Sandwiched between Italian restaurants on Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield, Azorean Cafe salutes the cuisine of the Azores, an archipelago just off the coast of Portugal. The dishes, founded on a “peasant-based” cooking style, are hearty, humble, and full of earthy flavors. Azorean Cafe puts heart into practical, homey dishes.
Elsa Santos, the restaurant’s head chef and owner, is native to this cluster of islands. Santos has lived in the U.S. for 17 years, after migrating from Sao Miguel, the largest of the Azores. Azorean Cafe, which opened in May of 2018, pays homage to her home with a U.S. twist.
Azorean cuisine relies heavily on what’s fresh and available, producing a rustic, straightforward relative of Portuguese fare. Seafood is a prominent feature. Santos reflects this on her menu, sticking with traditional Portuguese dishes like bifana (pork loin sandwich), bacalhau natas (baked salted cod), and feijoada (Portuguese stew). The counter case holds a variety of croquettes, empanadas, fritters, and pastries. She puts twists on American classics, winning over Pittsburghers with her Azores-inspired French toast.
During the week, Santos keeps to breakfast and lunch. But on Fridays and Saturdays, her hours extend, and the menu expands for dinner.
The cafe brings a fresh, vibrant light to the neighborhood. Inside, bright blue walls provide a backdrop for island landscapes, lining an ever-extending hallway of tables. It’s spacious yet intimate, a quiet atmosphere perfect for a lunch alone, a relaxed dinner, or a mid-afternoon respite.
When I visited Azorean Cafe, one thing rang true: they knew how to do lunch. It was casual, flavorful food that was fast and healthy. I wasn’t sitting for two hours on a leisurely lunch break, and I wasn’t pushed out the door by anxious business people. It was easy and delicious.
Before my meal, I dipped into the island drink menu for cacao. Azorean’s espresso was paired with moka and embellished with a swirling sweep of whipped cream, chocolate drizzle, and a cookie. It offered an excess of frills, but not much in the way of taste.
My meal began with caldo verde, a simple Portuguese soup. This dish could have come from my grandmother’s kitchen. It was an Azorean version of Italian wedding soup. The medley was masterfully understated, a modest broth supporting white beans, sweet potatoes, kale, onion, and chouriço. One dash of the table's hot sauce and I was happy.
From there, I moved to polvo guisado, a baked octopus stew. It was a neat, bow-wrapped package, each bite cleanly balanced. Starchy potatoes soaked up a rich, sun-ripened broth and the octopus was beautifully tender. It all but melted away into the robust broth.
I finished with the nata, a Portuguese egg tart. The flaky pastry, filled with a lush egg tart, was dusted with cinnamon and baked in a high-temperature oven. There wasn't a bad bite, the sugary custard barely sneaking sweetness.
Azorean Cafe is warming Pittsburgh up with a drop of island cuisine. There’s too much to taste in one visit, and everything is worth at least one bite. I’ll be back, if not for a meal, for a box full of natas.
Live plants are everywhere in the cafe. They droop from rods on the wall and fill up empty counter space.
Find Azorean food that you can’t live without? Santos offers a limited retail selection in addition to her cafe.
3. Mini casserole dishes
Stews are served in small casserole dishes, just the right portion for one person. It’s true what they say. Everything is cuter when it’s a miniature.