This restaurant is closed.
"Point Loma and Ocean Beach were the traditional centers for the Portuguese in San Diego," said my friend Laura, a native San Diegan, as we settled down to our first meal at Portugalia. "They were tuna fishermen who settled here close to the coast." It's hardly surprising, then, that Jason Nascimento, himself the scion of a New England Portuguese fishing family that relocated here, would choose the neighborhood for his restaurant, Portugalia. More surprising, given local history, is that it's the only Portuguese restaurant in the county.
Portuguese cuisine is best known through its currently chic culinary offshoot from its former colony, Brazil. Unfortunately, the most popular Brazilian genre in the States is not its most alluring or exotic (that is, the lush, spicy tropicalia of Afro-Brazilian Bahian cuisine) but its simple "cowboy cooking" -- the churrascaria or rodizio grilled meat-o-rama (represented locally by Rei do Gado and Samba Grille). Portugalia's current menu includes both Brazilian genres, with several Bahian dishes, along with a new option for a rodizio-style meal of skewered proteins. In addition, it offers the nearly unknown food of the Portuguese homeland, which has plenty to offer. Remember -- it was the world-sailing 16th-century Portuguese, not the Spaniards, who recognized the allure of South America's native hot peppers and spread them to Africa and Asia, causing a revolution in world cuisine and nutrition. Those sailors must have been born foodies -- or at least very food-savvy traders.
The street-face of Portugalia is colorfully painted with Portuguese motifs, and the walls on the flight of stairs up from street level are lined with the flags of the country's many previous colonies in Africa, Asia, and South America, conquered during the age of its seafaring, slave-trading might in the 16th and 17th Centuries. The restaurant itself is a spacious, informal room decorated with strings of Christmas lights. It resembles an ethnic community center, with a dining room at the street end, a bar (next to the kitchen) in the middle, and a dance floor with some chairs and a platform for entertainers in the back. Eclectic music from Portugal's empire -- from fado (Portugal's mellower equivalent of Spanish flamenco) to Cape Verde's Cesária Évora -- plays softly on the sound system. At our first meal, several tables had been set up in the entertainment section to accommodate a party of 40 white-haired Portuguese. Laura asked if they were a tour group. "No," said our waitress, "local people." What the waitress didn't mention was that they'd all waltzed in without a reservation, calling to announce their imminent arrival while already en route to the restaurant. This plunged the kitchen (including Jason) into a frenzy of cutting and cooking as the invasion gobbled its way through the restaurant's food stocks. The food and service that night reflected the panic of dealing with a sudden plague of human locusts (no insult intended to the Portuguese nation, just to nonreserving large parties). My original title for this review was "Amateur Night in Portugal."
Our waitress that evening was a lovely, languid little blonde with an enchanting accent. (She has since flown off to become an air hostess, which is worse luck for passengers but good news for Portugalia's patrons.) When we asked for a wine list, she answered, "Our wines are Portuguese. You want white or red?" We ordered a white to start. It was so-so but cheap ($13). Sometime later we noticed the owner, Jason, a handsome, bearded 31-year-old, bringing a six-bottle rack of reds to a pair of pretty girls at the next table and squatting by their table to describe each wine. The girls split a pizza (compared to our party of five, ordering 13 dishes), but they probably had a good wine with their pie. Fortunately for us, Sam had brought a fine California red with him and got the waitress to open it early, while she was still occasionally paying attention to us.
She steered clear of our table for nearly half an hour until finally bringing us a basket of savory, warm soft rolls. The basket held wrapped butter pats, too, so we didn't have to wait another half hour. A few minutes later, the real food began to arrive. All of it was new and interesting, and much of it was delicious. (Details soon.)
After increasingly frantic calls, I reached Jason by phone a few days later (see "About the Chef"), ready to turn in my review as soon as I'd gotten the interview. He told me about the invasion by the party of Portuguese and about training a brand-new cook from Brazil who usually worked days but was called on to stay for that night's crisis. Even more relevant, he disclosed that shortly after our dinner, he'd totally changed the menu, introducing numerous Brazilian dishes, including several of Bahia's best. Realizing it wouldn't be fair to base a review solely on the Night of the Locusts, particularly with the menu changes, I rushed off to Bite for a last-minute substitute review. Promising Bahian delicacies, I lured the Bite posse (who hadn't suffered the first meal) into a visit to Portugalia early the next week. And that second visit went fine -- better food, much superior service. Even the wine tasted better. (Jason had just changed distributors for his wine, so it was better.) Night and day.
At that visit, a Tuesday, there were only a few occupied tables (but a lot of family members hanging out at the bar, including kiddies), and Jason himself was cooking -- and cooking very well. The food was mainly terrific. We were served by a cheerful, bustling Portuguese-American brunette who knew the menu and the wines, understood the food, and was as professional and efficient as she was helpful.
A number of Portugalia's offerings do double duty (in appropriately sized portions) as both appetizers and entrées, and these are among the kitchen's best dishes. Bolinhos de bacalhau (salt-cod fritters) are superb -- airy, salty puffs of flavor, with a spicy coral dip on the side. You want these, oh yes! Camarãos alhinho consist of large, sweet shrimp dressed in a light garlic sauce (served over a salad in the appetizer version), and they're lovely. Linguiça com batatas and calabresa con batatas are the same dish, basically (linguiça is Portuguese sausage; calabresa is Brazilian). The slices of savory sausage mingle with sautéed potatoes, garlic, onion, herbs, and red peppers. This is better as an appetizer than entrée, because the plethora of potatoes can wear out its welcome, although it was much improved (fewer spuds, more onions) the second night. We also wanted the rissóis de camarão, fried pastry pockets filled with shrimp, but the Portuguese elders had hoovered up the first night's supply, and the pastry wasn't ready on the return visit.