worth the trek – and again, it’s best to arrive with an appetite, because you’ll want to try just about everything on the menu. Remédio Santo’s website declares that it’s “the best vegan restaurant in Porto”, and honestly, I’m inclined to agree.
The menu contains innovative dishes inspired by Portuguese classics – the dishes you see locals eating and feel like you’ll never get to try: a mushroom dish inspired by bacalhau à brás, which is traditionally made from cod, eggs, and potatoes; baby fava beans in tomato sauce served with smoked tofu instead of chorizo; crisp polenta topped with vegetables and balsamic cream, inspired by Madeira’s milho frito; and a plant-based version of amêijoas à bulhão pato, where shiitake mushrooms, soaked in garlic butter, lemon, and coriander, take the place of the customary clams.
After much dithering, we opted for a seitan steak with black beer cream sauce, roast potatoes, and caramelised red onions (inspired by the dish bife à Portuguesa), and the succulent lime and mustard gnocchi, which came served with toasted almonds, jalapeños, sun-dried tomatoes, and mint.
Remédio Santo specialises in creating vegan versions of authentic Portuguese dishes like this impressive seitan steak with black beer cream sauce, roast potatoes, and caramelised red onions. Photo © Selene Nelson
Both were an absolute joy to eat, as was the lemon cheesecake, and the friendly owners, warm service, and cosy atmosphere just made us wish we’d discovered this restaurant on our first day, not second-to-last.
If you’re craving international cuisine, head back to Kind Kitchen. The bowls are perfect if you fancy something fresh, and you can choose between Thai, Middle Eastern, and Mexican flavours. Mexican food seems to be the focus though, and the shrimp tacos, loaded nachos, and burritos were excellent, as was the ceviche, which was made with hearts of palm in a zingy coconut milk tigre de leche.
If you’re after something heavier, there are three different burgers, as well as the aforementioned francesinha, and a selection of cakes and vegan desserts.
Kind Kitchen's shrimp tacos look and taste like the real deal but are entirely cruelty-free! Photo © Selene Nelson
Another new restaurant definitely worth visiting (we did so twice!) is Espécie – Restaurante Vegetariano, which serves up a variety of thoughtful and unusual dishes.
As the name suggests, this is a vegetarian restaurant, but there are plenty of vegan options, from the mouthwatering bean and sweet potato curry with cashews, fried shallots, and poppadoms, to the eggplant schnitzel with coleslaw. The fried cauliflower with Korean hot sauce, sesame, and spring onion was another standout.
If you’re a fan of spicy cauliflower wings, it’s worth visiting another vegetarian restaurant, Outra Espécie, which is located on the edge of the tree-shaded Jardim da Cordoaria. Their Korean fried cauliflower wings (KFC) pack a serious punch (and crunch), although the fried sweet potato with garlic mayo, pickles, and herbs was an unexpected favourite. If you’re in the mood for something sweet, the peanut butter, coconut, and oreo tart with raspberry sauce can’t fail to delight.
So, if you’re heading to Porto, there’s definitely no need to worry about going hungry! Whether you want to try veganised versions of Portuguese classics or would rather enjoy exciting fusion food from around the world – or a bit of both – you’ll have more than enough choices.
My clothes may have fit more snuggly by the end of the week, but after the amount of pastéis de nata and francesinha sandwiches I devoured – not to mention fried cauliflower wings and glasses of (vegan) vinho verde – it’s no surprise. And I don’t regret a single bite.
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Featured image: Sean Pavone Photo via Getty Images