If you’ve never tasted the rich, comforting food of Cape Verde, an archipelago off the coast of West Africa, it’s time to visit Restaurante Cesaria in Dorchester, which celebrates its 15th year in business this month.
Owner Tony Barros tells us that they have plenty of regulars — which is obvious watching police officers chat with the host while they wait for takeout, and patrons introduce family members to servers at the lunch buffet line. Barros adds that he hosts guests from all over New England (plus some international visitors), who come for the food and live music.
Start with one of the many cocktails, which skew strong and sweet, like the Nho Antone Escaderode. The mango-flavored concoction, made with the Real McCoy rum, fruit puree, Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, and muddled mint, is one of several named for a song by Cesaria Evora, the famous Cape Verdean singer and the restaurant’s namesake. Or try the refreshing, classic cachaca-based caipirinha ($8). Cape Verde was uninhabited before being colonized by Portugal in the 15th century and gained independence in 1975. Those unfamiliar with the cuisine may find the flavors reminiscent of eating in New Orleans, mixed with popular Portuguese spots here in New England.
The lunch buffet ($9.99 per person or $5.99 a pound for takeout) has to be one of the best deals in town. The line starts with fresh fruit and green salad and winds through a handful of daily specials such as baked tuna with chickpeas, savory braised chicken wings that are falling off the bone, and flavorful medallions of fried salt cod. By 2 o’clock on a Tuesday, the buffet pans are running low, but if you are patient, servers will replenish them with some new special — maybe a rice and seafood casserole, or a rich bean stew. Whatever’s in the pan, it’s likely smothered in sweet peppers and onions, often topped with hardboiled eggs. The dishes aren’t labeled; Barros tells us the food is at the whim of the kitchen that day. It’s as if the back is full of resourceful grandmothers turning bits of this and that into something completely craveable and satisfying.
You can also order from the menu. Start with polvo grelhado ($9), a grilled octopus salad with tender, charred bits of octopus over a zesty mixture of chopped onion, bell pepper, tomato, and parsley in a lemony olive-oil dressing. It’s fresh, simple, and addictive on a hot summer evening.
Though the menu is extensive, it is not always indicative of what’s actually available. We had hoped to try kartuniz frito ou grelhado ($7 fried or grilled quails) but are told they aren’t in house. The kitchen is also out of half- and whole chickens, so we settle for the poultry dish featuring a chicken breast, frango de casa ($11). The grilled cutlet is as juicy as one could expect for boneless, skinless white meat. It’s swimming in a buttery garlic sauce spiked with Creole seasoning and lots of sweet onions. Smash the yolks of hardboiled eggs into the rice and use the crisp, thick-cut fries to sop up any leftover sauce. The real star of the show is the accompanying rice and beans, with fluffy grains and creamy legumes; you’d be hard pressed to find a more perfectly humble comfort food anywhere. Barros says his recipe is a secret but the side is vegetarian.
Steak tips Mocambique ($15) are a feast, with hunks of steak, mussels, and shrimp served with fried potato rounds in a garlicky white-wine sauce. The menu describes it as spicy, which it’s not, but we are too busy pulling fat mollusks out of the shell and tearing into the tender meat to notice.
According to Barros and a slew of online reviews, food is only half the draw of Cesaria. The cavernous brick space is built to be a supper club, with a stage as the focal point. Here’s where I’ll admit to having some serious FOMO: Cape Verde is known for its music. It’s pretty good motivation to come back for Sunday brunch or date night. I’ll see if quail is back on the menu, and get the full picture of what has kept this neighborhood gem open — and vibrant — for 15 years.
266 Bowdoin St., Dorchester
All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $4-$12, entrees $7-$18, dessert $4.65-$7.50, lunch buffet $9.99, Sunday brunch buffet $12.
Hours Sun-Wed 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Thu-Sat 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Liquor Full bar
What to order Nho Antone Escaderode, polvo grelhado, frango de casa, steak tips Mocambique, lunch buffet