Ode: The Sardine Conserva at Cart-Driver
We were perched haphazardly at a tippy table with mismatched chairs in a little corner spot at the top of a cobblestoned alleyway in Porto and it was 900 hundred degrees outside but just a little bit cooler where we’d been seated next to an oscillating fan. The menu was minimal, but the wine list was stellar. And we were sipping from glasses of cold vinho verde while the server brought us can after can of seafood. We were stoked.
None of us thought it was weird to order tinned treats at a restaurant, because the sides — breads, crackers, relishes, sauces, butters — and the delights themselves — sardines, smoked mussels, squid, spicy gar — were all delicious and refreshing and perfect for an afternoon snack before dinner.
It brought a tear to my eye, missing the sardines and butter at A Coté, my second home for so many years. That dish got Simone into the fishy goodness of canned seafood. In fact, she was more excited about the sardines I brought back from Porto in 2019 than the tchotchkes I’d picked out for her.
This trip, I packed so many cans of Portuguese sardines, I was a little worried my rollaboard would be over the weight limit.
One thing about canned seafood is that you really can discern a difference in taste and quality if you’re paying attention. Another thing is that the accoutrements accompanying the rolled-back tin will make or break the experience.
So thank goodness Cart-Driver (in the old Z space of course, but also in RiNo) does conserva so well. Their puffy piada bread comes out warm and pliant — you tear off a piece and spread the seasonal butter on it before stabbing a chunk of silvery fish and smearing it on top. Then you finish with a dab of salty, spicy sambal and try to get it all into your mouth before the oil and melted butter slide off the bread and down your arm.
If there’s any piada left after the sardines are gone (or you’ve ordered a supplemental loaf), you get to dip it into the can to sop up every last drop of the remaining oil. If you have one of their pizzas on hand, maybe you pour the oil over a slice, just because you can.
These aren’t the Safeway sardines you can buy for a buck in the canned meats aisle — these imports tend to be more mild, more tender, and particularly shiny. But if you’re not into fishy flavors, they’re still probably not your thing.
And that’s okay, because it just means more for the rest of us.