Poetry with Professora Elizabeth: A Cozinha da Avo

Portuguese school is coming to an end for the year. After driving my children through the gauntlet of conjugating -ar, -er, and -ir verbs (along with the lonely pôr, the only -or verb) in the present tense, I wanted to take it easy for the remaining weeks.

Then I got a text message from the preschool teacher.

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Where To Go While You’re Waiting For a Reservation to Adega

San Jose's Little Portugal has seen better days.
San Jose's Little Portugal has seen better days.

Greetings, fellow Bay Area foodies. By now, you’ve heard that San Jose got it it’s first Michelin-starred restaurant: Little Portugal’s Adega. You’re probably dying to get a reservation, right? Yeah, you and everyone else—including yours truly, who’s been putting off going for nearly a year.

If I’m stuck waiting for my reservation with the rest of you, then let me tell you where you should be eating while you’re waiting for your reservation at Adega.

Bacalhau Grill/Trade Rite Market:

Translation: Bacalhau is the Portuguese word for codfish, the Portuguese national dish. It used to be that a woman wasn’t allowed to get married until she knew how to make bacalhau 365 ways: one for each day of the year. You can’t have Portuguese Christmas Eve dinner without bacalhau on the table. However, it’s not the fresh cod you’re used to having in your fish and chips. Instead, it’s preserved in salt and canned.

What you should order: Treat this place as your homework before you go to the Adega and you’ll see why they earned that star. Bacalhau and Bife à Portuguesa (think Portuguese style steak frites) are always on the menu, while Carne de Porco Alentejana (Pork Alentejo style) is a rotating special. These dishes are elevated into something special on Adega’s menu, but it’s important to know the classics first.

From Trade Rite Market, I can’t recommend São Jorge cheese enough. Cheese from Topo is fine, but grab the cheese from Beira if it’s there. I probably know and just might be related to the owner of the cow it came from.

Trade Rite Market dates back to 1945.

Trade Rite Market dates back to 1945.

Padaria Popular:

Translation: This bakery didn’t win a popularity contest. Or did it, because it’s the last one standing in Little Portugal?

What you should order: Queijadas, or Portuguese tarts. One of each flavor. Seriously.

If you must choose just one, definitely get the classic pastel de nata, or custard. The best ones are found in the Belem neighborhood of Lisbon, but these are cheaper than a trans-Atlantic flight. But who says you have to choose? My favorite flavor of queijada is orange, but if you’re feeling adventurous, the bean flavored queijada is for you.

So many flavors, so little time.

So many flavors, so little time.

Cafe do Canto:

Translation: This cafe is on the corner of 33rd and Alum Rock, giving it its name: the Cafe on the Corner. It definitely takes me back to the neighborhood cafes you’ll find all over Portugal, whether it’s my family’s village in the Azores or tucked into a side street in Lisbon. Keep in mind that this place is as old school as it gets, so bring cash.

What you should order:  As someone who drinks more than her share of Starbucks sugar-bombs (all hail the Salted Caramel Mocha!), I surprise people when I order just a shot of espresso. That’s what you get when you order um cafezinho in Portugal, and Portuguese coffee doesn’t need fancy syrups to cover up bitter beans. If you’re hungry, grab a queijada as a snack or a linguiça sandwich.

This blog post is brought to you by the only coffee I ever drink black.

This blog is brought to you by passion fruit soda, Portuguese pastries, and the only coffee I ever drink black.

Why Little Portugal?

You might be surprised to hear that San Jose has a Little Portugal. You probably remember when Little Saigon was in the news, but Little Portugal? Whenever I mention the community to other San Jose natives, I usually get a blank stare. Maybe if I bring up Five Wounds Church, its white and red bell towers a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sight along US 101 as you approach the 280/680 interchange, I’ll get a few vague nods.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a neighborhood that feels more Little than like Portugal got lost in a city of over a million people; there aren’t even that many Portuguese there anymore. The changes have come in that slow and steady way that makes the end feel inevitable.

Growing up in the 90s, there were four Portuguese bakeries on Alum Rock Avenue: Five Star Bakery was across the street from Fast Bicycle, Faial Bakery was on Alum Rock and Jose Figueres, and Padaria Açoreana, along with all the other businesses in the building across the street from the Mexican Heritage Plaza, was kicked out for renovations. (The newly renovated and repainted building currently stands empty and covered by graffiti.) Only Padaria Popular remains, just a few doors down from Adega.

