Hidden Eats: The Portuguese Club

The man pointed to our corner table, deposited two menus, and marched back to the bar. We were a party of three. I waved him over. Could we get another menu?

“That’s all we have,” he said and retreated to the bar.

We were the only people in the dining room of the Portuguese Club (12210 Veirs Mill Rd., Silver Spring; 301-949-5605), a cavernous, dimly lit space sandwiched between Latin markets in a strip mall that once housed an X-rated movie theater. My friends wanted to leave.

“Let’s give it a chance,” I insisted. Now they were feeling hostile toward me, too.

I ordered for the table, starting with a caldo verde, the classic northern-Portuguese soup of kale, potato, and sausage. The man shook me off like a pitcher overruling his catcher. I opted for two other appetizers, then settled on an entrée—bacalhau assado, one of three preparations of fried cod on the menu.

“No assado.

Okay, how about the rotisserie chicken?

“Only on weekends.”

“You sure you want to stay?” one of my friends asked.

I don’t walk out on bad movies, and I don’t quit on bad books. I was determined to see how things would play out.

Minutes later, a plate of steamed clams in garlic sauce ($9) hit the table. Braced for the worst, we could hardly believe our good fortune—the clams were sweet and the sauce so irresistible that we were immediately tearing off pieces of bread to mop it up.

Next came a slatted ceramic boat bearing a hunk of scored sausage; below the slats, a small amount of whiskey had been lit. The blue-tipped flame flicked at the coarse-ground chorizo, charring its underside. It put me in mind of eating in the fishing villages that hug the Mediterranean, of simple, rustic pleasures. If there’s a better dish out there for five bucks, I haven’t seen it.

The bacalhau a chefe ($12)—the chef’s choice—turned out to be the assado preparation I was told wasn’t available. Shaking our heads, we dove into the dish and were amply rewarded: a huge filet of fried cod in a stew brimming with slivers of fried potato, olives, and pickled carrot and celery. Almost as good was a dish of tender, soy-marinated cubes of fried pork in a crock laden with more of those marvelous steamed clams ($11).

A plate of tough steak and potatoes was disappointing, and the flan—the only dessert available—was forgettable. But I had seen enough to bring me back, despite the mishaps.

I returned a couple of weeks later—in a party of two this time. The dining room was not deserted as before; it was almost full. Behind us, a group of preteens played cards, led by a pompadoured kid who had brought a suitcase of chips. Near the end of the bar was another table of card players, a group of older men. Next to us, a large family had massed at a long table: The adults talked in Portuguese while the teens listened to iPods and the baby made googly eyes at us.

It was dinnertime, but we were the only ones eating. Not much had changed: no caldo verde, no rotisserie, no bacalhau assado. And the service was just as gruff and ungracious as before. But we were served a wonderful plate of heads-on shrimp in garlic sauce ($9). A dish of boiled cod, potato, and broccoli—a Portuguese classic—was simple and tasty. And the garlicky clams were as good as I’d remembered them.

When we were done, the other customers turned and watched us leave. I couldn’t help feeling we’d interrupted a private party.

I don’t know what kind of restaurant the Portuguese Club is—if “restaurant” is even the proper term for the place. I don’t know if it wants my business. What I do know is that the sausage, the clams, and the shrimp are calling me back.

This review appeared in the October, 2008 issue of The Washingtonian.