I recall an early-summer evening in Lisbon, sitting at a weathered wooden table in a cool, airy bistro, sipping wine, snacking on garlicky shrimp and tender octopus as the sunset reflected off the stained glass of the mosque across the street, filling the café with a rose-gold glow…
Oh, wait. Sorry.
That wasn’t Lisbon. It was Jersey City—and the authentic, classically Portuguese bistro was Broa Café. Situated just below street level in the epicenter of Jersey City’s downtown renaissance, Broa (named for the traditional Portuguese cornbread it sometimes serves) fits inconspicuously among the hipster coffee bars, the outdoor concerts near the Grove Street PATH station, and the higher-profile restaurants of the broadly international food scene.
The owner and executive chef, Michael Casalinho, 34, was born in Newark, the son of Portuguese immigrants. Growing up, his first jobs were in the Portuguese restaurants of the Ironbound. During high school, he bused tables at Sol Mar, one of the best-known places in the Ironbound, and later rose to server there. He often lamented that American restaurants lacked what he calls “the intimate, quaint, handmade feel of the neighborhood taverns” he knew from his family’s frequent trips to Portugal. After taking cooking classes at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan, Casalinho, at 21, opened his first restaurant as a partner in Cafe Opcão (“options”) in the Ironbound. An eclectic place, it served traditional plates as well as burgers, pastries, smoothies and acai bowls (before anyone had heard of acai bowls).
Although Opcão was popular and busy, Casalinho sold his share after a few years. “I felt I wanted to reach a broader audience,” he says. “You can find great food in the Ironbound, but the restaurants are almost industrial, with huge portions, dozens of guys working. That’s not how we eat in Portugal. Tapas, what we call petiscos, is how we eat. I wanted to give people the experience of places I remembered from childhood.”
On our recent trip to Lisbon, my spouse and I fell in love with exactly those kind of places. Stepping onto the tilework of Broa’s front patio, noticing the herbs growing in stone pots along the stairs, the old cookbooks and bric-a-brac piled on worn, wooden shelves, the heady aromas emanating from the kitchen, we felt transported back to the Portuguese capital. As you walk in, note the menu written on a chalkboard (there are no printed menus, so take a photo as you pass by), and reflect on how much money you are saving in airfare.
Casalinho’s recreation of Portugal is nearly molecular; the tile, the plates, the olive oil, the salt, the patchwork bread bag made by his grandmother, even the seafood he picks up at the airport—it all comes from Portugal. The interior will convince you that Broa has been in business for a century, but it opened only five years ago. It would have opened seven years ago, but just weeks before the big day—bam, Hurricane Sandy hit. Everything was under 5½ feet of water. After two years of regrouping and rebuilding, with no help from FEMA but plenty from the landlord (who generously offered rent abatements until the place got back on its feet), Broa finally opened its doors.
Our waiter, Tiago, a jovial, bearded bro, set an easygoing tone. The menu offers a daily selection of petiscos. You’ll certainly encounter clams. On one visit, they were long, slender, deliciously sweet razor clams in a cilantro-tinged butter-and-wine sauce. A subcategory is rissois, which include turnovers (shrimp, chicken, suckling-pig), croquettes (veal-and-chorizo) and fritters (cod). All are delicious, and the rotating selection adds to the appeal of coming back often.
Camarao ao alho (garlic-butter shrimp) are a fixture on the blackboard. The mellow garlic aroma arrives at the table a good 30 seconds before the plate is set down. Served with rice, this is Portuguese comfort food. Another dish you can count on every night is polvo lagareiro, octopus poached and braised in olive oil—soft, thick tentacles served with silky, whole smashed potatoes and wilted greens (usually collards or broccoli rabe). It’s unusual and rewarding to encounter octopus that isn’t charred. The oil braise enhances the subtle flavor of the tentacles with peppery green-olive notes, and it works similar magic on the accompanying potatoes and greens, teasing out sweetness in the former and delicate bitterness in the latter. At $32, the polvo is usually the priciest item on the menu. But remember what you’re saving on airfare.
A length of housemade chorizo was presented on a ceramic grill over a pool of flaming aguardiente, the Portuguese moonshine distilled from wine, a cousin of grappa. It burned just long enough to impart an appealing crackle to the sausage skin. Smoky, meaty and bar-snack salty, the chorizo made me wish I’d brought beer instead of wine. But our dry rosé lambrusco nicely complemented an order of pentinga—fresh sardines given an herb-salt rub, a dusting of flour, fried crisp and eaten whole. Absolutely the most delicious way to get your daily calcium.
Casalinho says that timing is as important to Portuguese cooking as good ingredients and simplicity. No dish epitomizes this more than caldeirada delula, a traditional squid stew. The ingredients are simple (bell peppers, garlic, onion, bay leaf, cilantro, gold potatoes, vinho verde and wild-caught squid), but each element must enter the pot at just the right moment to culminate in the intense squidness of this golden bouillabaisse.
Frade and grāo are cold bean salads—black-eyed pea and chickpea, respectively. Served in large mason jars, they stay on the table as other plates come and go. Crisp celery in the grāo and sweet green apple in the frade provide refreshing counterpoint to the spices.
The one dessert always on the menu is pasteis de nata, egg-custard tarts. Broa often has another option, such as flan or baked apples. But do not skip the pasteis—warm and flaky, filled with vanilla-scented, slightly wobbly custard, lightly torched on top. When we were in Lisbon, we spent a lot of time running from bakery to bakery searching for the best examples.
If only we’d known, we could have saved enough time to take in another museum or historic site. Because it turns out the best pasteis de nata are right here, at Broa in Jersey City.
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