With Cape Verde’s Independence Day coming up on Saturday— a day after our own July Fourth holiday— it’s a perfect time to drop in and bask in the festivity and experience comfort food, Cape Verdean-style. I have been hungering for the singularly eclectic taste of the island since my return from a year spent in Cape Verde in 2011. Fortunately, living in Greater Boston, I don’t have to look far: Dorchester offers a great selection of fine establishments with Cape Verdean home-style fares.
Dot is home to the one of the largest Cape Verdean diasporas in the world and among the fastest-growing regions of new immigration in the United States. Cape Verde, of course, is an archipelago nation off the West Coast of Africa. Along with Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe, Cape Verde was part of Lusophone Africa, a collection of former Portuguese colonies in the continent, of which cuisines bear a strong Portuguese influence.
The colonialists introduced American crops like corn and cassava, which feature prominently in these countries’ cuisines. A Portuguese colonial heritage might not be unique to Cape Verde, yet Cape Verdean food is markedly different from that of fellow Lusophone Angola. Working on the same array of imported ingredients, still these colonies create wonderfully diverse fares based on their own pre-colonialism culinary customs. As Cape Verdean émigrés and their America-born families now outnumber the population back home, New England settlements like Dorchester have become more like a motherland for many folks. And the restaurant scene here in Dorchester finally reflects that reality.
At Restaurant Laura on Columbia Road, the atmosphere is laid back and the food is unaffectedly hearty, just like Laura — the owner and cook— herself. A friend joined me in a visit to Restaurant Laura one sunny Saturday morning in June. A “Please seat yourself” sign greeted us at the door. Emboldened, we advanced into the oasis and picked a table marked by a swath of sunlight, underneath a retro-industrial dual-headed fan. Arriving at around 11 a.m., we were not the first customers of the day. There were already a few diners, fellow Cape Verdeans bantering in Kriolu.
The storefront space near Edward Everett Square teems with New American energy. Our waitress speaks little English, smiles often and gracefully. Meanwhile, Laura helped the waitress take our orders. There was both a cultural and emotional authenticity to the place, in a very welcoming way. It was our first time there and we felt like no strangers.
We had kartuniz/codorniz –deep-fried succulent quails in a tart sauce and mandioca frita –oil-browned yucca with honey mustard dipping sauce. Juliennes of celery and carrots crisply accompanied the starchy side. The golden quails came bathed in piquant vinaigrette, a fine mix of lemon, merlot shallot wine and sweet paprika. The meat still retained its crunch amidst the tendering salsa and heat, was slightly sweet and compositionally original.
Having experienced the characteristically Cape Verdean hospitality at Laura, we left gratified and grateful.
Impressed, we moved on to Restaurante Cesaria, a famous Bowdon Street eatery co-founded by John Barros, Boston’s current chief of economic development, a true-blue Dorchester-born Cape Verdean himself. Our waitress, a native from the island Sal, started us off with grogue, a sugarcane liquor, an off-menu item but a ritual among the locals. The yellow grogue is sweet, smooth, and easy, the white grogue strong and blunt. Our waitress told us that the different colors and flavors stem from the different artisanal production processes on the two islands these breeds of grogue came from.
For entrées, we had cachupa refugada—refried savory hominy and Mozambique style beef—steak tossed in chili-spiked sauce. Refugada is the version of the quintessential cachupa in which the leftover dinner hominy stew is smoked and reworked to add a breakfast zest. Our cachupa turned out modestly crispy. The onions injected a bright note. The linguica was exquisite, though their flavor stuck out rather than contributed to the rest of the a somewhat under-seasoned cachupa. The entire dish though was a wonderful accompaniment to the steak. The Mozambique style beef was neither dry nor juicy, a great complement to the tangy sauce. The attendant grilled shrimps and mussels were full of flavors, though lacking nuance in texture. The hexagon-cut fries, two eggs and a hill of rice, on the other hand, were done to perfection.
Local favorites like restaurant Laura and Cesaria are endearing fixtures in the neighborhood as well as beyond. Food is steadfastly delicious, friendly to the American taste, affordable ($8-$15 per entrée) and abundant (lunch buffet offered daily). On top of that, one can enjoy live music and sensibly priced wines in a leisurely ambience.
Restaurant Laura is located at 688 Columbia Rd, Dorchester. They are closed on Tuesdays and open Sundays for brunch from 11a.m.-3 p.m. They are open 6:30 a.m.- 1 p.m. the rest of the week. Restaurante Cesaria is located at 266 Bowdoin St., Dorchester. Follow their Facebook pages for hours and information on upcoming performances.