Portugal in Jamaica at O Lavrador
A few blocks south of downtown Jamaica, Queens, lies a miniature Portuguese neighborhood that has managed to remain intact for decades. There's a soccer club, a churrasqueira, and a couple of taverns, set amid truck depots, warehouses, and frame habitations decorated with ornate metal grillwork that might remind you of Lisbon. The neighborhood's anchor is O Lavrador ("The Farmer"), a restaurant dating to 1981 that rivals those found in Newark's Ironbound in fidelity to its Portuguese models. Out front stand spindly trees cocooned in tiny lights, and the façade blazes with signage offering seafood and valet parking.
There are two competing entrances. Through the left, heralded by a sign that traces "Bar" in what look like bullet holes, sporting a gnarled branch as a door pull, find a long, narrow barroom clad in rusticated wood, plastered with TVs tuned to European sporting events. The more handsome door on the right provides ingress to a formal dining room that has all the charm of a mausoleum, attended by waiters in starched waistcoats who sometimes wait for customers that never arrive. By contrast, the convivial barroom is often thronged with homesick Portuguese nationals, travelers who need a cheap belt on the way to JFK, and office workers from downtown Jamaica. They come for drink specials that include $15 ice buckets sprouting five bottles of Portuguese Sagres beer.
If you need further inducement to pick the left door, there are two menus available in the barroom you won't find in the dining room. One is a list of inexpensive bar snacks, my favorite of which are the potato-laced bacalhau fritters (75 cents each). Salt cod was the foodstuff that fueled Portuguese expansionism in the 16th century, and these miniature fried submarines represent one of its spectacular incarnations—fishy, salty, starchy, and just plain delicious. They're the perfect snack to go with beer, or even to make a full meal of. Ignore the fried mozzarella sticks and buffalo chicken wings.
In addition, a colorfully chalked bill of fare posted at various points in the room offers specials you can't get in the dining room. On a recent evening, one read "monk fish + rice and clams + shrimp" ($13.50), which sounds like an ungainly combination till you see the finished product. This is one of the chowders called caldeirada, served at restaurants all along Portugal's coastline using seasonal, freshly caught fish. It comes in a cauldron with plenty of plump-grained rice in the depths to soak up the broth. The entrée easily makes a complete meal for two, especially if you figure in the wonderful bread that comes alongside, including crusty onion rolls and the pale Portuguese cornbread called broa.
The chalkboard menu always lists at least two or three things likely to make your mouth water. Sometimes there's a leg-of-lamb special ($13.50); the meat has been grilled over lump charcoal, and roast potatoes and steamed vegetables provide accompaniment. Though I loved the lamb, a couple of diners at my table claimed the meat wasn't tender enough. Avoid the Brazilian-sounding dishes, which often involve coconut or bananas. One was "fried coconut shrimp"—while the quantity of jumbo specimens was impressive, the pallid gravy tasted achingly sweet.
There's no reason to neglect the dining room menu, either, which is available in the barroom. Though prices in the $20 to $30 range may seem high for this corner of Queens, the massive quantity of food guarantees you can share entrées, or plan on returning home with a container of nicely wrapped leftovers. The odd habit of mixing pork and seafood in the arid southern region of Portugal known as the Alentejo results in carne de porco à alentejana ($15.95), a magnificent terra-cotta plateful of outsize bivalves, chunks of oinker, and fried potato cubes immersed in brown gravy—though this version lacks the kick of bitter orange found in the Portuguese original. Nevertheless, the dish is transcendently tasty. And so is bacalhau à pescador ($18.95), a fisherman's stew that features shrimp, squid, clams, mussels, and hunks of bone-in hake served on a plate shaped like a wide-eyed fish.
If you do justice to your barroom repast, you won't have room for dessert.Nevertheless, after I'd left the restaurant, my friend Mike, who'd stayed behind to wait for the LIRR train back to Brooklyn, texted: "Next time you visit, try the serradura." I looked up the word in my Portuguese dictionary and it means "sawdust"—which is not too appealing, until you discover the word also refers to a pudding made with stale, ground-up cookies. But it sounds better if you call it "culinary recycling."
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