By David Minsky
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To call bacalhau, as the Portuguese call it, a staple in Portuguese cooking is an understatement. Salt-preserved cod, with its long shelf life, turned fishing for local sustenance into an industry some 500 years ago. Unlike fresh fish, bacalhau could be stockpiled, exported, and used year-round. It fed people on long ocean journeys and in far-flung places during the age of conquest. Along with their Basque neighbors, generations of Portuguese fishermen and sailors made it their livelihood, and their families on shore figured out how to cook it.
There's cod-and-jumbo-clam stew; deep-fried cod with onions and fried potatoes in garlic sauce; grilled cod with steamed potatoes, olive oil, and garlic sauce; cod covered in onions and mayonnaise with mashed potatoes. Of the 30 or so entrées on the regular menu at Chico's Place, 15 are cod dishes, and none are poultry (though there are a couple of chicken dishes on a smaller dinner-only Brazilian menu), and that's no small feat when you're working with the narrow palette of flavors in this kind of Portuguese cooking. Potatoes, onions, olives, wine, garlic, and eggs seem to find their way into virtually every dish.
On a recent Sunday, I arrived with my Portuguese-speaking girlfriend, and we were greeted by the manager Camillo who, as before, spoke only Portuguese. He was gracious, courtly, and completely appalled when she asked if she could substitute a vegetable for the side of potatoes that came with the mixed-grill dish she wanted. Respecting the wishes of countless generations of Portuguese mothers, she backed down.
While we nibbled from a bowl of black olives and waited for our meal, a woman the next table over was having trouble deciding what to order. Her companion commented wryly, "It seems easy to me. They have cod, cod, and cod."
The dish I'd been hankering for since I first stumbled on the place was a standard and a favorite of mine, bacalhau a gomes de sa ($17.95), a casserole of shredded cod, onions, and garlic studded with slices of potato, hard-boiled egg, and black olives, drizzled with olive oil and baked until golden. The result was garlicky and briny, oily and a little sweet, and tender and chewy all at once sturdy and marvelous comfort food. We both loved it. I mopped up the very last bits with slices of soft, crusty, flour-dusted Portuguese bread.
My companion didn't fare as well with parrilhada de mariscos ($25.95). The mixed grill of squid, shrimp, mussels, salmon fillet, and lobster tail was uniformly overcooked and dry. Even so, we both left eager to return. When a restaurant touts itself as "The King of Codfish," cod is the safe bet.