Coimbra Restaurant is one of those places I've been meaning to write about for years, but just haven't got around to it until now (finally remembering to bring my camera helped provide some impetus). Named for Portugal's most famous university town in the middle of the country, it has the reputation of being one of the most authentic Portuguese joints in Newark, and from what I can tell, that reputation is most likely deserved.
I've eaten here at least a dozen times and have hardly had a disappointing meal (maybe one - a stellar record by any standard). For one thing, I do as I would in any restaurant in Portugal: order from the pratos do dia (daily specials) only. They're made specially that day, and are almost invariably more interesting dishes than those on the standard menu. Tonight I got borrego assado, oven-roasted lamb. In fact, mutton would, I believe, be the more accurate word, but don't be put off by the idea - it was delicious. Chunks of meat (on the bone, of course) pan-roasted slowly with white wine, paprika, bay leaf, plenty of garlic, and... lard! Accept no substitutes - it's what gives the dish its absolutely unmistakable "taste of Portugal" (specifically, the mountains and the northern regions).
I especially love the rib meat, and there's a nice chunk of it right there in front. And next to the dish, you can see the full-to-the-brim, 12 oz. glass of a quite decent Portuguese table wine that sets you back all of five bucks here. This dish is normally served with small, roasted potatoes, but luckily I remembered to ask about arroz de feijão. It's a traditional accompaniment to grilled, stewed, and roasted meats, and one of my most beloved Portuguese comfort foods. They pretty much always have it here, and it was cheerfully substituted for the potatoes. It's simply rice cooked with kidney beans, plus a bit of onion and tomato for flavor. One of those dishes that is somehow more than the sum of its parts.
This meal prompted me to ask just where the people doing the cooking were from. "Portugal," was the reply. "Well, yes, but WHERE in Portugal?" The answer confirmed my suspicions: the Serra da Estrela mountain region (which is due east of... Coimbra). No wonder the food was so very tasty - people do NOT cook this way in Lisbon, where I lived.
One of the handful of items from the regular menu I would recommend is the chouriço na brasa appetizer. It's hefty length of good chouriço, made by a local Portuguese butcher, grilled in front of you over flaming aguardiente in a traditional terra cotta dish designed specifically for that purpose. Only if you have someone to share it with, though - it's big, and the main dishes are huge. And one small caveat: do not expect wonderful vegetables here. Cabbage and greens are about the only ones the Portuguese consistently get right... those green beans were terrible.
I've only ever been here on weeknights, and only eaten in the (ample) bar area. On weekends, I understand this place becomes a different scene altogether, with the adjoining dining room full of families all day long. I need to check it out, though, because that's when they tend to have all my real favorite daily specials. Dishes such as leitão à Bairrada (roast suckling pig, Bairrada-style, one of the glories of Portuguese cooking - actually, they supposedly have it all week, but it will be freshly-roasted on the weekend), galinha em arroz de cabidela (my favorite Portuguese dish - see my description of it here), even sarrabulho, or so I'm told (chunks of pork, served with seasoned rice finished with pork blood). So who wants to meet out there and help me try things some weekend?
637 Market St., Newark, NJ 07105
(from Newark Penn Station, walk 14 blocks east on Market St. - 15 minutes)