Cervejaria e Marisqueira Praia da Rocha is tucked into a side street off the boardwalk in Portimão, one of the Algarve’s biggest beach towns; its patio feels like a friend’s backyard. Comfortably settled into plastic chairs, we can smell the clams we’ve ordered before they hit the table. When they land, fat hunks of garlic are still sizzling, and the clams are exhaling steam.
There’s something about being close enough to the ocean to smell and hear the waves that makes those clams juicier. Or maybe it’s the palm trees rustling in the breeze. Or, more likely, it’s because the clams were harvested right before we ordered them. As we walk out of the restaurant, the delivery guy pulls in. The flatbed of his mini truck is a giant saltwater fish tank. He bags the chef’s order and hands it over.
Fresh bay leaves bring a balanced, rounded aroma to Mendes’s polished version of this dish. But it’s the use of Vinho Verde that distinguishes this traditional dish from others around the world. Portugal’s iconic “green wine” has a spritzy minerality that simultaneously heightens the brininess of the clams and brings out their sweetness. Use a bottle you like and drink the rest, chilled, with the clams, and round out the meal with toasted-and-buttered bread to soak up the clam juice. —Genevieve Ko
- + kosher salt
- 2 dozen littleneck clams
- + extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, sliced very thinly crosswise
- 2 fresh bay leaves, notches torn every ½”
- 1 C dry white Vinho Verde
- 4 sprigs cilantro + 1 C leaves
Fill a bowl with cold water and dissolve enough salt in it to make it taste like the ocean. Submerge the clams in the water. Let them sit for 10 minutes or until they spit out their grit. You should see sand at the bottom of the bowl. Lift out the clams and transfer to a colander. With a stiff-bristled brush, scrub them vigorously until really clean.
Heat a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Coat the bottom with olive oil and add the garlic and bay leaves. Cook, stirring continuously, until very aromatic, bubbling, and golden, about 5 minutes.
Add the clams and toss to coat in the mixture and get a sizzle going on them. Add the wine and cilantro sprigs. Cover, raise the heat to medium-high, and cook, shaking the pan frequently, until the clams start to open. The liquid should be boiling vigorously. Start pulling out the early birds that open first and transfer them to serving dishes. Cover the pan again and continue cooking and pulling until all the clams open. After 5 minutes more, throw out any clams that haven’t opened.
Discard the bay leaves and cilantro sprigs. Strain the sauce into a large bowl. Swirl in a little olive oil, then fold in the clams and cilantro leaves. Serve immediately with plenty of crusty, buttered bread.