In my Portuguese classes this year, I have about a dozen 7 to 11-year olds in one class. It’s a decent uptick from last year’s seven or so kids per week. We expanded to a second class for younger children this school year; that teacher has a handful of students. It’s a far cry from when I was one of dozens of children in three or four classrooms at Five Wounds.

The purple banners that used to line the streets, covered in grapes and reading Little Portugal in gold have long since faded and been replaced with new banners in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese urging you to Shop Alum Rock. Of course, that’s only happening because VTA has torn up Alum Rock Avenue, leaving a gash running down the heart of a neighborhood that’s already dying a death of a thousand cuts.

In the face of this slow decline, seeing Adega literally become a star in a neighborhood I thought was fading fast made me more proud that I had any right to be. I’ve never been there. I probably won’t be able to go there for a while.

However, I have been in and out of Little Portugal for over thirty years. My childhood was spent in Portuguese classes on Monday and Wednesday nights, Mass every Sunday, catechism on Saturday mornings, and dance practice at Grupo de Carnaval more nights than I can count. I know what Little Portugal has been.

Adega offers a glimpse of what Little Portugal can be. I’ll end with some words Content Magazine shared from Carlos Carreira, one of Adega’s owners:

“We looked at other options, other locations,” Carlos recalls. “Ultimately this made the most sense. For years this area was known—and still is—as Little Portugal. So it made the most sense to have an authentic Portuguese restaurant in what for so many people is—and hopefully will be again—Little Portugal. I think that’s actually been one of the keys to our success. We are meeting everyone’s expectations, in part because no one is expecting such a nice place here.”

I’m one of those people hoping for what Little Portugal can be again. Don’t just come for one meal—come explore our community.

Breakfast Burrito of Disappointment

It’s 9:00 in the morning and I’ve melted into my favorite armchair (gray, pleather, extra squishy) in the English student lounge. In true super senior fashion, I’m only just finishing my reading for my afternoon class, Anne Fadiman’s familiar essay on ice cream. Since breakfast so far has only consisted of a coffee I grabbed from my K-cup machine as on my way out the door to catch the 22 on time, of course I’m hungry. But what could possibly make me rise from the womblike caress of my armchair? Oh, right: La Victoria is right across the street.

As I rise from my armchair, I start thinking about rituals. Last year, the early morning text of “Breakfast burrito?” from David would bring a smile to my face. I didn’t have class until 10:30 or noon, but I usually made it on campus long before, because breakfast burritos are 3.25 before 11 am and we always got our fix together. Chorizo and egg with a Mexican Coke for me, bacon and egg with a Squirt for him.

Alas, time passes, change is inevitable, and my partner in crime and burritos has graduated. I climb up the steps of the Victorian house of burritos and orange sauce alone.

My order has changed, too. No more Coke with real cane sugar (I’m pretty sure I can taste the difference, but that smoother sweetness might just as easily be placebo effect induced.) “Cheese?” the woman at the register asks. She flinches when I say, “No, thank you,” for the first time. The soda and the cheese have been sacrificed on the altar of my attempt to be healthier this school year.

There’s no line, so it’s not long before I’m peeling away the layer of crinkly aluminum to reveal the warm bundle of breakfast. The first bite is more tortilla than anything else, but I like the chewy doughiness of it. Rice and chorizo are revealed within, but I take a moment to anoint my breakfast with a few drops of orange sauce. Things could easily go wrong here. Too much, and my nose will run and my eyes will tear up because I have stereotypically white girl spiciness tolerance (ie: none). Too little, and what’s the point? However, because this is a routine, I’ve figured out my ideal dose. Four drops per bite is enough.

Without cheese melting into the rice and chorizo to bind it all together, the chorizo has migrated to the bottom and all I’m getting is rice. Frustrated, I add more orange sauce, and the waterworks begin. If David were here, he would have told me to compromise: leave the Coke but get the cheese. He would have been right, too.

I’ve used up my napkins wiping my nose, and so there’s nothing left to clean up my hands as the grease from the accumulated chorizo begins to ooze past the layers of tortilla and foil and onto my hands. I think about getting up to get more napkins, but I am still hungry so I shove the grease soaked nub of tortilla at the bottom into my mouth.

The savagery of the gesture is soon contrasted to how gingerly I hold my hands away from me. The white shirt I put on this morning, the one so thin and delicate that I almost put a camisole under it because I wasn’t 100% sure I couldn’t see my bra through it, is one wrong move away from being a canvas for bright orange chorizo fat.

I nearly avoided disaster, but a greasy napkin falls out of my hand. I start to calculate the time it would take me to get home, change, and get back to class. There’s time. Probably. I can risk it.

None of this would have happened if David were here, though.