In all the years that I was a Goa virgin, I never heard a Goa story without the teller going into paroxysms of gastronomic glee. Have you? I don't think I've heard a Goa story without the tiger prawn, the lobster (or crab), and the baby kingfish assuming center stage for at least three-quarters of the tale. And each of them comes into its own only at specific establishments, usually in Baga-Calangute-Candolim. In fact, I think that's one of the primary reasons why I chose the touristy North Goa stretch over the deserted sands of South Goa.
Not my usual hyperbole, don't you know, to say that Goa is amongst the greatest gastronomic adventures possible. It goes without saying that I ate only food unavailable or difficult to get in Bombay. Only prawn and fish curry, Goa sausages, masala-fried and recheado-tossed seafood, sorpotel and vindaloo and sannas, crab xacuti, and all manner of chilli fried meat. I'm sure I'm leaving something out! Certainly, there was the occasional seafood or prawn cocktail and even a butter-garlic calamari, but we've walked out of restaurants not serving Goan food — only after a beer, though!
I consider myself respectably fishetarian but I don't think I've ever even heard of as many different varieties of fish in Bombay: perch, butter fish, sea bass, red snapper, and rock fish. Even though I've eaten mostly kingfish in Bombay for the past few years, I haven't had the pleasure of kingfish as fresh and succulent as I did in Goa. And where shall I begin about the squid? You don't get calamari as juicy and firm in Bombay - it's one in a million chance if you do.I have but one regret about the seafood and it is the lack of crumb-fried mussels. The elder sibling and the ex-reviewer won't stop raving about mussels but don't you know, mussel season begins only mid-November. It became something of a quest finally, the hunt for bloody crumb-fried mussels. God knows, I tried everywhere — from Baga to Calangute to Vagator to Panjim to Utorda.
And let's not forget the chorizo. That most wonderful, worthy, and spicy sausage. I ate it fried, boiled, in curry, in pao, in pulav, and chilli fried. Since that was not enough, we trekked to the Mapusa Friday Market to buy a few hundred to bring back home. While I was at the market, I also bought the only things that can ease being away from Goa — Goan masalas. The ache eases, truly it does, when you've made crumb-fried prawns and kingfish marinated in recheado masala. A wee bit of San Andre Port wine along with the food and the constriction inside begins to lessen... really!
My first proper meal in Goa was at a little bar and restaurant on the second floor of a house 30 meters from Baga Beach. The ex-reviewer's prize culinary find, it's called Alex's and is run by a rumbling, quiet man named Alex and his wife, who is the most incredible cook. We started with masala-fried calamari and some seriously great cashew feni. A failed request for crumb-fried mussels later, a plate of two large crumb-fried mackerels wound up on our table. Finished that up with chocolate-banana pancakes and I couldn't have been happier.
Alex's is certainly one of my favourite places in Baga, not just because of the food but because of the wonderfully relaxed atmosphere: the TV blaring, Alex's mad little son running all over the place, funny British people, and a huge old dog that looked like a stuffed sausage. For our last meal in Goa, Alex scoured three fish markets to buy crabs for us. He didn't find them but he did buy clams, which his wife cooked into the best clam coconut curry I've ever tasted.
The holy trinity of food at Baga-Calangute is easily Souza Lobo, Brittos, and Infantaria. While great local fare is par for the course in Goa, these are somewhat overrated places. They each have a couple of outstanding things on the menu but otherwise, like the ex-reviewer observes, good loos make the trinity.
For example, the elder sibling nearly froths at the mouth about Brittos, but apart from the baked crabs, sannas, the desserts, and the sublimely brilliant palm feni, I wasn't particularly impressed at all. As was the case with Souza Lobo. The roast tongue with Russian salad was brilliant — the quality of the meat was just superb. But I didn't think so well of the Goa sausage chilli fry or the other food. In addition, I didn't like Calangute beach much and that just added to my general impression.
Infantaria though is my very favourite of the three. I was decently disappointed by the famed Infantaria breakfast because it's not as large as the menu claims and hence isn't value for money. Avoid the feni — too harsh and bitter. But they have best strawberry and blueberry doughnuts ever. The Kahlua Mousse Cake and the Chocolate Walnut Date Tart, and the Crab Xacuti which at 85 bucks is some real value for money. But honestly, a major reason why I loved Infantaria was the *awesome* service that we enjoyed. Should you stop there, ask for John and Michael. They're quite friendly and happy to stop for a chat or invite the ex-reviewer to sing.
There are also a couple of other places that I recommend. One is on the Candolim Road and is called Lloyd's, after the guy who runs it. His mama does all the cooking and the food is excellent, if a little expensive. The potato chops looked delicious but were over by the time we ordered. The fish cutlets are definitely a must-try. The feni's not too good, but he does serve King's. The other place is called Mirabai's Goan Village — featured in the photo below. I wasn't very keen on the place because of a misunderstanding and some overreaction on my part but I'm glad the ex-reviewer convinced me otherwise. The fish was incredibly fresh and well-cooked and the feni smooth and light. Coupled with the lovely ambience, friendly staff, and loquacious owner, I had a really good time there.
I don't think that I'd be doing the Goan experience justice if I didn't mention the alcohol. Especially since a decent effort was expended in the noble pursuit of finding the best local palm or cashew feni. We devoted ourselves to it with such single-minded purpose that we did not suffer a single drop of anything else (but King's) to pass our lips in all that time. Feni is the loveliest high — easy, lazy, and mellow like a summer's day. Pour it over ice, add some sugar (syrup, preferably), sip it gently, and watch the languor unfold. Ah yes, the final verdict on the feni? The best palm feni hands down is at Brittos while the best cashew is available at Alex's.
To end this post, I have just one word of advice. North Goa, long being a tourist haven, has restaurants all over, some of which are run by the most unlikely suspects. As far as possible, stay out of shacks and restaurants not run by Goans. Both the service and food are likely to be quite bad. Also, there's one recurrent thought — for the life of me, I cannot fathom what a vegetarian would eat in Goa. I don't recall seeing any vegetarian Goan food on any of the menus I studied, either on or off the beaches. The ex-reviewer's more worried about the poor teetotallers but I, being driven by my stomach, am terrified for the vegetarians.
I've gone through over 500 photos from Goa and would you believe it, I cannot find more than these two photos of the food!! There's only one more and it's a remains-of-the-plate sort of one. There are assorted cats, dogs, hoardings, and hazy beaches, but no food. I suppose I was too busy to take photos, no? :-)