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But when he cooks, he's cookin'! If a meal at Portugalia may be something of a gamble, it's also an adventure, with fascinating dishes to discover and enjoy. Like the old nursery rhyme, when it is good, it is very, very good. With its moderate prices, comfortable atmosphere, and exciting, little-known cuisine, I'm betting that it's worth the risk.

ABOUT THE CHEF-OWNER

"It has been my dream to own a Portuguese restaurant, to enhance the Portuguese community in Point Loma and Ocean Beach and keep the unique traditions alive," writes chef-owner Jason Manoel Agrella Nascimento on Portugalia's website.

Soon after my first dinner at the restaurant, I started phoning Jason for an interview. Evidently, the blonde waitress didn't pass my messages on. (No surprise, she hadn't written down our reservation either.) Five days after the meal, on a Tuesday (not normally a busy restaurant night), I finally reached Jason. "I'm too busy cooking to talk right now," he said, and gave me his cell phone number to call the next afternoon. When I phoned at the specified time, he told me to call back in two hours. (I heard what sounded like a loud foreign-language TV program in the background, but maybe it was his mom yelling at him.) Next three calls, he'd turned the ringer off his cell phone. I left messages on voice mail but received no call-backs. Finally, I tried the restaurant number again. The blonde lied that Jason wasn't there, but he grabbed the phone and was ready to talk at last -- on my ninth attempt to reach him. (For a guy with a degree in international relations, his public-relations acumen seems less than impressive. Restaurant professionals are usually eager to talk to reviewers. Several hot-shot chefs have even taken an hour out of their well-earned vacations to return calls before press deadline.)

"I grew up here in Ocean Beach and Point Loma," he said, speaking rapidly. "There never was a Portuguese restaurant here. My family was from back East, a fishing family. There were a lot of Portuguese restaurants back there. And when I was doing my master's degree thesis in Portugal, I hung out with an aunt, and she taught me a lot of Portugal's cooking -- different meats and so forth, and I always sorted of wanted to do that.

"I'm kind of self-taught. I love to talk to people, and I knew I'd be great with customers. I earned a master's degree in international relations; it really helped me too. When I look at people, what I talk about, I get their interests going and things like that. I tell people a lot about the history and the food, the history of Portugal. I bring in a lot of Portuguese fusion with its previous colonies. I'm the executive chef, I cook three times a week, and the other three nights I have other cooks using my recipes, but I'm always here. The other chefs are all Portuguese or Brazilian. I wanted to keep it as traditional as possible.

"My restaurant's new menu is definitely Brazilian food -- Portuguese food is Brazilian food, but Brazilian food is not Portuguese food. I added everything together. My Portuguese clientele is very happy because I have all the Portuguese staples, six different ways of doing the bacalhau [codfish]...

"We make everything fresh. We're a mom 'n' pop, not a corporation, we don't have bags of stuff premade. I consider myself to be a conductor in an orchestra. Why did I do this? I want my culture to shine, my community to shine, my family to shine. Owning a restaurant, every day you throw a party. Some days, not enough show up -- other days, too many show up."

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