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Gem on Jones

Get to A Taste of Portugal before Tony Vallone tells everybody about it

"My palate has been ruined by the piri piri chicken," I explain. "Now I have no choice but to eat my goat with the hot sauce."

"I've never heard of eating cabrito with piri piri sauce," Fife says in befuddlement. Of course, the goat in Africa has a lot more flavor than the mild stuff he gets at Fiesta, he reasons. I tell him that we eat cabrito tacos with salsa all the time here in Texas. Eventually he gives in. I pour a little sauce onto my bread plate and start dunking the goat. The combination is outstanding. After Fife tries some himself, he enthusiastically agrees.

Once Tony and company have shoved off, Fife pulls a chair up to our table and makes all three of us a bizarre Mozambique cocktail called catembe, which consists of half red wine and half Coca-Cola. Then he tells us the story of how he came to Houston.

Chef and owner Jorge Fife serves up flaming chourico and scintillating conversation.
Troy Fields
Chef and owner Jorge Fife serves up flaming chourico and scintillating conversation.

Details

281-469-8691. Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.

Sardinhas assadas: $6.95
Chourico: $6.95
Kale soup: $4.75
Piri piri chicken: $17.95
Baked octopus: $9.50
Feijoada: $8.75

11650 Jones Road

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He had moved to South Africa and built a successful import business there, but eventually concluded that it was no longer a good place to raise children. Crime is out of control, and the police are willing to look the other way for embarrassingly small sums of money, says Fife. Murder, rape, you can get away with anything in South Africa, he says. So he and his wife decided to move the family to Texas. He got a visa because he opened his own business.

"Why Texas?" I wonder.

"Because Texas is tough on crime," says Fife. "In the guidebook we bought when we visited, it said, 'The police in Texas are trigger-happy.' I said to my wife, 'That's the place for us.' "


My friend Paul Galvani and I went back to A Taste of Portugal for lunch one Saturday afternoon. Galvani has been to South Africa on many occasions, and he and Fife hit it off immediately. Before long, the chef had opened a special bottle of wine. And we drank it with the imported Portuguese chourico he recommended as an appetizer. The thick sausage was cut into segments and served in an odd clay pot that holds the meat suspended over alcohol flames. The whole time, Fife and Galvani bantered about their favorite South African beaches, wines and restaurants. We were the only customers in the place.

I ordered feijoada, the national dish of both Portugal and Brazil. I knew the black bean version from Brazil -- in fact, I had always assumed the dish originated there. But it turns out that the Portuguese is the original. Fife's hearty version is made with butter beans, pork, chicken, green peppers, onions and tomatoes. It's very tasty, but like the pork and clams, it comes already mixed with too much rice.

Galvani got another weekend special: bacalhau. We're both fond of the curious fish called salt cod in English, bacalhau in Portuguese and bacaloa in Italian. Portuguese ships were the first to successfully exploit the Grand Banks, once the richest fishing area in the world. The fish were salted and dried in Newfoundland before being shipped back home. Portuguese salt cod became enormously popular in Europe when the Catholic Church banned meat on Fridays. To cook it, a smelly, dried chunk of the stuff has to be soaked in water for hours in order to remove enough salt to make it edible.

Some salt cod dishes are intensely flavored, and many die-hard fans like the stuff very salty. But at A Taste of Portugal, you don't need to be that brave. Fife's bacalhau is mild; the dried fish is shredded and mixed with potatoes and caramelized onions. It reminds me of the Jewish breakfast dish lox and eggs, but with potatoes instead of eggs. We ate bread dipped in piri piri sauce on the side. We even coaxed Fife into breaking out a little Portuguese cheese for us to taste as we finished the bottle of wine.

"This is like going over to somebody's house for dinner," Galvani laughed. According to Fife, that's what makes Portuguese restaurants different from American ones. "You'll never see a cash register in a nice Portuguese restaurant," he said. "Sure, you're going to pay for your meal, but there's no reason to remind you of it. And let me tell you another thing about Portuguese hospitality: When you call and book a table in my restaurant, that is your table for the whole night. We are not in the business of turning over tables here."

For dessert, we had a "tipsy tart," a spectacular moist cake made with dates and brandy and served in a pool of cream. And we washed that down with a couple of espressos. All told, the meal took a little over two hours, and it was the most enjoyable lunch I've had in years.

I wonder how A Taste of Portugal's charm will survive the restaurant's impending popularity. Will chef Fife still have time to sit down at your table and chat when the place is packed? Will the food still be good? Only time will tell. Too bad Tony Vallone discovered this find, too. You know he's gonna blab it all over town.

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