by Stett Holbrook on Aug 23, 2011
The bacalhau tacos span two cuisines.
When Luis Lourenco was a 12-year-old kid pushing his skateboard down Alum Rock Avenue in east San Jose, the words he heard from every other storefront weren’t “Good morning” or “Buenos dias.” They were “Bom dia.”
The neighborhood just east of Highway 101 was once known as Little Portugal. Depending on what GPS system one uses, the name still turns up on some maps, but today the area might be better called little Michoacan or Little Saigon.
Immigration from Portugal and the Azores has slowed, while immigration from Mexico and Vietnam has soared. While there are still a few businesses that cater to what’s left of the Portuguese community and the striking Five Wounds National Portuguese Church still serves the neighborhood, Little Portugal has gotten a lot smaller.
But you wouldn’t know that if you walked into Lourenco’s Bacalhau Grill and Trade Rite Market. It’s as if nothing has changed. The store and restaurant are Silicon Valley’s premier outlet for all things Portuguese. As the name implies, the year-old restaurant specializes in bacalao, or salt cod, a versatile staple of Portuguese cuisine.
Lourenco makes bacalao fritters, grilled bacalao and bacalao natas, a creamy, delicious casserole of bacalao, potatoes and olives. There’s a wide selection of Portuguese pastries and a fantastic Portuguese wine selection. Soccer plays on the TV, and men sit drinking coffee speaking in Portuguese.
Lourenco is motivated by national and neighborhood pride, but he also wants to appeal to the broader Portuguese-speaking community. A few weeks ago, he was cooking and couldn’t believe what he saw and heard. There were customers from Portugal, the Azores, Brazil, Mozambique and even Macau, and they were all speaking Portuguese at once.
“It brought a little tear to my eye,” he says.
This is Lourenco’s third time working in the building at 1555 Alum Rock Ave. As a kid, he worked for Johnny Rosa when he ran a grocery store in the location. It was the kind of place where you could buy groceries on credit if you were short.
Rosa opened the market back in 1945. Lourenco worked there a few years later, and when he was 16 he daydreamed about how he would run the business one day if he owned it. He worked as a store manager at Safeway for 18 years before he could realize his dream.
“Here I am 25 years later,” Lourenco tells me.
In addition to standards of Portuguese cuisine like alcatra ($8.95), Azorean-style roast beef with garlic, onions and Portuguese crushed peppers; and coelho frito ($11.99), marinated and fried rabbit; and bife a Portuguesa ($8.75), a sandwich on papo seco bread with New York steak with garlic, cream sauce and egg and fries, he makes a great version of feijoada ($11.99), Brazil’s national dish—and even bacalao tacos ($8.95).
That’s right. He loads up three crispy taco shells with a mash of bacalao, potatoes and onions. It’s a huge plate of food that’s good with a generous dash of the restaurant’s housemade picante sauce.
“I’m probably the only place in America that’s serving bacalao tacos,” he boasts.
He says his multicultural menu is a reflection of California at large. “It is what California is.”
In addition to the food and groceries, what really sets the place apart is the array of Portuguese wine. Lourenco has assembled the deepest selection of Portuguese wines I’ve even seen in the Bay Area. Portugal has long made great wines, but only in the past five years or so has the county ramped up exports. As such, the wines of Portugal are still something of an unknown and great values. The selection of vinho verdes, dry, lightly effervescent white wines, are particularly strong. The wines here alone are reason enough to visit.
While he doesn’t expect to see the neighborhood’s Portuguese community displace the Latino and Vietnamese businesses, he wants to serve as a catalyst for other Portuguese-Americans to open businesses in the area.
“I’m hoping someone else gets the urge to open something else across the street,” he says.