the spot: Portugalia Restaurant & Bar 280 1/2 Ferry St. Newark NJ 07105
the eats: Cod Fritters, Clams with Garlic Sauce, Angus Rump Steak in thyme sauce
the bucks: $20-$40 a person, but big portions too.
the full nelson: an affordable culinary adventure and one of my new fav restaurants
Back in NYC. Kinda.
A few weeks ago I found myself in what some might consider a random part of the NYC dining scene: Newark NJ. I was in town to shoot a show at a studio in Newark, flew into Newark airport and the turnaround I had made trekking into the city too much of a schlep. Sounds a touch weak sauce for a guy who is built for culinary adventures, but it turns out culinary adventures sometimes happen in the unlikeliest of circumstances.
Ironbound: an enclave of Portuguese eats.
Some internet digging and local intel pointed to one of the less talked about food scenes in America: Portuguese food. I was mostly unaware of its presence until I was working on a Food Network series back in 2012 called $24 in 24. In that show we went to Boston and discovered Portuguese diners. I was fascinated and also hungry. I was not the host of the show(that was actually Jeff Mauro), so I never got to try the food first hand. Well cut to 2021 and I would have my chance.
First move: have a beer and talk to a stranger.
Portugalia has a dining room and a bar. I poked my head into the dining room and it was clear that the bar is where a solo diner should go. The bar was packed with locals and many were speaking in Portuguese, clearly a good sign. But that also meant that my window for a learning curve was short. In these types of joints, you can stick out like a sore thumb with a ton of questions. So what do you do? Order a Portuguese beer and tell the bartender that this is your first rodeo.
If there are Cod fritters, order them.
Years ago I was researching about the history of food for Alton Brown and came across Mark Kurlansky’s book “Salt”. The book is a fascinating look into the wars and empires that were waged and built back when spices were as valuable as crude oil. One chapter highlighted the Portuguese and their dominance of the seas thanks to salt by way of salt curing cod as food for long transatlantic sails. Bachalau would become cherished in their cuisine and nudged me to order these cod fritters.
Whatever you do, don’t think of these as fish sticks. Cod, potato, eggs and onion combine forces for a crunchy, savory rich bite of the sea. And it goes so, so well with beer.
Clams that are worth the clams.
Here and there I will find the need to satisfy a craving for moules frites but minus the frites because making french fries at home is a pain in the a**. It’s a remarkably simple dish that delivers a casual elegance. These clams are the Portuguese version of moules frites(minus the frites) with pointed notes of garlic. In fact the slivers of garlic cloves that swam in the bottom of the broth were enormous. But the dish didn’t overwhelm with garlic. The clams, the broth and some bread and I could have called it quits.
But where’s the adventure in that?
Fate had other plans
This is the owner of Portugalia. As I was feasting away I was also posting my experience on Instagram stories. The gentleman above came up to my spot at the bar and handed me his phone. His daughter was on and explained that she runs the social media and wanted to thank me for posting. While not necessary as this is simply what I do, the gesture to say thank you hit me in the sweet spot. And then I decided to stick around for another beer and maybe one more bite of the menu.
A steak sized for two. Barely priced for one.
So after a second beer and some chatting with the bartender and my neighbors seated at the bar, I decided to dig into the entrée section. I’m a steak guy to a fault. At this point I know better than to get a steak at a restaurant whose food culture is defined by the sea, but you know what? Steak hits the sweet spot.
This is an Angus Rump steak in a thyme sauce. At least that’s what the menu said. What it didn’t say was that it would be covered in house fried potato chips, a fried egg and a pickled vegetable condiment not unlike giardiniera. This steak ate like a NY strip, albeit one with a toothsome chew. The sauce was not too far off from the garlic sauce found with the clams.
I loved this steak. But I could also imagine some might be turned off by the toughness. This steak reminded me of the ones I would get at Los Angeles’ famed Pantry, where at nearly all hours you can get a thick cut steak for a semi reasonable price, certainly when compared to the big ticket steakhouses in town. This kind of steak is a rare breed: a hefty portion but not one as tender or as carefully sourced as one would find at the farm to table type restaurants. This steak was also $22. And it was enough for two. At least it felt that way because at this point I felt like I was eating for two.
The place made me feel like Bourdain.
If you’re not jealous by now, this might positively infuriate you: that sweet man pictured above picked up my tab. Of course he insisted and of course I fired back with a “not necessary, please.” But at this point, you know how it goes. Tip your bartender well, walk away and be grateful.
Of the many posts I write to simply document my culinary escapades, Portugalia was a true adventure. I straight up felt like Anthony Bourdain eating at this place, which should tell you the most important part of my experience: it was an experience. I walked into a strange place. I didn’t know the food nor the language. I stumbled, I took a risk, I drank a beer and struck up conversation. I was treated to a meal. I heard stories and gained a touch of insight to a community that flies under the radar for many NYC tourists. And that steak.
Keep this one in the files. Portugalia is a unique place if you’re a stranger to Newark or for any American who has yet to visit Portugal. Going here reminded me of exploring the unsung corners of Los Angeles 20 years ago when I started my journey writing about food, drifting in to a non descript Lebanese Armenian kabob shop like a wannabe Jonathan Gold. You take on a cuisine you have yet to try. If the fates will it, you will walk away with a smile and a new craving.