EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The problem with making a list of the “best” places to get Portuguese food in Rhode Island is that there are so many good options to choose from. The Portuguese culture is strong here, and even at the more mediocre establishments, you can find some decent seafood rice, or at least a cold Sagres.
So this isn’t a list of all of the best places to get Portuguese food in Rhode Island. Instead it’s a list of places that one Portuguese-American living in Rhode Island — me — really likes. If you like Portuguese food, I think you’ll like them too.
What to get: Something from the rotating specials menu. Recently I had octopus, which is always delicious but at some establishments a little tough. At O Dinis it was as tender as a fado singer in full swoon.
Speaking of fado, they have regular music nights on Mondays. Check in advance before going to music night because of limited availability. I’ve never been there when it was anything less than very busy. I’ve also never left hungry. O Dinis is a mainstay, and very much worth the reputation — a classic New England Portuguese restaurant.
579 Warren Ave. in East Providence, 401-438-3769, www.odinisrestaurant.com
DJP Churrasqueira Marques
What to get: Meat.
The word churrasqueria means something close to barbecue restaurant or steakhouse. So when I went on a recent Friday, I got the espetada (steak skewers). The absolutely fantastic taste and perfect texture made up for the underwhelming fries and lack of any vegetables whatsoever. I didn’t need the chocolate mousse for dessert, but I’m glad I got it. You know you’re at a good ethnic restaurant when fellow patrons are speaking that culture’s language, and Portuguese was more common than English when I was wolfing down my espetada on that recent Friday. Everyone seemed to know somebody else there, greeting each other with a hearty, “Tudo bem?” With meat and mousse like that, all was very well, thank you very much.
100 Mill St. in Cumberland, 401-744-3010, www.facebook.com/DJPChurrasqueiraMarques
Silver Star Bakery
What to get: Pasteis de nata.
I’ve had pasteis de nata everywhere from New Bedford to Belém. My favorite place to get them, bar none, is Silver Star Bakery in Providence’s Fox Point neighborhood. These egg custard tarts are flaky and crisp, with a cinnamony sweetness that brings to mind a warm day along the Tagus and a view of the 25 de Abril Bridge. I try to take more than one bite per pastry, and I often fail, but there’s always a chance to exercise a modicum of self-control when I grab the next one out of the box of dozen I had been planning on sharing. Might as well make that two dozen, and a loaf of massa sovada.
150 Ives St. in Providence, 401-421-8013, www.facebook.com/Silver-Star-Bakery-247720348606277
What to get: Galão and a tosta.
When a couple Azorean officials visited Rhode Island recently, where did they go? They went to Cafe Zara. Levi Medina, the person behind the fantastic but unfortunately now closed Portu-Galo food truck, opened the cafe and coffee house in the early days of the pandemic. Despite that bad timing, Cafe Zara has managed to thrive. It’s not exactly a Portuguese cafe, more like a European-style cafe with Portuguese undertones, Medina says. Those undertones include São Jorge cheese that, like many Portuguese-Americans in our area, is from the Azores. Delicious on a tosta, even better with some coffee Portuguese-style (Galão) or Providence-style (Nitro). It’s a departure from the old-school style of many New England Portuguese eateries, but very much the sort of stylish cafe you will actually find in modern, urban Lisbon or Porto.
130 Taunton Ave. in East Providence, www.cafe-zara.com.
What to get: The pastel de nata martini
This is one of the buzziest new restaurants in Providence, and it’s easy to see why. Aguardente fuses together Portuguese with Guatemalan and Mexican menu items. The pastel de nata martini is the drinkable version of that aforementioned egg custard tart. It’s a tapas place — in Portuguese, petiscos. I have not yet tried anything there that was not at least very good. Some of it was sublime, like the octopus salad, which grabbed my soul with suction cups and eight arms of saudade.
A Portuguese social club
What to get: In touch with the Portuguese community.
Rhode Island has a lot of social clubs. The Portuguese ones have tended to hold onto their heritage. In addition to serving as cultural hubs and event spaces, they’re generally open to non-members for food and beverages at certain times, though hourscan be a little weird — and this is about as authentic as it goes for Portugal, where your mid-June trip to Évora means the restaurant you’ve been dreaming of trying is closed for vacation. The vibes can be weird, too. But if you can push past that, you could find a delicious plate of carne de porco à alentejana with hand-cut potatoes, right there amid the pool tables and the posters advertising karate classes. There are some well-known and longstanding Portuguese social clubs in Cranston, Pawtucket and Cumberland.
If you trace your heritage to Portuguese immigrants, it’s a way of getting back in touch with your roots — to a community that remains vibrant here in Rhode Island. And even if you don’t, you might find some really good food. In a culture saturated in sameness, and at a time when modernity has connected us to the world but driven us apart from our local communities, it’s a throwback — not just to an old country, but an old time.
Cranston Portuguese Social Club, 20 2nd Ave. in Cranston, (401) 941-9531, https://www.facebook.com/cranstonportugueseclub.
Clube Social Português de Pawtucket, 174 Portuguese Social Club Way in Pawtucket, (401) 724-9834, https://www.facebook.com/cranstonportugueseclub/.
Clube Juventude Lusitana, 10 Chase St. in Cumberland, (401) 726-9374, https://www.facebook.com/LusitanaClub.