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Eat Like A Local: the Best Portuguese and Spanish Restaurants in the USA

Portugal is synonymous with meandering alleys adorned with dancing laundry. The faded florals of sun-bleached sheets, starched by heat of the sun, among a waterfall of socks flowing across the lines.

When we’re not picking our way carefully across the uneven stones worn smooth and often slick from the rain, we look up to get our bearings, to find the sunlight filtering down. We see squares of bright blue sky, the underside of balconies, worn painted tiles pressed to the walls by hand. Lisbon is a hard city not to fall in love with: the keening sounds of Fado music straining through the night, the fish fresh from the sea, the creamy center of their famous custard-filled pastry, pasteis de nata.

When I return home, I search for the perfect replica of those Portuguese meals to bring me back to that time and place. Newark may be one of the nation’s biggest hubs for Portuguese cuisine, but I don’t have to travel far to taste authentic Spanish cuisine as well. Tapas have been popular in the U.S. for quite some time, but Spanish and Portuguese restaurants are slowly spreading from the metropolitan cities like New York and Los Angeles to the unlikeliest of food corners. So what are some fabulous places to visit for an authentic Portuguese or Spanish meal? (Photo by Ryan Opaz)

Curate, Asheville, NC

Arguably one of the most renown Spanish restaurants in the Southeastern U.S., Curate is Katie Button’s venerable brainchild with partner and husband, Felix Meana. Together they serve up some of the best Spanish food in the south. Button, who has worked under Ferran Adria at the former El Bulli in Roses, Spain, has brought back an extensive knowledge of Catalan cuisine. Curate’s small plates represent many of the Catalan classics, such as butifarra con mongetes, a mild white sausage with beans, or canelones de carne, pasta stuffed with a variety of roasted meats and covered in bechamel sauce and Manchego cheese. Try the local lager, Estrella Damm, and feel like you’re across the ocean.

Txokos, Orlando, FL

Txokos is new on the scene in Orlando. With a name which means small place, Txokos is a cozy space on Corrine Drive, near Baldwin Park serving up a menu of pintxos, the small bites from the northern part of Spain. Spending an evening standing at the bar eating small pieces of meat, quail eggs, and veggies piled on a round of bread and skewered with a stick is a time-honored Basque tradition. At Txokos, you can eat your pintxos sitting down. Try the crispy calamari, small meatballs known as albondigas, a flatbread called coca topped with wild mushrooms and garlic allioli. They also offer bar snacks like fresh anchovies, plates of cured jamon, and Basque olives. If you want more than small plates, choose from seafood salads, hearty stews, and main plates that include wood-grilled chicken, fish, and beef. (Photo by Txokos Restaurant)

B44, San Francisco, CA

San Francisco has several good options for a tapas crawl, from the upscale Canela, which serves a dressed-up version of many classic Spanish dishes, to the more traditional take found at B44, a Catalan restaurant devoted to its roots. Chef Daniel Olivella, born in the Penedès wine region near Barcelona, has brought a love of his native cuisine and his knowledge of Spanish wines to his first restaurant. The menu includes classic tapas like patatas bravas to hearty main plates and paellas, including the Catalan paella made from noodles called fideua. He also runs Barlata Tapas Bar which has two locations, one in Oakland, CA and the other in Austin, TX.

Costa Brava, San Diego, CA

Costa Brava is named for the beautiful coastline, marked by white sand beaches and gorgeous views of the Mediterranean sea, in the northeastern of Spain between Barcelona and the French border. Costa Brava may be far from its home country, but the restaurant nevertheless makes diners feel like they’re there with a menu rich in local dishes like blue cheese croquettes, bacon wrapped figs, garlic shrimp and the celebrated jamon iberico, the cured ham from acorn-fed pigs that Spaniards can’t get enough of. While you’re there, you can stock up at their Pata Negra market attached to the restaurant.

Bazaar, Beverly Hills, CA

Bazaar is where Old World meets avant-garde in acclaimed chef José Andrés’ landmark restaurant at the SLS Hotel. Guests may be dazzled by the Phillippe Starck designed dining room, but the menu is the real looker with a wide array of dishes which blend traditional recipes with modern influences. Andrés makes use of molecular gastronomy to recreate Ferran Adria’s famous false olives, while balancing his menu with Catalan classics like eggplant tempura drizzled with honey and pa amb tomaquet, the famous Catalan tomato bread, and garlic braised rabbit al ajillo. A parade of dishes display ingredients and influences from Catalonia, the Canary Islands and beyond. Ingredients like jicama, burrata, shiso, and harissa make their way onto the menu as well, revealing the playful side of Andres’ menu and defining modern tapas.

