R.I.P. New Jersey Portuguese Restaurants

What happened to Portuguese restaurants in New Jersey?  As I scan the landscape I am troubled but what I don’t see.  I don’t see innovation, progression and quality.   What I see is a bastardized menu featuring dishes that are loosely based on Portuguese food.  The typical selections are the same tried and true dishes catering to a crowd that has been lulled into acceptance by large portions mostly consisting of starches (rice and potatoes).  The quality has fallen off as more and more restaurants open (many are not Portuguese) and the competition is forcing owners to cut corners to hit revenue targets.  Many restaurants have become food factories churning out take out orders and catering to big parties.  What they offer is increasingly not Portuguese food at all.  Sure you will see bacalhau, dobrada, chanfana and leitao on the menu but usually not during the week.  What is typically offered as “Portuguese” is an assortment of seafood dishes that are drenched in sauce and served with alarmingly large quantities of rice or pasta.  When you go to Portugal you don’t see this type of seafood.  Seafood in Portugal is mostly fish prepared in stews or grilled.  You may see shellfish on the menu but it is rare because it is expensive. Clams and mussels are offered but not as marquee dishes.  There is also no paella in Portuguese cuisine…Paella is Spanish!  Yet New Jersey establishments offer paella which in reality is really rice with shellfish, shrimp and chicken (resembling a jambalaya).  Many New Jersey places will feature “Portuguese Steak” (usually a grilled T-bone) but  if you go to Portugal you will rarely see a T-bone steak.  In fact you won’t find the cut at most supermarkets because the Portuguese prefer thinner and leaner cuts of beef. The rest of what is offered on the menu is American and Italian American food re-imagined as Portuguese food.  Chicken Marsala and Francaise are now becoming mainstays on menus. Why is this happening?  I think the reasons are many but a few stand out.  The Portuguese population in New Jersey is aging without a fresh infusion of immigrants coming over to revitalize Luso-American cuisine.  Other cuisines and their respective restaurants are encroaching on the landscape with a clientele that is overwhelmingly non-Portuguese . Finally I think Portuguese restaurants owners have given up as they surrender to financials.  Why fix what isn’t broken?  As long as they are making money why change and innovate?  They have a responsibility to their employees to provide income and a fiduciary responsibility to their investors, benefactors (their family and successive generations)  and ultimately to their retirement plan.  So owners offer what is safe and ultimately what the clientele want which on a weekend is typically seafood, steaks and carbs.  I honestly cannot put it in any other way.  When friends ask me where to eat good Portuguese food in New Jersey I tell them “my house” not because I am boasting but rather because I actually cook Portuguese food.  The Luso Americans that go to  restaurants in New Jersey are falling prey to the same urges for  carb-laden seafood, grilled meats and faux Portuguese food.  I am not criticizing them…if this is what people want (and clearly it is from the popularity of these places) then as a true capitalist I am for it.  What I am criticizing is the fact that these places do not really serve Portuguese food.  What they serve is Portuguese American food much the same way Chinese restaurants don’t really offer Chinese food because you wouldn’t see 3/4 of those dishes in China much the same way you won’t see a vast majority of New Jersey’s Portuguese food in Portugal.  Now as to the quality you won’t exactly find “farm to table” in Portuguese restaurants in New Jersey.  Organic?  Maybe if it was on sale at Restaurant Depot.  Single source protein and seafood? Nope!  Like I said it is an assembly line industry churning out the same fare every day for years now with prices that do not account for inflation which tells me that corners are being cut.  I am not sure if it is the same elsewhere…and yes George Mendes and a few like him are doing great things under the Portuguese moniker but those are far and few between.  I therefore am resigned to only go so called”Portuguese Restaurants” if I cannot avoid it like for a wedding, christening or some other celebratory event to which I am invited.  R.I.P. New Jersey Portuguese Restaurants!