J & J Restaurant & Takeout is not the kind of place you happen upon. Even if you were to find yourself at the front door — on the eastern outskirts of Union Square, practically beneath the groaning overpass of the McGrath Highway — there are few clues that inside, to the right of the counter selling lottery tickets, phone cards, and takeout subs, there is a restaurant that’s been serving authentic Portuguese meat and seafood specialties since 1990. The place is owned by Joe Barbosa, from Vila Verde, Portugal.
Head down a narrow hallway, and suddenly you are in a tidy little dining room with green formica-topped tables, and a big-screen TV. Once you seat yourself, a petite waitress with a warm smile, who speaks very little English, will bring you, along with crusty dinner rolls and butter, a saucer of chickpeas swimming in an addictive olive oil studded with bits of onion, celery, and red bell pepper.
After what may seem like an unusually long time (considering the compact dining room is hardly filled), the waitress will return. Though she may not understand what kind of wine you are ordering, she will stand patiently, eventually deciphering your frantic hand gestures, and bring over glasses of barely effervescent vinho verde. The fact that you’ll pay just $4.50 a glass makes it that much more delicious.
After another lag (but this time with wine and chickpeas, it feels luxurious), littlenecks in white wine ($9.95) arrive plump and fragrant of lemon and garlic. A couple are gritty, which is a shame, but they are fresh and briny. Save bread to soak up the bracing juices in the bottom of the cooking pot in which they’re served. Request more rolls for linguica a casa ($9.95), a generous portion of the smoky, brick-colored sausage cut into rounds and cooked in a rich red wine sauce.
With such generous portions, you may be getting full by the time the main courses arrive: “½ frango no churrasco” ($9.95) is a half rotisserie chicken with crisp fries and a heap of perfect rice pilaf. The meat is just a slightly overcooked, but the punch of heady garlic sauce it has been basted with will have you happily gnawing the bones.
Paelha Valencia ($17.95), a mix of pork, shrimp, squid, chicken, and linguica in yellow rice, has tender seafood, but the meat is a bit tough, and the dish is very salty. As a rule, J & J has a heavy hand with salt.
Bife de atum grelhado ($12.95) is tuna steak we wish wasn’t quite so well done, but the accompanying sauteed peppers, onions, and steamed potatoes are immensely flavorful, imbued with the cooking juices and sprinkled with buttery little black olives, so you might forgive the chalky fish. Bacalhau a Escondido ($16.95), is classic Portugese comfort food, a fillet of crispy fried salt cod smothered with sauteed peppers and onions, topped with postage stamp-size fried potatoes, sliced boiled egg, and a handful of those nice olives. It’s perfectly executed. Salt cod is a different beast than its fresh counterpart; be prepared for a cured texture, and funkier flavor.
For something lighter, J & J has a way with savory, homey soups (small $2.95, large $4.95). Portuguese soup has morsels of linguica with sweet chunks of carrot, creamy pinto beans, potatoes, blown-up pieces of macaroni, and a healthy dose of tender collards. It’s Portugal’s answer to minestrone, and a delicious companion on a drizzly day. Kale soup is a rich broth, slightly thickened by potatoes cooked down to granules. Shaved ribbons of kale add texture, and a few slices of linguica give it smokiness. It’s simple and restorative.
Next time you are in Union Square and find long lines
and steep prices, head to J & J. You’ll return to the hipster scene with a full belly and room in your budget for a craft cocktail or two.