By Maria Rocha-Buschel
What started as the hunt for a new kitchen for a catering business turned into the debut of a Portuguese comfort food restaurant in Taberna 97, opened on St. Mark’s Place just after Thanksgiving by two sisters living in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village.
Raquel Sanguedo and her sister Patricia run Noz Catering, which provides services for the fashion industry. When looking around for a kitchen, they found out through Little Missionary’s Day Nursery director Eileen Johnson, a neighbor, that the space formerly occupied by Yaffa Café was available. In addition to the catering business, Raquel and Patricia own St. Dymphna’s, an Irish bar down the block, along with Patricia’s husband, Eric Baker, and the three own the new business together.
Raquel said that she and her sister didn’t necessarily have a lifelong dream to open a Portuguese restaurant — although they are Portuguese — but Baker had aspirations to open up a tavern. So when they found out about the space, it seemed like a good opportunity.
“I never thought I would own an Irish bar either but sometimes you just go with the flow,” Raquel said.
The owners said they mainly did it to fill a void. For all the different ethnic cuisines available throughout New York, Raquel said that a straight-forward and authentic Portuguese restaurant is difficult to find. She noted that there are a handful of Michelin-starred spots featuring dishes that are inspired by the culture, but Taberna 97 has a more casual atmosphere while strictly sticking to the original recipes.
“We’re trying to show the food to everyone in the world,” she said. “The presentation on the plates is more beautiful than it would be in Portugal but the food is the same.”
Raquel said that one of the challenges she and her sister had was picking what to feature on the menu.
“I love so much Portuguese food so it was difficult to narrow down the choices,” she said.
She noted that they included vegetarian options primarily because Baker himself is a vegetarian and also because customers frequently request a meatless option.
“Portuguese people are not really vegetarians but we made it so that New Yorkers could eat here because a lot of people are vegetarians, and we want them to enjoy Portuguese food,” she said.
Many of the entrees on the menu are designed to be family-style, and there are smaller sharing plates as well, for both before and after the main meal.
This is because, said Raquel, “Portuguese people are always eating. It’s part of the culture that we stay at the table eating for hours, surrounded by plates and plates of food and talking with friends.”
The owners designed the menu so that certain items will rotate out so that loyal customers can try something new when they come back. One of the dishes that will likely remain a permanent fixture on the menu is the caldo verde, a kale-based soup with Portuguese sausage (which is also available without meat).
“The caldo verde is one of my favorites and that’s really popular,” Raquel noted. “That makes me very happy.”
One of the unique items on the menu is the chouriço, a spicy pork sausage served on its own or in soups, like the caldo verde, and other dishes. The meat isn’t necessarily unique for how it’s spiced but more for how it’s prepared at the restaurant: cooked in front of customers on a clay grill with aguardente, a type of alcohol, that is ignited underneath the rack to barbecue the meat.
Raquel said that the apparatus used to grill the sausage is so ubiquitous in Portuguese homes that she wasn’t sure if it had a specific name but said that it is sometimes referred to as “barro,” which just means clay.
The two sisters are from Porto, a coastal city in the northwest region of the country known for its Port, a sweet dessert wine, which is, of course, available at the restaurant. Other wines offered are traditionally Portuguese as well, including vinho verde, a slightly fizzy wine that has gained popularity in the U.S. recently.
Another challenge in addition to narrowing down the menu was finding a chef for the restaurant.
“There are Portuguese people living in New York but there’s not so much of a community as other ethnic groups like with Chinatown and Little Italy,” Raquel said. “There’s a Little Brazil but not a Little Portugal. The community is more in Connecticut and Newark so finding a chef was a big challenge.”
They ultimately discovered Chef Brian Lopes in New Jersey, and he had previously worked in Portuguese restaurants in Newark.
Aside from the food and drink, the décor came from Portugal as well. Raquel said that even the hand-painted tile on the floor and the plates the food is served on were shipped to New York from Portugal.
“We wanted it to be like a little Portugal so people feel at home when they come in,” she said. “We wanted to use things here that we would use in our homes.”
The space also has a section of built-in bookshelves that serves as a small store within the restaurant, stocked with various products brought over from Portugal such as honey, olive oil, sardines and knick knacks.
One of the challenges for the space itself was the goal of creating a sustainable and energy-efficient business by becoming LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified. Raquel said that one of the main financial challenges was due to the extra equipment needed for the certification, and she added that it was especially difficult because the city usually only gives financial incentives for bigger buildings and not for smaller businesses.
“We’re only renting the space so normally business owners wouldn’t go through the trouble of doing LEED. You have to fight for it,” she said. “It was exciting to get but it was a struggle. We’re happy to be as green as possible.”
Before Raquel moved to Stuyvesant Town about seven years ago, she lived in the East Village and planned the move because her sister already lived in Peter Cooper Village and enjoyed the neighborhood, and she especially likes that work is a short walk away from home.
“It’s the perfect place for families,” she said. “It’s our little community. It’s like you live in the suburbs but you’re right across from 14th Street.”