A vast portion of the menu at Teixeira Portugal Restaurant is dedicated to one ingredient: bacalhau, known as codfish to English speakers and bacalao to los que hablan español. Order it "a nortenha," and a fat, pearly lobe of the fish is deep-fried, lathered in a creamy pumpkin-hued garlic sauce, and sandwiched between two heaps of mashed potatoes. Or opt for it grilled so the skin takes on a smoky char before it's set atop a mound of steamed potatoes twisted up with red peppers, garlic, and caramelized onions.
There's good reason why the humble fish is so prevalent at this year-old 80-seater, which also offers a bevy of traditional appetizers such as grilled Portuguese sausage alongside seafood stews and rices. The history of Portuguese cuisine, which is represented in Miami in only a handful of restaurants, is filled with off-white fillets of the ubiquitous catch. Scandinavians during the first millennium A.D. were likely pioneers in harvesting the fish en masse. They turned it into a sizable industry through air-drying. As the fish worked its way south into Europe, people across the continent such as the English, Basques, and Portuguese began applying salt-curing techniques to the sturdy species.
That heartiness and seemingly endless shelf life became the fuel for Europe's exploration and exploitation of the world. It wasn't long before the great European powers went to war over cod. During much of the 15th Century, vast quantities of Britain's cod hauls were sent to Aveiro in northern Portugal in exchange for protection from French attacks, according to Mark Kurlansky's Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. The fish was a cornerstone of the burgeoning United States' economy. Fisheries during and after the Revolutionary War were valuable bargaining chips. Though cod became a staple protein in Europe, it soon fell victim to its own success. Aggressive fishing depleted the North Atlantic's vast stocks, leading to the eventual collapse of Portugal's cod-fishing fleet.
In spite of that, the fish in Portuguese is nicknamed "fiel amigo" ("loyal friend") and remains a popular dish. The majority of salt cod is consumed on the Iberian Peninsula. It comes from waters off Iceland, Newfoundland, and Norway.
The last is the source for all of Teixeira's cod, which the kitchen grills, shreds, fries, boils, and stews. No matter the preparation, the fillets soak for a day in several changes of chilled milk and water. This draws out the salt and plumps them up to their former, fleshy selves. Then the fun begins.
In the dish called bacalhau a bras, the fish is shredded and then tossed into what could be an ideal breakfast hash with scrambled eggs; thin, crisp potato shreds; onion; and garlic. There's enough olive oil to fill Teixeira's snowy dining room, which is lined with black-and-white photos of Lisbon and Porto, with a sweet, grassy perfume. It's obvious this could do double duty as drunk food.
So too could the bacalhau com natas. Codfish is shredded into a blend of onions and potatoes bound in a rich cream sauce punched up with plenty of garlic, then topped with a white cheese that's melted until it begins to brown into a crisp shell.
These two are ideal options for the uninitiated. The cod in each acts more as a seasoning, lending some salty oceanic notes to each bite, than a main ingredient. Yet in a pair of stews, the cod is front and center, presented in whole fillets. And really, there's no need to hide. In the caldeirada de bacalhau, sizable hunks of the flaky, firm flesh sit alongside steamed yellow potatoes, all draped in a thin tomato sauce fortified with garlic, olive oil, and just a hint of vinegar.
Bookend any one of these plates with a mound of sweet sautéed onions topped with a trio of grilled, hand-size sardines. They boast juicy, barely oily flesh that seems to jump off its bones. A squeeze of one of the accompanying lime wedges is all that's needed to create a perfect balance of sweet, savory, and acidic.
The über-classic caldo verde is made with torn kale and wheels of the fatty Portuguese sausage linguiça, which make it flavorful enough. But the broth itself lacks both texture and flavor. Rather than a potent brew of onions and garlic, it's a bland concoction, overly thickened with too much cornstarch.
On the other side of the meal, don't miss what tastes almost like tiramisu but Teixeira calls delicia portuguesa. It's a simple treat, built on a luscious custard of egg and sweetened condensed milk studded with barely sweet bits of Maria cookies and crowned with a dense homemade whipped cream.
Still, it's not what will be on your mind as you depart the restaurant. Instead, it'll be the small Styrofoam container of bacalhau a bras. It's perfect the next morning, reheated in a frying pan with plenty of olive oil and topped with a fried egg. That rich yolk and the savory, salty flavor of the codfish form a combination that could jolt open the eyes of even the deepest sleeper.
Teixeira Portugal Restaurant
1569 Sunset Dr., South Miami; 786-717-6749; teixeiraportugal.com. Lunch and dinner daily noon to 11 p.m.
Caldo verde $7.99
Grilled anchovies $9.99
Bacalhau a bras $20.99
Bacalhau com natas $22.99
Caldeirada de bacalhau $14.99
Delicia portuguesa $6.95
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