With its Kitchen Now Open, Port-o Lounge Pays Homage to Portugal’s Second-Largest City

Filipe Costa is bringing a little Newark flavor to Newark Avenue with Port-o Lounge, a tapas bar and lounge that pays homage to Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city.

“A lot of people are familiar with the Ironbound in Newark, which is very known for Portuguese food,” says Costa. “There are tons of them there; there’s nothing here.”

While Costa admits that’s not quite true, with York Street’s Lisbon Restaurant also serving up Portuguese dishes, he says “that’s not necessarily the same concept” as Port-o Lounge.

“Most Portuguese restaurants are Lisbon style. I’ve never seen anybody mention the second-biggest city in Portugal (Porto),” Costa says. “It’s easy to pronounce; it’s an interesting city. So I decided to name the restaurant after it.”

The second city is poised to become the leading man on Jersey City’s dining scene after what was an initial slow start.

Porto Lounge Interior

Porto Lounge Interior

The bar opened last July with short hours, opening Thursdays through Saturdays from 8:30 pm to close. But as of early November, the kitchen is up and running, and hours have been extended to six days a week (Tuesday through Sunday), with the kitchen open from noon to 11pm, and the bar is open until 2 am.

The staggered opening can be chalked up to delays Costa encountered throughout the construction process.

“It took me three years to do something that I had planned to do in a year. That alone could kill a lot of businesses,” he says, citing the permit and inspection processes as particularly lengthy. So although Costa still had to finish constructing the kitchen and needed staff, he had a liquor license that had to be used in order to be renewed.

“I had to open after two years because I had the license and in order to renew it, I had to open regardless,” Costa says. “So I opened with three bottles of Jack Daniels and a few cases of beer. … I wasn’t ready to open, but I had to, because it had taken three years.”

Costa was able to open Port-o with the help of family and friends in the restaurant business. 
Costa is from a small town 10 minutes from Porto, which sits on the mouth of the Douro River in northwest Portugal. Porto, meaning “the port” in English, is mainly known for its namesake wine — port. When Costa moved to America at 17 (he’s now 36), he worked in restaurants owned by family and friends. Though he left the restaurant business a while ago, he says that “with their support, I was able to put this together.”

Costa says he decided on a tapas bar rather than a full-fledged restaurant because it’s more accommodating.

“Some people like to go out just for a drink, and they don’t want to go to a ‘restaurant’ restaurant,” he says. “You don’t need to come out for a meal — just grab an appetizer.”

The menu, which features many classic Portuguese dishes, was put together by a family friend who owned three restaurants and has since retired.

“There are a lot of dishes from Portugal that people don’t do here,” notes Costas. “Either they’re hard to do, or they don’t want to bother with it, or maybe they don’t think people will go for it. So I decided to have those dishes myself.”

Dishes like Polvo a Guillo — slices of octopus sauteed in garlic and olive oil — and Picadinho — marinated pork cubes sauteed with potatoes, chorizo, Portuguese olives and pickles — are classics that Costa loves and encourages diners to try.

The menu also contains such Portuguese specialities as Francesinha (Little Frenchie).

“It’s a very, very traditional dish from Porto, the city itself,” Costas says of the dish. “Most of the restaurants in Porto, even in all of Portugal, compete to have the best one.”

The Francesinha is a sandwich topped with steak, cured ham and fresh sausage, then dipped in sauce, covered with cheese and broiled. (The sauce-covered sandwich is eaten with a fork and knife.) Every restaurant in Porto has its own sauce, a thick beer-and-tomato concoction, for the Francesinha.

“The ingredients are pretty much the same from place to place, but every house has its own sauce,” says Costa. “So they say the secret’s in the sauce.” The chef at Port-o Lounge hasn’t even told Costa what is in his Francesinha sauce — ”but I know it’s pretty good,” he says.

Port-o Lounge also serves sopas (soups) like Caldo Verde — the traditional Portuguese collard green and sausage soup — and Gaspacho, salads, sandwiches like Prego no Pao (garlic-nailed steak on a bun) and full-sized plates for dinner, such as Linguini com Frutos do Mar — linguini tossed with sauteed scallops, shrimp and clams in garlic red sauce.

“A lot of people, when they hear pasta, they think Italian restaurants,” says Costa. “I grew up eating pasta. I came to the United States and Portuguese restaurants don’t have pasta on the menu, which I found very very weird.”

There are also a few vegetarian options, such as Cogumelos Recheados — portobello mushroom caps stuffed with onion, parsley, bread crumbs and parmegiano reggiano — though Costa says “in Portugal, there is no such thing as a vegetarian.”

The desserts are all made in-house. Toucinho de ceu, an almond and egg yolk pudding, and Serradura — layers of cream filling and crushed biscuits infused with espresso — are very traditional Portuguese dishes.

Complementing the food, the wine list features 35 different wines, from Portugal as well as Spain, America, France, New Zealand, Chile and Australia. Costa plans to add more wine to the menu as he begins to do wine tastings this year.

The first two wine tastings will feature wines from Portugal, naturally, but Costa says “eventually, we’ll branch out.”

Porto Lounge Interior

Porto Lounge Interior

Of course, port is also featured on the wine menu. While the thick, sweet fortified wine is known mainly as an after-dinner drink, it is becoming increasingly known for its mixability. At Port-o, Costa’s bartenders have come up with a few port-based cocktails that are as-yet unnamed (Costa plans to release a cocktail menu soon). Along with wines, Port-o Lounge has sangria, sparkling sangria (made with champagne) and a full bar.

The bar itself is designed for both drinking and eating. The bi-level design starts at standard height and dips downward to table height at the end, so that patrons can have both a bar and dining experience.

“It’s comfortable to eat and to interact with the bartender,” says Costa. “You don’t feel like you’re sitting at the bar — but at the same time, you are.”

There are other modern touches to the lounge, including molded plastic chairs, clear tables and art from local artists who participate in JC Fridays.

Costa also worked to keep the original details of the space intact, including the brick walls, a large, steel, vault-like door that opens to reveal the wine library, a skylight and ornate ceiling moldings that are all original to the building. Port-o also has a backyard/patio area that is not yet finished. Costa hopes to have it fully furnished by spring for alfresco dining.

Despite its slow start, Port-o Lounge seems poised to stick around. Costa even plans on opening for brunch in the near future.

“I’m happy with the area and everything going on with this area [of the city],” Costa says. “Business-wise, I can’t yet analyze. It’s not all about money. As long as I can cover my bills, I’m happy.”

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Port-o Lounge | 286 1st St. | 201-420-9550 | portolounge.com | Tapas from $9; Dinner $12 to $19.50

Amy Petriello

an editorial art director by day who co-founded the food blog Cooklyn. She has lived in New Jersey, New York and New Zealand.