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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Solar do Minho

The weather in NYC had been disgusting all day... drizzly and windy (such a winning combination). The kind of weather that makes you want to light a fire and curl up with some red wine and some red meat. Luckily, I had arranged to meet my friend Ian (one of this blog's faithful followers) for dinner at Solar do Minho. Even luckier, my friends Michael and Elizabeth decided at the last moment to join us, guaranteeing enthusiastic dining partners and raucous, hilarious conversation.

When I discovered rodizio, the Brazilian all-you-can-eat grilled meat service (insert joke here), about 10 years ago, I couldn't believe it had been hiding from me in plain sight all that time. I mean, this is a meal designed with ME in mind - guys coming around to your table and cutting off slices of meat from huge skewers until you tell them to stop! A little salad, some side starches, but MEAT is the star of the show. Then arose the problem of where to get my fix (and I need a fix every month or two). First, there was Churrascaria Plataforma, back when it was affordable. But they seem to have become less interested in food and more interested in separating guys on expense accounts from their company's money. I mean, over sixty bucks a head?? And that's before you have a drink! Then, for a couple of years, a lovely place in Astoria reigned supreme until its untimely demise, a casualty of ConEd's failure to maintain its infrastructure in Queens. Since then, I have been casting thither and yon for a replacement favorite: Solar do Minho has held sway for a couple of years now.

Since it's a Portuguese restaurant and not a Brazilian one (biggest bummer on that front: no pão de queijo, those wickedly addictive little balls of Parmesan cheese "bread" - more like little popovers), the variety of grilled meats in the rodizio is slightly reduced (no chicken hearts, alas), but there are still 10 or 12 cuts to satisfy the hungry carnivore. And all of them are of excellent quality, grilled by guys who know what they are doing - much higher quality than any of the places in neighboring Newark. And although the prices have risen slightly since their online menu was posted, at $24.75 a head (as of this writing) (ed.: now $29), it's still an excellent value.

Some of the carnage (all puns intended):

And I swear they must sprinkle crack on those french fries. They are some of the best fries I have had in any restaurant, anywhere.

Solar do Minho also serves some of the best Portuguese food I have tasted outside of Portugal, if one orders with some care. On this front, your menu perusal should begin with the daily specials. Sunday is a particularly good day to go here, because that's when they usually have cabrito assado à moda de Monção (which they may call "à moda da casa" or "à nossa moda"--I forget), one of Portugal's great dishes from the north: kid goat roasted so that the juices drain into rice cooking below it, which in turn has been fortified with onion, a cured pork product or two, and saffron. Sublime. At some point during the week they usually have an excellent version of what is probably my favorite Portuguese dish, galinha em arroz de cabidela. This is chicken which has been stewed with the giblets, served with rice that has then been boiled in the chicken giblet liquid, with some chicken blood added at the end. The day they serve it varies - call ahead and they will happily tell you.

As far as the regular menu goes... this evening, a neighboring table ordered bife na telha (steak cooked on a terra cotta roofing tile). It looked and smelled just right. The chouriço assado (a chouriço sausage flamed tableside in brandy) is an excellent appetizer and everything it should be. The bacalhau com natas appetizer is not bad, although a bit pricey, and served covered with a gooey white cheese... most un-Portuguese. There are a couple of pitfalls on the regular menu to watch out for. The "chicken and rice Melgaço style", although tasty enough, is something I might expect to be served in a Dominican or Puerto Rican restaurant, not a Portuguese one. I never had a rice dish remotely resembling this anywhere in Portugal, much less anywhere near Melgaço. And if you have enjoyed the justly famous dish carne de porco à alentejana in Portugal, under no circumstances order it here. The traditional dish is essentially cubed pork seasoned with garlic and paprika, fried with clams. It in no way resembles the runny stew I was served here. A travesty, and a lousy one at that. Stay either with the straightforward, or the daily specials.

Their leite creme, on the other hand, is as good as any I tried in Portugal. More or less like crème brulée, complete with burned sugar crust.

Unfortunately, not easy to get to via public transportation, although it is possible. And when you gotta have that unlimited meat fix, it's worth the trouble.

Solar do Minho
15 Cleveland St., Belleville, NJ 07109


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