Restaurant Reviews

Portuguese Palate

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.

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.

Portugallia also has an impressive little arsenal of Portuguese wine, including the all-important Vinho Verde, meant to be drunk young and complement the salty fish. It's among 13 different Portuguese wines the restaurant imports, in addition to most of their food. Cured meats, sausage, ham, cured fish, specialty beverages, olive oil and even some of the seasonings — all come from Portugal, and all make a significant difference in the way the food tastes. Also imported from Portugal: the talented Chef Soares, who came recommended by Paulo's brother.

But that's just one of the reasons Portugallia has become so popular with Houston's Portuguese-speaking diaspora. The comforting caldo verde is another reason Portugallia packs them in.

The traditional Portuguese soup is made with kale, potatoes and chouriço, the Portuguese version of the pork sausage better known here as chorizo. The chouriço in the soup comes, of course, from Portugal, and is much milder than the fatty, orange-greased breakfast taco stuffing we know and love in Houston. It gives the potato puree — which is softened further with plenty of olive oil and a bloom of garlic — just the right touch of salt and savory flavor, and it's easy to see why the soup is now considered one of the country's national dishes.

There are many more reasons you'll find Portugallia consistently full: Salsa night on Fridays is one. The restaurant stays open until 2 a.m. these nights — a much more Iberian dining and partying timetable than you'd normally find in West Houston — and stays packed the entire time. By day, the place fills up with people like owner Paulo Dias — who's also an oil company exec — out for nice business lunches. Portugallia ably switches gears between both sets of guests.

While the service is never anything but capable and friendly, I do worry sometimes that there's a disconnect with the kitchen. Order the foie gras, for example, and what you'll actually get is pâté. The servers may or may not know any better — especially since the menu calls it "foie gras" — but they'll insist that what you've received is foie gras nevertheless. It's a shame, too, because the pâté itself is great, with a sharp liver tang to it that's livened up by a salty-sweet, exceptionally good tomato-plum compote I wish Portugallia would sell by the jar. I'd buy a case of it.

But minor complaints like these vanish when I recall a dinner in which the eager waitress saw how much our table was enjoying the costuletas de porco grelhadas — pork cutlets with an outstanding creamy mushroom sauce — and swiftly brought out another huge gravy boat full of the sauce. We stopped short of licking the plate and began dipping our fries (house-made and fresh cut, another bonus) straight into the gravy boat with glee while our waitress giggled at our excitement.

And just imagine: Portugallia hasn't even started serving its Angolan dishes yet. I've waited a long time for Houston to get more Portuguese food, and an even longer time to find West African food in an upscale setting. Portugallia is intent on making both of those dreams a reality, and I'm intent on supporting it every step of the way.

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Katharine Shilcutt