Sunday, September 20, 2009

The New Jersey Turnpike transports us to authentic Portuguese cuisine

Tony da Caneca, which opened in 1965, is one of the original restaurants in Newark's Ironbound section.


For writer Marcel Proust, the taste of a cookie called petite madeleine flooded him with memories of things past. 

For my Portuguese friend Rick, visiting from California, a meal and a stroll in Newark's Ironbound section gave him a chance to speak Portuguese and revived fond memories of his parents and family fiestas.

We had an early dinner at Tony da Caneca, a restaurant I used to visit regularly in the 1970s, when I was a newspaper reporter and restaurant reviewer in neighboring Elizabeth. 

The restaurant is in a quiet neighborhood, combining Old World service and big portions at moderate prices. All five of us took home leftovers.

After we were seated, the waiter brought over a tray with uncooked seafood on ice -- including giant prawns from Africa in deep-green shells, a whole sea bass flown in from Portugal and a Chilean sea bass fillet -- and described how they were prepared.

Me and Rick pigged out -- sharing an appetizer of flaming Portuguese pork sausage ($9.75) and an entree of pork chunks, clams and potatoes ($18) sauteed in plenty of olive oil, a classic, stick-to-your-ribs dish I took an instant liking to the first time I saw it on a menu nearly 40 years ago, because it combines two of my favorite foods, pork and clams. (It's listed on the menu as pork meat Alentejana.)

My wife had the whole sea bass ($21), which was grilled simply with olive oil and lemon; my son chose butterflied shrimp ($19) with hot sauce; and my niece had a beefsteak ($18) that turned out to be more than a foot long, surrounded by the restaurant's own thick-cut potato chips, which I couldn't resist and kept on snatching from her plate. A small bowl of cilantro soup comes with each meal, though I would have preferred a salad.

The restaurant's wine list offers bottles of Portuguese wine for as little as $15. The red we selected, Periquita Fonseca, cost $18.

This was a belly-busting meal all of us enjoyed immensely. 

Then the waiter brought over a tray of desserts. Rick had to try the rice pudding with lemon ($3) his Mom used to make and my son had the sherbet with coconut ($5).

We drove to Ferry Street, the commercial heart of the Ironbound, and tried to walk it off. 

At Texeira Bakery, I bought black coffee and three custard tarts to go, just like the ones you see in Manhattan's Chinatown (remember that one former Portuguese territory is Macau, an enclave on the Chinese mainland).

Tony da Caneca Restaurant, 72 Elm Road, Newark; 1-973-589-6882.


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