Jaleo, Las Vegas, NV

With outlets in D.C., Bethesda, and Crystal City, Jaleo could fall into the trap of being just another overgrown chain, but it doesn’t. José Andrés, who also owns Bazaar, goes for a more straightforward approach in his Jaleo empire, creating dishes which reflect the local cuisine of his native Asturias in the northwestern region of Spain. His menu highlights regional specialties like Asturian beans with clams and parsley oil as well as a range of local cheeses, but it also embraces dishes from other areas of the country, such as Valencian paellas, jamon that hails from Fermin, and the baby squid dishes typical to southern cities like Cadiz. (Photo by Jaleo)

Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba Chicago, IL

Chicago is better known for its Polish sausages and Mexican tacos than for its Spanish or Portuguese cuisine. Nevertheless, the Windy City sports one of the city’s long-time favorites, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba, a Spanish restaurant in Lincoln Park that has been serving up traditional Spanish plates for over 25 years. The menu may be long, but the dishes are consistently good. Try the Galician empanada stuffed with sea scallops, grilled squid with olive oil and garlic, rioja-braised short ribs, or the meatballs in a sherry tomato sauce. You can get a platter of pintxos that includes temptations like mushroom toast with Roncal cheese and a sherry gastrique or a paella to share. The lines to get in may be long–be prepared for up to a two-hour wait on the weekends–but the simple rustic cuisine is worth it. The pitchers of sangria will keep you good company while you wait.

Aldea, New York, NY

If you are looking for an upscale option for Mediterranean food in New York, then it’s hard to go wrong with Aldea, the Michelin-starred restaurant from acclaimed chef George Mendes whose food showcases the best of Spanish and Portuguese cuisine. Small bites like Marcona almonds and salt cod croquetas start off the meal right. Dishes worth trying include the charred spanish octopus, arroz de pato, a gourmet version of this Portuguese rice dish featuring duck confit and cracklings, and the chef’s take on the famous Portuguese dessert, pao de lo. The four-course tasting menu is a good way to sample the various courses, while the extensive wine list can give diners a taste of Spanish and Portuguese wines. If you are craving a taste of Portugal after your meal, Mendes’ beautiful new book My Portugal lets you bring his flavors into your home. (photo by Aldea)

Seabra’s Marisqueira, Newark, NJ

New Jersey is home to a plethora of Portuguese restaurants which reflect the Portuguese-American community that has a stronghold in the area. It’s hard to choose among them, but if you’re looking for seafood, Seabra’s is your place. The clams in garlic sauce (ameijoas à bolhão pato) named after a Lisbon poet, octopus salad (salada de polvo), and a traditional açorda de marisco, a dry soup made with seafood and Portuguese bread cubes to soak up the sauce, are just a few of the specialities of the house. Bring yourself back to Portugal, and indulge yourself in one of their excellent Portuguese coffees after your meal.

Teixeira’s Bakery, Newark, NJ

Portugal’s sweet treats can’t be missed. Fortunately, there’s Teixeira’s (with two locations on Ferry Street and Kossuth Street) to sate your sweet tooth. Known best for its flaky creamy custard cups called pasteis de nata, Teixera’s serves up the most authentic Portuguese sweets. Choose from a long list of baked goods including Portuguese bread (pão português), the napoleon-esque mil folhas, an egg custard pressed between layers of flaky pastry called palmier rechiados, and pão de avo (grandma bread), among many others. Try a (galão) rich espresso with foamed milk or one their daily homemade soups (sopas).

Dali, Cambridge, MA

Residents of Cambridge are lucky to claim the quirky Dali as their own, a Spanish restaurant and tapas bar born from a love story. Owners Tamara Bourso and Fernanda da Silva fell in love and opened their restaurant as an ode to da Silva’s infatuation with Barcelona. Stand out tapas include the smoky grilled quail marinated in fresh herbs and topped with an orange sauce, beef tenderloin with dried fruits in a cream brandy sauce, and the pimientos de padron, those small green peppers blistered on the grill and sprinkled with sea salt. Don’t deprive yourself of dessert. Try the tarta de santiago, a flourless almond cake from Galicia served with a rich coffee cream sauce.

City Sandwich, New York, NY

If you’re looking for a quick bite, be sure to drop into City Sandwich for the flavors of Portugal pressed into the perfect sandwich. With a no-mayo pledge, this distinctive sandwich shop replaces the classic sandwich spread with a combination of yogurt sauce and olive oil drizzled onto fresh crisp Portuguese bread. Chef Michael Guerrieri has worked hard to bring the flavors of Portugal to New Yorkers, and the long list of toppings includes a variety of Portuguese sausages like alheira, linguica, and morcela. Born in Naples, Italy and raised in New York, Guerreri’s sandwich shop looks to meld the flavors of his homelands with those he encountered when was a chef in Lisbon. He brings to New York what he calls “ItaLisboNyorker” flavors in his sandwiches. Soups, salads and desserts round out the menu.

Melissa Leighty

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