Cuisines have a way of redefining themselves when they're transplanted. Local factors make a difference. Can a Portuguese place that sits next to a Chinese takeout retain all its original Portuguese-ness? This is the question I ask myself when I'm visiting one of central New Jersey's more unique budget restaurant types, the Churrasqueira.
These places feature down-to-earth Portuguese cooking in an environment that's just a bit nicer than their nearest competitor; the Chinese takeout. Churrasquerias offer something that most Chinese takeouts don't though; a modest attempt at eat-in civility, drinks served in real glasses, china plates, nice placemats, and maybe even some fancy water from Portugal.
Most of the business is takeout though (and many offer free delivery) and on a recent night, my local, the Luso BBQ in Colonia, offered a whole barbecue chicken, fries and rice, for ten bucks. I ordered one, took it home, and after photographing it for this blog, went about the task of describing it. Over a bed of fries and mildly seasoned rice, was a whole chicken, hacked apart. Clearly marinated and then grilled, it had a crisp skin and meat that was tender from its treatment. The meat here bears no resemblance to American, Chinese, or any other barbecue. Its combination of marinating and grilling makes it uniquely Portuguese.
Chicken isn't the only thing that these places serve. At the Chop Spot in Linden, my wife and I have ordered beef and pork as well. There (and at most of the others too), fourteen or fifteen bucks will buy you a large platter of barbecue beef or pork over a bed of rice and fries. A few dollars more will get you soup, salad, or—if you're lucky—steamed vegetables.
At the Clark BBQ on Raritan Road in Clark, there was one twist; you could substitute the rice or fries for a salad or vegetable, and we did just that. We went for a grilled sausage appetizer too. It became obvious that trying to decide if one was better than the other was a futile effort. One place had the best pork, another great rice and soggy fries, and yet another might have perfect chicken when you discuss them in retrospect, but together, the differences are far more subtle.
Sometimes there's more variation from day to day than restaurant to restaurant.
When I asked one owner if these restaurants were really authentic, he told me that "back home, we'd serve more fish. Here the price would be too high." That doesn't stop them from offering fancier items. T-Bone steaks, Portuguese-style shell steaks (with ham, eggs, and gravy), and one or two dishes with salt cod, none for more than the price of a meal at a diner—but with a whole different vibe.
More than one person has told me that you can find these inexpensive, informal barbecues wherever there are Portuguese immigrants, and in the New York area, that's central New Jersey. In a belt that runs roughly from Newark south to Long Branch, they dot the landscape, offering grilled chicken, pork, and beef along with that wonderful, soulful combination of rice and fries. Kung Pao Chicken has serious competition.
By the way, while this wonderful combination of Portuguese/American thrives, I've never seen a Chinese/Portuguese or Chinese/Brazilian place. Where are they hidden?
1419 Raritan Road, Clark, NJ 07066 (map) 732-396-4600