Houston has great ethnic foods, but we have one gaping hole -- not a single Portuguese restaurant. Some American cities, like Boston, have large Portuguese communities with dozens of fantastic Portugese restaurants. I have particularly fond memories of cold nights in Boston with hot Portuguese fish stew and Portuguese sausage. But Houston didn't get the Portuguese immigrants, so we don't have a Portuguese restaurant.
Now, at least, we have a Portuguese tapas bar. Oporto Cafe and Wine Bar is on Richmond near Weslayan between Colina's and Pepper tree. It is a funky, narrow space with an old wooden bar, modern minimalist decor, and hip, modern music. At lunch, they serve soups, paninis and pizzettes. At night, they add a tapas menu.
In one visit, I just scratched the surface, but I was impressed. I started with a chicken and rice soup called canja. The key to a simple chicken soup is a great broth. Although chicken broth is not exciting, it is one of those baseline ingredients that demonstrates how much a chef cares about food. This broth is one of those flavorful rich chicken broths you only get from long, slow cooking. The soup has a slightly exotic edge because it has lemon and mint. For a cold winter night, it was both comfortingly familiar and different enough to be interesting.
The tapas item I tried was linguica oporto con batatas -- Portuguese sausage with potatoes, sauteed onion, garlic, porto wine, and piri-piri oil. The sausage was unusual and had a lot of flavor. It consisted of a few slender rings of spicy meat that is much more similar to Spanish morcilla sausage than German sausage or American country sausage. The oil was infused with piri-piri, the Portuguese name for a thin, red pepper. It is flavorful, not that spicy, and is often used in Portuguese sauces. The combination of pepper oil, garlic and sausage added to the base ingredient of roasted potatoes made an exotic, warming dish perfect for a cold winter night.
Oporto has an interesting, inexpensive little wine list. The majority of the wines are Portuguese or Spanish. Because I don't see Portuguese wines enough, and because the price/quality ratio tends to be outstanding, I ordered a glass of red Marques de Borba from the Alentejo region. Most alentejo reds are a blend of grape varietals you probably never heard of -- Periquita, Aragones, and Trincadiera. This one reminded me of a Spanish syrah. It had far more concentrated fruit that wines this cheap usually have.
As I was enjoying this unusual wine, the couple next to me at the bar asked if they could get a California Cabernet Sauvignon and grumbled about the tapas sounding odd. That single moment may explain why we have so little Portuguese food and wine in Houston. Most Houstonians are not aware of Portguese food and wine or just are not interested enough to try it.
Maybe Oporto will change that.