Arcos in Astoria: Portuguese Barbecue and Seafood
"Do you cook one every day?" my friend Sara asked the stocky chef, who was making his dining-room rounds to make sure his guests were enjoying themselves. "Just on Fridays and Saturdays," he replied, "when we cook three or four each day. It's just a very small pig, you see."
A couple of friends and I were hanging in a newish Portuguese restaurant called Arcos late one Saturday afternoon, as the winter sun streamed in the south-facing windows. We were sipping a $22 bottle of Monte Velho, a full-bodied red mixing four indigenous grape varieties from the hilly and sere Alentejo region, where wines and breads are often produced by communes. The wine list is filled with similar bargains, but it helps to bone up on Portuguese wines before you go. Located on Astoria's hopping restaurant row along Broadway, Arcos bills itself as a churrasqueira, a type of restaurant specializing in charcoal-grilled meats. There are plenty of these places in Newark's Ironbound, where they are mainly carry-outs, but this might be the first to hit the five boroughs.
Our suckling pig ($16.50) was one of those charcoal-grilled meats. When the portion arrived, it was beyond magnificent, wads of dark luscious meat interleaved with layers of fluffy white fat into a sort of carnivorous napoleon. Barely adhering, the burnished skin perched on top as light and crisp as a potato chip. On the side, the chef presented some nicely steamed carrots and broccoli, giving us a chance to enjoy virtuous contrasting bites. Also alongside came homemade potato chips, extending the empire of crunch. Whether the pig is available on the day you dine or not, don't miss those chips.
Not represented on the usual churrasqueira menu, the suckling pig charmed us. Other days of the week, one is well advised to select the pork chops ($14), a pair of well-grilled loin segments heaped with sautéed onions and peppers. As with the piglet, the roster of starches runs to a veggie-dotted rice pilaf, a towering heap of mashed potatoes, or the aforementioned chips. There's also a decent grilled chicken, available half or whole, and a skirt steak that comes splatted in the usual Iberian fashion with sliced ham and a runny fried egg—maybe not what everyone wants on their steak.
But Arcos isn't just a churrasqueira; it's also a marisqueira, a joint specializing in seafood. Thus we gnawed octopus ($16.50), a mass of tangled and charred tentacles bathed in lemon and garlic, and a whole porgy, black-striped like a prisoner in a cartoon. If you're in the mood for clams—a fave in both Coney Island and Minho, Portugal, where much of the food at Arcos originates—pick the dish usually known as ameijoas a Bulhão Pato ($9), named after a beloved Lisbon poet. Tasting lyrically of the wind-swept sea, this casserole steams clams in white wine, parsley, and garlic. According to the chef, the bivalves are dredged "either in Long Island or in Maine," a lingering reminder of the former submarine lushness of our northeastern seaboard.
We quickly discovered that Arcos is one of those places where appetizers are completely unnecessary because of the size of the entrées. But by skipping the starters, you'd be missing some of the menu's best stuff. Think about eating only apps, a meal that might include pastel de bacalhau ($6.95)—fleecy and crisp-fried rhomboids of smooshed salt cod and potatoes. The cod fritters nestle a salad oddly dressed with raspberry vinaigrette and planks of Greek feta—an attempt on the part of the chef to make the restaurant more diversely Astorian. (The menu also offers Italian pastas.) Also don't miss the rubbery chourico sausage of Ron Jeremy length that arrives flaming with cachaca rather than the traditional brandy—a tip of the hat to the Brazilians who outnumber the Portuguese in this neighborhood. And don't forget a steaming bowl of caldo verde, a purée of potatoes laced with shredded collard greens and dotted with bits of sausage, another Minho favorite.
The local clams reappeared in what must be the only real flop on the menu: carne de porco alentejana ($16). Named after the same Portuguese region that our wine came from, the dish mixes clams and pork in a cooker called a cataplana that springs open like a big brass clam. On the night we tried it, the dish had an improvised quality, as if the cook hadn't expected anyone to order it. Unfortunately, he left out the most important part: the heavenly accent of bitter Seville oranges.
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