PortugaliaFrom the front façade of Portugalia to the painted inner walls of the dining room, it is impossible to mistake the fact that this restaurant absolutely loves itself, its food, and its culture. Of course, as only slightly cued by the name, Portugalia serves Portuguese food. Located in the Ocean Beach area of San Diego, CA, the restaurant rests near an area known for its Portuguese roots. However, for some unknown reason, there is a serious lack of culture-linked restaurants and bakeries. Portugalia is owner Jason Nascimento’s answer to this and by almost every count it succeeds with its unabashed style and unapologetically rustic, family-rooted dishes. I’ve had the occasion three times to dine at Portugalia. The first was a large birthday celebration for my brother-in-law. The second was a smaller birthday gathering for a friend/co-worker. The third and last time was this past Friday when my family and I had a small dinner. Each of these times, Portugalia has proven itself to maintain the quality of their utterly scrumptious offerings. My favorite of the appetizers, and the first of Portugalia’s food to pass through my lips, was the bolinhos de bacalhau (fried cod fish cakes). There aren’t words to express fully how delicious these are. Not being the biggest fan of seafood (I’m working on it, I’m working on it!), I never expected to gain a voracious appetite for these little gems. For those that do not know, bacalhau is the Portuguese version of salted cod which is preserved and then reconstituted with water for use. Yeah, sounds appetizing, doesn’t it? Well, I was thoroughly thrown for a loop upon taking my first bite of this Portuguese specialty: simple, delicious, and amazing. The linguiça com batatas (Portuguese sausage and potatoes) and the camarão alinho (shrimp in garlic sauce) are divine just as well. In fact, when we had dinner this past Friday evening, we had such a difficult time trying to decide what to eat that we resigned ourselves to just eating several of the appetizers so that we could taste an assortment of these brilliant Portuguese flavors. The only issue that I’ve had with any of their appetizer or entrée offerings was the caldo verde (kale soup with linguiça). Although it was good, I just think that my version of the soup is better, that’s all. I throw in more garlic and crushed red pepper. Perhaps, my caldo verde isn’t authentic? Who knows? Maybe Jason and I can throw down some time and see, eh?

Hero at PortugaliaIn regard to the entrée selection, I’ve had the pleasure of partaking only in two: the espetada Madeirense (Madeiran skewered beef) and the frango assado (chicken marinated in white wine). Both dishes were delectable, but I must pick a favorite and say that the espetada Madeirense is, easily, one of the best beef dishes I’ve ever had the joy to consume. Medallions of beef, skewered and grilled, and served hanging on the skewers themselves: a true beauty in presentation and preparation. My wife, Kim, who normally despises beef, adored the bold flavors and the tender texture. It is plainly obvious when you take your first bite that the preparation is of Portuguese skill and not just about Portuguese skill. I can only relate this story to Italian food and Italian food. There’s Olive Garden and there’s real Italian. The same goes for Portugalia: there’s food that tastes kind of Portuguese and then there’s Portuguese food. Portugalia succeeds in assaulting your tastebuds with the love and culture of Portugal. That is what good food is about, my friends.

As a side note, although not worthy of a mere side note, Jason Nascimento’s mother makes the desserts for Portugalia. Again, taking the extra step to make room in your tummy (or your belt…) for dessert would be well-advised. I’ve had her spice cake, chocolate cake, rice pudding, and passion fruit jello (mousse?). The cakes held their own, but the rice pudding (soft, subtle, and thoroughly satisying) and the passion fruit jello (bright, tart, and refreshing) take the crown for the best desserts. Nothing says home like home made desserts, though, and Portugalia definitely makes desserts worthy of home and anyone’s mother.

Portugalia has proven time and again to be not only the best Portuguese restaurant (Portugalia being the only one), but has proven to be one of the best restaurants in the San Diego area. Yes, the food is indeed that good, but what makes the restaurant stand out is how carefully Jason has paid attention to detail and how authentic the entire experience is. Having lived on Ilha Terceira in the Azores for two years, Portugalia serves as a fond personal recollection for me and a praiseworthy celebration of a people and a culture that I’ve come to love dearly.