Tia Maria’s European Café

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This year I decided to stretch the boundaries of Good Eats: Mundial and cover the 2016 International Portuguese Music Awards (IPMA). The awards show recognizes outstanding achievement in the music industry by international artists of Portuguese ancestry.

It should come as no surprise that a few of the IPMA sponsors are restaurants. After all, if there is one thing Portuguese people are best at: it’s cooking and eating. So that’s what brought me to the door of Tia Maria’s European Café.

I sat down with owner Jessica Coelho to chat about the restaurant, the IPMA’s and the idea of community and what it means to her as a Portuguese-American (PA) woman and as a sponsor to the awards show.

According to Jessica, it was a no-brainer to help support the IPMA’s. After all, how could she turn down supporting a the IPMA’s as a Portuguese-American business owner who runs a Portuguese restaurant?!

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A gorgeous xale (shawl) hanging on the wall at Tia Maria’s. Most of the items on the walls are personal or gifts from family, friends and customers.

“I turn it into a night out for me and my staff. Of course, we stay open – a lot of people will come here to have dinner before hand or dessert and coffee afterwards. But it’s nice to be able to celebrate with them too.”

Another deciding factor in her support of the IPMA’s is the changing face of Portuguese-Americans in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One thing Jessica and I have in common (aside from a great name) is that both of our parents immigrated to the United States from Portugal. Southeastern MA and RI are seeing a huge increase in second and third generation Portuguese-Americans as opposed to first generation, like our parents. They’re younger and are completely immersed in American culture, as opposed to a lot of their older relatives. So there’s a sense amongst first and second generation PA’s to help foster new and modern forms of cultural preservation.

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Pictured: Portuguese palissy ware. Every Portuguese-American has seen these in their grandparents homes or their own.

This immediately brought me back to the idea of community at Tia Maria’s. Speaking to Jessica was a refreshing change of pace from the tired, bored and sometimes forced friendliness that plagues some of the trendiest restaurant owners. She’s as real as they come and it reflects in every aspect of her restaurant: from her food, the service, the ambiance and the décor. Tia Maria’s delivers exactly what you need and want from a restaurant: nothing more, nothing less.

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You’re greeted with a to-go counter – to the left, the dining room and to the right, a small bar.

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The bar to the right.

 

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The entrance to the dining room to the left. Notice the collection of galos along to top ledge, they’re all Jessica’s personal collection!

“During the week we’re definitely more of a neighborhood joint. We have a lot of businesses around us and I know a lot of my customers by name. Between 3-5 we turn into a coffee stop for people. On the weekends we have a lot of tourists who are visiting the Whaling Museum or are from the cruise ships. Then on Sunday’s we have a lot of family’s who stop in usually before or after church.”

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Affectionally named, “Tia Maria’s Living Room” this space is used by people looking to spend some time catching up over espresso and a pastel de nata. Sometimes it’s used for business meetings over lunch. The print above the couch was a gift from Maria Lawton, who Good Eats: Mundial interviewed last year.

I asked about the businesses around her and how she got to know everyone. She told me a story that perfectly illustrated how she’s able to make these connections and how she has been so successful as a business owner.

“We used to offer express lunches, but I took them off the menu. Now we have a reason to interact with our customers when they come in. If they only have 30 minutes for lunch, we can tell them exactly which dishes will be best. For example, don’t order a pizza – it takes 12 minutes to cook!”

By removing the option of mindless ordering and eating, Jessica has created a dialogue between her staff and her customers. That’s how connections are made, and that’s why people return.

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A testament to her connection with customers: to the far right of the image is an orange plate, and to the left of the plate, three glasses. Those glasses are engraved with the name of the restaurant. They were dropped off by a customer as a gift and to this day Jessica still doesn’t know which customer dropped them off. They’re proudly displayed in the dining room.

Another way she connects with her community? Social media.

“I love Instagram (tiamariascafe). I’ll post a picture of a special we’re offering and it’ll sell out the same day. I don’t use Twitter as much. What do I have to say on Twitter? It moves too fast. Instagram is perfect.”

I told her it seemed like she let her customers and community help guide her in how the restaurant ebbs and flows. It didn’t seem like Jessica was interested in forcing anything on her audience.

