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Sweet Sousa

Christopher Gardner

Old World Romance: Owner/chef Leonel Sousa and wife Aira create a gracious ambiance inside Sousa's Restaurant.

For 14 years, Sousa's Restaurant has served as the culinary hub for its community

By Andrew X. Pham

'LITTLE PORTUGAL" occupies four blocks squaring the intersection of 31st Avenue and Alum Rock Avenue. For 14 years, Sousa's Restaurant has been the culinary hub of this community, serving as a popular meeting and eating place.

Rooted in the stretch of Alum Rock near the 101 overpass, Little Portugal thrives peacefully in a Hispanic-dominant district, cultivating its own enclave while happily mingling with others. Owner and chef Leonel Sousa and his wife, Aira, pride themselves on the diversity of their patrons and take great pleasure when non-Portuguese guests find the cuisine to their liking.

Coyly mantled behind fully drawn curtains, Sousa's sedate poise contrasts starkly with its ragged neighborhood. Seemingly trapped in time, Sousa's stands as testimony to a bygone era, before the valley's economic growth in the 1980s nudged the wealthy ever westward.

Beneath woodcuts patterned in a Portuguese guitar motif, smoky mirrors, red velvet curtains and an antique chandelier, two banquet-sized dining rooms accommodate patrons. Despite the linen-dressed tables, Sousa's quirky decor invites informality.

The requisite dinner rolls, neither distinctive nor particularly fresh, lull the palate. Likewise, the evening's soup--chicken and rice--while authentic, does not impress with its flat and underspiced nature.

But with the wine came redemption. Reguengo's Vinho Tinto 1992 ($12.50 a bottle), a full-bodied Portuguese red blend, washes down fruity and smooth, entertaining with regional flavors. Fueled by its flavors, the senses begin to open, humming to the rhythmic tickle of Portuguese guitar softly piped through speakers.

Riches of the sea dominate Portuguese cuisine, and chef Leonel Sousa, who began his cooking career in Portugal at age 12, has amassed a fair collection of specialties. When we tried to order a starter course of seafood, Aira adamantly discouraged us, claiming that our order of arroz de mariscos already had everything. (It was one of those dishes that forms a meal all by itself.)

After some wheedling, we managed to convince her to give us some polvo, octopus stew, as an appetizer. A true Portuguese fisherman specialty, the dish wraps the palate with a musky-scented octopus distillation, faintly sour and sweet yet very salty, something of a "rapture of the deep" potency. Rich in pork-fat stock, the octopus is stewed for four hours with garlic, bay leaves, red and white wines, white pepper and paprika. The spices and wine impart a shrimpy tone to the stew. Given the intensity of this dish, we were glad we took it on as an appetizer rather than as an entree.

An order of carne a alentejana ($13.50), sparsely depicted as "baked marinated pork and clams with cilantro," conjures forth a Cyclopean portion of browned pork cubes, fried and diced potatoes, clams sizzling in the shell, black olives and orange-slice garnishes. Marinated in garlic and wine, the pork receives a sprinkling of white pepper, a fluttering of bay leaves and a spike of paprika before oven baking. Everything is assembled and pan-fried with more chile powder, cilantro and butter.

Aesthetically arresting and feast-like, the arroz de mariscos ($19.50 per person, minimum of two orders) contains a treasure chest of bright seafood over saffron lemon-butter rice--a dish fit for King Neptune himself. Fiery-colored crab legs, red lobster, blue-tinted clam shells, golden shrimp, pearly scallops--every morsel fresh and succulent--gleam like an undersea carnival inside a green bowl shaped after a giant cabbage leaf.

Eating this Portuguese corollary of Spanish paella is a joy. Each portion must be ladled out, allowing for selective scooping of favorite bits. The soft rice tastes buttery and sweet with shellfish juices. In truth, Aira is right: This course makes a complete meal.

But still, we forged ahead and ordered flan (custard), chocolate mousse and a slice of torta de coco, a coconut pastry with custard ($2.50 each). The flan dripped with overwhelming butterscotch flavor. Both chocolate mousse and coconut pastry fared best in tandem with strong coffee to counteract the sweetness.

Strong contrasts keep the Sousa's experience intriguing. Despite barred windows and drawn curtains on the outside, the restaurant's interior is gracious and inviting. And the food similarly runs the gamut, from sweet to salty, hearty to delicate. As in life, variety is the spice of Portugal.

Sousa's Restaurant

Cuisine: Portuguese and continental
Ambiance: Well-established and comfortable; definite character
Prices: $9­$19 (huge portions)
Hours: Lunch Tue.­Fri. 11am­3pm; dinner Tue.­Fri. 5­9pm and Sat.­Sun. 11am­9pm; closed Monday.
Address: 1614 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose
Phone: 408/926-9075

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From the August 29-September 4, 1996 issue of Metro

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