THERE'S A TIME-HONORED tradition 'round these parts: Food cart specializes in one or two superb plates from the far-flung mountains of Tajikistan. Food cart gains following and makes good. Food cart gets its own brick-and-mortar shop, maybe slightly expands its menu, but makes sure the signature dishes stay on point.
Part of me wonders if Fado Portuguese Kitchen & Bar should have taken this approach instead of jumping straight to the brick and mortar. Fado—named after a Portuguese musical style—is on SE Hawthorne in the former Dingo's space. It's reportedly the only Portuguese restaurant between Vancouver, BC, and Northern California, making it unique enough to stand out next to carts that serve Maine lobster rolls and Japanese okonomiyaki. Had Fado started out as a cart, it would have had the chance to do a soft launch, honing and whittling recipes (some of which came from chef Nick Ross' grandmother) into surefire winners worthy of cult followings.
The menu boasts several dishes that could easily bring in a cart crowd, but have yet to pack the 50-seat space—even on weekends. A big winner was the assador de barro ($7 for one), which comes in an adorable clay pig filled with flammable fluid (adopt one for $25). Poof! goes a lighter, and you're charring your linguica sausage yourself before adding it to a baguette and topping it with grainy mustard. I love this. More tableside flambé, please! The vieiras ($19) was the standout entrée, with jumbo seared scallops, crispy presunto (think the prosciutto of Lisbon), peas, red pepper, and celery root puree. I let a dining companion order it and was pissed I only got one of the perfectly cooked mollusks arranged in a circle on a sea of green. The amêijoas and linguica ($16) was a generous pile of steamed clams, linguica sausage, potato, garlic, onion, and shallot that went down great.
Portuguese food, like all others, is a function of its history and geography. Seafood—think squid, sardines, and salt cod—figures heavily due to its coastal location, and Portugal's fondness for pork and small plates certainly arrives via Spain. Fado faithfully delivers most of these flavors. But salt cod, a mainstay in the Western European country where it's said to be cooked 365 different ways, is only available in a potato fritter ($9). Inside a deep-fried ball, you lose most of cod's salty, fishy oomph, especially if you dip it in the herb aioli; a tartar sauce by any other name. Piri piri, a fragrant red chili used in Portuguese and African cooking, makes a welcome appearance as a second dipping sauce with the fritters and with the peixinhos da horta (fish of the garden), AKA tempura green beans ($5). It also lends its smokiness to the piri piri chicken dish ($15).
Also, if Fado were a cart, we could forcibly pry the liquor bottles from the bartender's hands and just send you to a nearby beer cart. Working my way carefully through the list, I came to the conclusion that someone is deliberately messing with me at about $8 a pop. For Christo's sake, there's a drink called Grandma's Top Shelf: a nauseating blend of sparkling wine, anise, orange bitters, and St. Germain that makes me REALLY worry whether granny's also hitting the rubbing alcohol. Both the white and red sangria cocktails ($7) have rum in them (sangria usually has brandy, not rum), and arrives with no fruit in the glass, but rather an orange, lime, and lemon wedge rainbow hogging the circumference of the glass. Port wine also features heavily in mixed drinks, including the Port in a Storm, a $9 twist on a Dark and Stormy with rum, ginger liqueur, and port. Blergh.
Stick to the Portuguese wines or the microbrews and the pork or fish dishes, and you'll have a meal that's worth stamping your culinary passport.
Tues-Thurs 4:30-9:30 pm, Fri 4:30-10 pm, Sat 5-10 pm. Happy hour Tues-Fri 4:30-6:30. Reservations for parties of six or more.