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A large party at the front of the restaurant is getting a lot of attention. A Taste of Portugal's chef jokes with them as he carries dishes out to their table. You just don't see that kind of personal touch in a Houston restaurant anymore. "What a find!" I muse, watching from a table in the back. I had heard that chef and owner Jorge Fife was a real character, and I was looking forward to meeting him.
The first time I came in, Fife had already left for the evening. That was the night a friend and I tried his awesome sardinhas assadas, whole sardines grilled with green peppers, garlic and olive oil, and served with boiled potatoes. The fish are much bigger than the little ones you get in a can. They have a delightfully bitter fish flavor -- sort of like unagi, the freshwater eel at sushi restaurants, but without the sweet sauce. With some crusty bread to mop up the oil and a crisp white wine, I could have eaten those sardines all night.
Instead, I tried an entrée called porco com améijoas (pork and clams), a dish I knew from the Portuguese restaurants in New England. There, the pork and clams are cooked in a small casserole with a spicy sauce, and rice is served on the side. Here, all the ingredients are mixed together. The pork was tender and the clams were pleasantly chewy, just like in the New England version, but there was too much of the bland rice.
Sardinhas assadas: $6.95
Kale soup: $4.75
Piri piri chicken: $17.95
Baked octopus: $9.50
My friend got a dish I would have passed right over: polvo assado, or baked octopus. I've eaten my share of Italian scungilli, and I've always thought the eight-legged mollusks were a little rubbery. But the tiny octopuses in this dish have been marinated in wine and herbs and baked with potatoes, and they're unbelievably tender. Eaten together with the sauce-soaked potatoes, the tiny baked mollusks are terrific.
I couldn't wait to share this restaurant discovery: The homemade ethnic food, the eccentric chef, the cozy atmosphere -- it was a food critic's dream. Best of all, hardly anybody knew about the place -- or so I thought, when my companion and I first arrived.
We've been sitting for five minutes or so when the waitress finally comes over.
"Sorry for the delay," she says, "but we have a very special guest tonight."
"Really, who is it?" my date asks.
"He's the chef and owner of the best restaurant in Houston. I think his name is Tony. It's his wedding anniversary."
When the waitress leaves, my date can no longer suppress her laughter. "So much for your undiscovered restaurant," she whispers.
What are Tony Vallone and his anniversary party doing at a 38-seat ethnic restaurant on Jones Road north of 1960? Other than enjoying themselves immensely, I have no idea. But obviously word is spreading about A Taste of Portugal, which has been open only since last July.
After Vallone's gang is taken care of, chef Fife comes over to talk to us. Fife isn't from Portugal; he was raised in Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony known for its beautiful beaches, giant prawns and piri piri chicken. This explains his unusual menu; with curry from India and piri piri from Africa, this restaurant might just as well have been called A Taste of Portugal and its Far-Flung Colonies.
Fife apologizes for the kale soup I've ordered. "It's supposed to have chourico in it, but we ran out," he says. It still tastes good, but it's not the real thing, he says with a shrug. He also advises us on our entrées. "If you like cabrito, you're in luck," he smiles.
Normally Fife makes his cabrito assado only on the weekends, but Vallone's party called in advance to request it. And there happens to be one serving left. I am only too happy to order Tony's leftovers. For my date, who loves spicy food, Fife recommends the piri piri chicken, which is sensational. With a thick coating of the pepper paste, it looks and tastes a little like Jamaican jerk chicken.
In Swahili, "piri piri" is a generic term that refers to all kinds of hot peppers. But the Portuguese associate the name with a particular pepper that closely resembles the tiny native Texan chile pequin. The recipe for piri piri sauce calls for a powdered form of these dried hot peppers diluted with a little paprika and then mixed with olive oil, garlic, salt and oregano. It tastes like a cross between salsa and pesto.
After a few bites of my date's chicken, I'm hooked. Fife brings my goat to the table in a huge crock and invites me to carve it myself. The cabrito has been marinated in white wine and port with onions and garlic, then roasted in the oven for five hours. The meat falls easily off the bone, and I carve several nice chunks from the shoulder joint. The crock also holds potatoes and onions that have been cooked with the goat. The roasted cabrito is lovely, but it's a subtle flavor and my taste buds are screaming for more piri piri sauce. I ask Fife if I can have a little on the side.
"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.
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.