Portuguese Palate

Houstonians get a taste straight from the home country.

 Check out Portugallia's lush patio and elegant dining room in our slideshow.

Sunday afternoon at Portugallia is the place to be in Houston if you're Portuguese, Angolan, Brazilian — or just hungry. The glass-walled restaurant, which looks out onto a verdant patio filled with waterfalls to cleverly disguise the roar of traffic on Westheimer, was nearly full the Sunday afternoon that I went with my family for a post-church lunch. Apparently, all of the other customers had the same idea: Everyone was in their Sunday best as large tables of families crowded in.

Soft plinks and chords echoed off the tall ceilings as Rodrigo Gambao, a guitarist from Spain, played a mixture of classical and traditional Spanish songs as he does every Sunday starting at noon. All around us, waiters in crisp black-and-white arrived bearing trays with flourishes: a steaming pot of arroz de mariscos for one table, a steak topped with lobster for another, glasses of mimosas all around.

Soon, trays with those same dishes were delivered to our own table — clearly, we'd chosen the popular items off the menu. Seeing the size of the arroz de mariscos, I was suddenly grateful that our sweet young waitress had stopped me from ordering another entrée: It wasn't only big enough to feed two people, as she'd warned; it was enough food for four.

The arroz de mariscos is a popular dish.
Troy Fields
The arroz de mariscos is a popular dish.

Location Info


Portugallia Restaurant & Lounge

12126 Westheimer Road
Houston, TX 77077

Category: Restaurant > Portuguese

Region: Memorial


Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays, 11 a.m. to midnight Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.
Caldo verde: $6.95
Pasteis de massa tenra: $7.95
Chickpea salad: $8.95
Foie gras: $10.95 Costuletas de porco grelhadas: $14.95
Arroz de mariscos: $18.95
Steak with lobster: $22.95

SLIDESHOW: Portuguese Gets Gussied Up at Portugallia
BLOG POST: Take a Staycation at Portugallia

Our waitress worked in tandem with another server — you're never at a loss for service here — to plate the rice for us, topping each cumin-hued mound with lobster claws, head-on shrimp and crab still in the shell. I looked down, and found she'd already swiftly sneaked lobster forks and crackers into our place settings without even realizing it.

"They're good," I chuckled as we finally regarded the finished dishes in front of us. My boyfriend and I eventually ate far more than our share, the stubby grains of arborio rice soaking up all the briny, buttery juices of the seafood like a Portuguese paella.

Across the table, my father was already eagerly tucking into his lobster-topped steak, while my mother delicately flaked off pieces of a downy sea bass. The steak was not a promised filet mignon at all, and was in fact thin and tough in parts, while the lobster on top looked suspiciously like langostino — maybe a bait and switch, although at only $23 it wasn't the worst sin I've ever seen committed. The sea bass, on the other hand, more than impressed.

"This is the best sea bass I've ever had," my mother finally spoke. "Anywhere." It was perfectly cooked stuff, too, its tender flesh gently sautéed until barely done. The lemon butter on top tasted as simply delicate as the fish, and there was just enough of it on the plate to finish swiping up with a few bites of roasted potatoes.

Houston doesn't have many Portuguese restaurants, but the few we have are pretty good. Portugallia joins Oporto Cafe & Wine Bar on that short roster. And while they have a few similarities — both make great date-night spots, both serve strong cocktails and both have plenty of Portuguese standards on the menu — there is a lot to differentiate them, too. The Angolan ownership of Portugallia is just one of those things.

Owners Paulo and Isabel Dias, first-time restaurateurs, both have Angolan heritage. Isabel is from the West African country herself, which was a Portuguese colony for nearly half a millennium. While there are no Angolan dishes on the menu yet, she hopes to get that side of the menu up and running soon. In the meantime, the Diases — along with their chef, Carlos Soares — are focusing on acclimating Houston's palates to Portuguese food.

Portuguese food can, in fact, be a little funky if you're not used to the flavors. Although my mother loved her sea bass, she wasn't a fan of the flavors in the arroz de mariscos: smoky-sweet paprika, a smattering of bay leaves, quite a bit of garlic. More jarring was the ultra-briny taste of salted cod in the pasteis de massa tenra, fine and flaky pies filled with minced beef and a bit of that salted cod for flavor.

But salted cod — or bacalhau — is as vital to Portuguese cuisine as rice and beans are to Mexican cuisine. The saying in Portugal is that there are 1,001 ways to make bacalhau, and you'll find several of them here in a wealth of different forms: fried into cakes and served with potatoes, mixed into a musty-smelling chickpea salad, grilled and topped with bacon, oven-roasted and served with grilled vegetables, or as a pimentão-topped filet with plenty of garlic and pepper. And, yes, sometimes also in meat pies.

The chickpea salad permutation ended up being my favorite — it's also the most strongly flavored of the set, sharing the same odoriferous-ness that I love in a funky washed-rind cheese or a hot pot full of stinky tofu. The chickpeas still had a little bit of give to them, a delightful little snap that was brightened even further by the strong taste of the dried, salted cod.

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Looking forward to trying it- hope they eventually do serve Angolan cuisine. Not to get picky, but Angola is considered southern African, not western. (It's a member of SADC, Southern Africa Development Community.)