“Absolutely. I never thought we would turn into a coffee and dessert place at night, but that’s what happens!”

As the customers engage with Tia Maria’s, Jessica looks for opportunity. Of course, don’t think for a second that she is easily influenced or without direction. She knows exactly how she wants to run her business and described herself as a “little stubborn.”

“I’m always open to constructive criticism but there are some things I won’t change my mind on. Sometimes people will tell me I should play something other than fado. They think it’s too sad. You don’t want to go into an Irish bar and hear Justin Bieber, do you? I want fado music playing here. Besides, if you listen to the lyrics it’s not all sad.”

In fact between the fado, the food, the decorations and the cobblestone streets, it’s easy to forget you’re in New Bedford and not in Porto or Lisbon. Jessica is dead on: it sets the tone of the restaurant.

But let’s step back for a minute and talk food. We all know that’s why you’re here. I asked Jessica if she had a favorite dish.

“Our bifana is amazing…it’s so full of flavor.” The bifana is a pan-fried pork steak topped with hot peppers. It’s served on a Portuguese roll with hand sliced rodelas. All for $7.

I ended up ordering the Chicken Moçambique sandwich. The chicken is sautéed in a zesty saffron-garlic sauce, the same sauce used in the traditional Portuguese dish – typically made with camarão (shrimp). The sandwich was served on a freshly made Portuguese roll and served with a side of rodelas. Again, all for $8. The chicken was extremely tender and flavorful, and it was impossible to not dunk the sandwich in the moçambique sauce that comes on the side.

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Chicken Moçambique sandwich ($8).

It’s not very often I enter a restaurant and then leave feeling this good about it. In fact, the last time that happened was probably a year ago in Atlanta. But there’s an undeniable combination of charm, quality and excitement that you get when you enter an establishment like Tia Maria’s. Jessica has put her everything into Tia Maria’s and it shows. We are lucky to have a venue like this in our backyard, and I can’t wait to go back!

 

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TigerMama

Guess who’s back?!

Welcome to 2016! We are ready to hit the ground running here in Boston. Since our departure three years ago, restaurants have closed thanks to gentrification (we miss you already Xinh, Xinh – come back soon) and others have opened with the fanfare of celebrity we had gotten accustomed to in Atlanta.

Enter:

The second restaurant by chef Tiffani Faison of Sweetcheeks Q is a much needed breath of fresh air in a neighborhood dominated by over priced, lack luster sports bars and chains. On the other side of the cuisine coin: it’s caused a moral dilemma in this Bostonians’ heart.

So here’s what you need to know.

The Theme

TigerMama’s menu is a tour of  Southeast Asia — Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia. It’s meant to be a creative nod to these cuisines, not necessarily authentic.

The Venue

TigerMama seats 135 with a few tables equipped with lazy Susans, which is perfect for sharing a menu made up of small and medium sized plates. The ‘chefs table’ as the host called it, is located in the back of the restaurant over looking the open kitchen. It’s unclear if this spot will ever function in the true sense of a ‘chefs table.’ Right now it’s being used a communal table for people who didn’t realize you need to call two weeks in advance for a dining room seat on the weekends.

The space also features a living wall with herbs for the kitchen. A bar located at the front of the restaurant offers full service and is first come, first served. The second bar in the back is called the “Tiki Bar” and focuses on shaved iced cocktails. It’s also full service.

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A great view of the living wall and the tables with lazy Susans. Photo courtesy of Zagat.

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The main bar at the front of the restaurant. Photo courtesy of Zagat. 

The Service

The few times I’ve gone everyone has been very helpful and friendly. The bartenders are incredibly knowledgable when it come to the cocktails and the menu items. The hosts were friendly and helpful when I asked them about a hundred questions regarding the layout of the restaurant, reservations and seat availability. There was one bartender who served a side of sass with one of our dishes, but…we think that’s part of his shtick. More on that later.

As far as how the food comes out: don’t expect to order three entrees for three people and have them served at the same time. These dishes are meant to be shared and will come from the kitchen as soon as they’re ready. The pace is manageable but if you’re not prepared for it, you can be left wondering.

