Restaurant Reviews

Gem on Jones

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.

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.