Over the years away from the islands, Elsa Santos nurtured the dream of owning her own cafe and restaurant that would bring a piece of her home to Pittsburgh. Now, Santos is making that dream a reality with her newly opened Azorean Cafe in Bloomfield.
Santos, the chef/owner, hails from the Azores, a Portuguese archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Stepping into the cafe, you’re transported to the home of Santos’ youth, surrounded by blue hydrangeas and the smell of freshly brewed Portuguese coffee that’s served with a twist of lemon.
Santos arrived in the U.S. 17 years ago and made her living in the coffee industry with her cousins.
She characterizes Azorean cuisine as relying on the land and seasonal harvest with lots of seafood, homemade breads and organic vegetables. “I grew up with that all in the backyard. There is no such thing there as processed food,” says Santos. In order to keep her flavors and foods as authentic as possible, Santos orders most everything from a Portuguese grocer.
Her dedication to her homeland is epitomized in a dense pastry called queijada that she imports directly from her village on the island of São Miguel. The same family has made this secret recipe for 100 years. “It started with a couple of nuns who raised a little girl and she kept the recipe in her family. Now her great granddaughter has the company that produces them,” says Santos.
Pastries and breads are an important part of the Azorean breakfast. The fluffy yet crusty white roll served with butter and cheese is a staple, especially when paired with a clean-tasting and slightly sweet cup of Portuguese coffee. Santos serves rolls with eggs and chourico to fill out a slightly more American-style breakfast sandwich. Santos notes that the chourico is different from Mexican chorizo in both spelling and taste. Chourico is less fatty and meaty than its cousin. She carries both smoked and regular.
Her cheeses, all made from cow’s milk, are also imported from the Azores. São Jorgea, a semi-hard cheese with a spicy bite, is the cheese she grew up on along with topo, a buttery cheese good for melting. A dense cheese from Faial Island (also known as the Blue Island) rounds out the offerings.
Although the cafe’s hours start bright and early at 6:30 a.m., there is a robust lunch menu to feast upon too. Casseroles are a popular dish in the Azores, and Santos credits her mother for many of the recipes, including the octopus casserole. Currently one of the biggest sellers, this casserole offers tender morsels of baked octopus with potatoes and onions in a red wine sauce. It’s a different way to experience this seafood which is typically served grilled. Feijoada, chunks of pork and chourico stewed with carrots and sweet potatoes is a classic Portuguese dish. For those feeling slightly less adventurous, familiar riffs on classic sandwiches done Azorean style fill out the lunch offerings.
Although the Azores — and certainly Portugal — have some truly delicious wines, the cafe doesn’t import bottles. Instead Santos, whose father owned a vineyard, encourages customers to bring their own to share over an afternoon meal. Finishing a bottle off with a coffee while gazing upon the paintings of blue hydrangeas and chatting with a friend will give you a moment of island respite for the day.