The Drinks

As far as prices goes: they’re expensive. But then again, we can say the same for every other Boston restaurant that isn’t serving its drinks in plastic cups. Beer prices are comparable to the area and they serve everything from BeerLao to Sam Adams.

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My drink at the Tiki Bar – at $11 it was the cheapest cocktail on their menu and featured Four Rose bourbon and a garnish that made me feel like I was at an all inclusive resort.

The Food

Pig Rice ($15) bacon, braised frilled pork, issan sausage, pork sung 

This dish is a pork lovers dream. You think the plate would be a salt slick, but the depth of flavor was incredible. Savory and salty…this dish is perfect for 2 people to share.

Hokkien Mee ($15) rich oyster sauce braised noodles, crispy pork and tons of onions

Originally I wanted to order the Pad Thai, but I’m glad I went for this dish instead. I split it with a friend and we were both fighting over the last noodle.

Lobster Fresh Rolls ($13) charred lobster, bright veggies, spicy silky peanut sauce 

I don’t know if I can speak to this lobster being “charred” (I didn’t taste it or see it) but it was fresh and they certainly didn’t skimp. The roll is cut into pieces that will remind you of maki. We just went for it and ate with our hands. The peanut sauce was delicious, but sparse. You won’t find a pool of sauce in a bowl here. This is probably my favorite dish on their menu so far. It’s light, fresh and indulgent. I could have had two more.

Short Rib Rendang ($16) rich coconut Malaysian style curry, crispy peanuts and toasted coconut & Jasmine Rice ($3) 

This dish was confusing to me. Flavor wise: it was obscenely delicious. I could have swam in the broth. Our bartender suggested the side of rice, and even though you could get away with not ordering it (it’s not THAT rich) I would suggest it just so you have a means of  transportation for eating all that broth.

The meat itself melted in your mouth and fell apart when I prodded it with my chopsticks. The only downside of the dish was the toasted coconut. It added an unnecessary sweetness to the whole picture. The broth was already the perfect balance of sweet and savory. The coconut put it over the edge.

Shrimp Saigon ($19) coconut marinated and grilled shrimp, fish sauce, tomato vinaigrette

OKAY THIS DISH ALMOST MADE ME GIVE UP ON TIGERMAMA. I won’t lie. The pictures I saw on all of the Boston publications that have been reviewing TigerMama had me all excited. The presentation in person looked just like the press photos…which was a plus in my book. But then as it sat in front of me I realized I had just paid almost $5 a shrimp and I didn’t quite know why. Oh, the magic of marketing. It’s a brilliant thing.

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Shrimp Saigon ($19). Photo courtesy of Zagat.

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My Shrimp Saigon…pretty darn close to the press picture!

The first shrimp I had tasted…not right. My knee jerk reaction was maybe there was something off with the shrimp. The char marks on it were beautiful, but I quickly realized something wasn’t meshing. My best guess was maybe it had been charred on an open flame and the gas stove gave it an “off” flavor. I asked the bartender for clarification on how the shrimp was prepared. He got oddly defensive and told me that “those little black marks are because they’re charred…”

I’m so glad that in 2016 I have still have big strong men to explain the hard things in life to me…!

Phew! By the way, he never did answer my question…but he did tell me that the presentation was supposed to evoke the feeling that you’re on a beach, on vacation. Yeah, it sure did. I often spend a lot of money on something I could get at home for half the price because I’m on vacation.

The tomato vinaigrette was delicious. It made downing the shrimp (and my pride) a little easier. At this point I had just forked out $20 for shrimp. There was no way I wasn’t going to eat them. Let’s be real.

I mean, worse comes to worse you DO get a half a bushel of mint with this presentation.

Verdict? Skip this dish – but the rest are worth a revisit and definitely make me confident going forward to try the rest of the menu.

Overall

For the Fenway neighborhood, TigerMama is a great addition. But between its over the top presentations (in some cases) and the patrons who look like they’d never step foot into the countries where the food they’re eating originated from, it makes me wonder if this is what we can expect to see in the way of Asian cuisine in Boston. It’s safe to say TigerMama is going to hold its own against Ming Tsai’s Blue Dragon. With gentrification and high rent rates are kicking out small, local spots in Chinatown…I hope that Boston diners still give the smaller, local spots a chance to thrive too.