Take a Staycation at Portugallia

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Last year, my favorite Houston restaurant in which to take a staycation -- you know, pretending you're out of town on some food adventure when in fact you've really got $20 in the bank once the meal is over -- was Cafe Mawal.

At this little converted house near the Galleria, it always feels like being invited to a Jordanian family's home for a barbecue complete with skewers of fresh-off-the-grill kebab followed by shisha on the sprawling patio. There's even a large Bedouin goat-hide tent in which to take your meal if you're feeling exceptionally traditional.

These days, I like my staycations at Portugallia, which is also the subject of this week's cafe review. The west Houston restaurant is close enough to Phoenicia Specialty Foods to keep the vibe going after you leave, too. Or, if you choose, you can spend a long afternoon in the sunshine on Portugallia's lush patio, where palm trees provide shade and a tall waterfall disguises the roar of traffic from Westheimer.

I've never been to Portugal myself, although I've spent some time on the southern coast of Spain. And eating out of a copper pot full of arroz de mariscos with a bottle of cool Vinho Verde on the table in the sunshine is sort of how I imagine spending a leisurely afternoon in Portugal might be.

The feeling is enhanced by the authentic touches throughout at Portugallia, whose owners are both Portuguese and Angolan: They ship in a majority of the restaurant's food and wine directly from Portugal, including its cured meats, cured fish, Vinho Verde, olive oil and even some of the seasonings. Even the Portuguese chef, Carlos Soares, is straight from the Iberian peninsula.

On Friday nights, Portugallia stays open until 2 a.m. -- pretty late for this side of town -- as "Latin" night takes over and people dance to salsa music past midnight. And on Sundays, it becomes a boisterously popular spot for both Portuguese and Angolan families to come after church. These are the times that I love Portugallia the most, the times that it feels like I've momentarily left Houston just for an hour or so.

The price of a tank of gas to get down Westheimer is certainly cheaper than a plane ticket, anyway, and you don't have to pay for First Class seating here to get the good food.

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