The Flavor of Portugal in San Francisco

Not all of us are blessed with wallets packed full of VC money, which can make semiannual foreign trips out of the question. Fortunately for us moderate-income San Franciscans, people from foreign countries come to us, and they bring their food with them, giving us a portal through which we can glimpse their culture.

I’ve lived in California my entire life, but I had no idea there were concentrated communities of Portuguese immigrants and their descendants here until a friend casually mentioned that his native Modesto was one of them. The Central Valley inspires imagery of tanned farmers, right-leaning ideologies, and a whole shitload of cattle, but somehow Portuguese dance halls with their festas and bloodless bullfights have escaped the stereotype.

There’s a certain amount of ignorance on my part at play here, either from my assumption that all Western Europeans have been assimilated and diluted into American culture, or simply because I grew up in a household of mixed heritage and never had a central community with which to associate my own unique culture.

However the answer is simpler than whatever brand of white guilt I’m experiencing: there’s no Portuguese food.

[jump] Food is the window into the soul of a country, and without it, I have no clue about the intricacies of the people who live and breathe that culture. Chinese restaurants might not always be 100 percent authentic, but they’re certainly ubiquitous, and provide an opportunity to learn the stories behind the people who run them. 

In the interest of traveling around the world without leaving the Bay Area, and understanding more about a community that I knew embarrassingly little about, I asked my friend Blake to introduce me to his Portuguese culture. I expected him to recommend a restaurant that had a Portuguese menu item, or suggest a museum I could go to that featured exhibits from a Portuguese artist. I underestimated the depth of passion and pride that many Portuguese and their descendants feel towards their culture.

Within days he had put me in touch with Angela, a friend of his who is extremely active in the Portuguese community. Knowing that I was interested in experiencing Portuguese food, she immediately scheduled a dinner for me with Telmo Faria, one of the Bay Area’s premier chefs (who also happens to be Portuguese).

Faria is the brains and muscle behind the popular pop-up Uma Casa, named for Amália Rodrigues’ song, “Uma Casa Portuguesa,” which conjures the emotion of what it’s like to be in a Portuguese home. He’s in the process of turning that pop-up into a restaurant, which will be the first fully Portuguese restaurant in San Francisco. It will maintain San Francisco culinary sensibilities, which aren’t too far off of what’s normal in Portuguese cuisine.

Telmo told me that “what we call farm-to-table and head-to-toe, it’s just called ‘life’ in Portugal.”

I arrived at the address I was given, a home belonging to Tania who is a friend of Chef Faria and a fellow Portuguese-American. Before going inside I quietly hoped that all the amazing scents wafting throughout the neighborhood originated from the kitchen that I would soon be visiting. They aroused the sensation of dining along the sea during the summer, not in a five-star hotel, but in the kitchen of a friend you wouldn’t think twice about referring to as family.

I made my way inside, happy to have my hopes fulfilled. Telmo greeted me quickly before returning to the stove, with which he interacted in the way a painter does with a canvas. Once indoors, the scents were even more intoxicating, the high ceiling of the kitchen doing nothing to keep the aromas from encompassing me.

All I could think was “holy shit, I have been missing out.”

And this was before I ate anything. I sat down with Blake and Angela while Telmo was busy exercising his craft. They regaled me with tales from their childhoods, from games to traditional meals, all with slight differentiations depending on where their ancestors came from. Everyone jokingly agreed that no matter where in Portugal your family originated, you aren’t truly Portuguese unless you have at least one rooster statues somewhere in your house.

As Telmo is a skilled chef and I was in a Portuguese home, I didn’t have to wait too long to be fed. My appetite was first whet with a taste of Telmo’s homemade malagueta sauce, a tangy concoction of half sweet pepper and half spicy pepper. It was the best thing that’s ever been in my mouth. He promised that once his restaurant opens he will be selling this by the jar, and I promised I would be his first customer.

Next came a dish called polvo guisado, which gave me the chance to eat octopus for the first time. I was scared to try it because octopi are terrifying with their big heads and too-many-legs, but I pushed past my seafood-free upbringing and found the stew dish to be absolutely mesmerizing. We dipped bread in the savory sauce and dined on the potatoes surrounding it, much to the happiness of my taste buds.

Before the next dish came, we debated the pronunciation of Blake’s last name, which was Americanized from its native Portuguese form by immigration officials, back when they did that sort of thing. Everyone agreed that at least for the night, we would use the original pronunciation.

Each subsequent dish made me more and more excited that Chef Faria is going to help make Portuguese food popular in SF. I devoured his modern rendition of a traditional peasant meal, poached eggs with croutons (but better) and summer peas. I basked in the glory of halibut served over a salad of cucumber and tomato, with diced pluots thrown in to really capture the seasonality of the dish. We ended with marinated quail cooked to perfection, paired with collard greens and potatoes; a garlicky, vinegary trio that made me wish I could switch cultures (sorry, Mom and Dad).

The food was unbelievably delicious, but there was so much more to it than just flavor. Every bite spoke to the history and culture of what I was eating, evoking traditional recipes infused with modern culinary practices. There’s no ego in Chef Faria’s food, and there was no pretense in the company gathered. I enjoyed feeling welcomed by this group of strangers who all happily related to one another through their shared heritage.

If this experience is in any way similar to what eating in Portugal is like, and I believe it is, then I’m very excited that this wonderfully unique culture will soon play a bigger role in San Francisco’s restaurant scene.

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