Walking on the streets, little would indicate that I’m in one of the central areas of Portuguese culture on the west coast. Today, in 2021, this is a mainly Hispanic neighborhood, with most of the shops and sounds reflecting that. However, in the twentieth century, what is now called Little Portugal was home to one of the largest populations of Portuguese in the country, a thriving community hub that would have reminded passers-by a bit of the old country.
While that overall feeling is gone, Little Portugal is still a place one can visit for some reminders both of this place’s storied history and of Portugal itself, a place I dearly love. Some shops still sell Portuguese favorites, some restaurants still pay homage to some of my fondest food memories from Portugal, and a few community centers still cater to the region’s Portuguese population, which still remains one of the largest in the country.
Portuguese have been making their way to the US since inception. (While the island of Curacao was the first to recognize the United States, Portugal was the first actual neutral country to do so following the war.) But the community itself traces back to Jews fleeing Catholic Portugal in 1634. Waves of migration have mirrored traumatic events in Europe, with many 19th and 20th century immigrants either fleeing political persecution of the Salazar regime following the end of the Portuguese monarchy, or fleeing economic hardship, especially from the island territories of Madeira and the Azores.
Here in San Jose, the community began as farmers coming to the fertile Santa Clara Valley in the 1850s. By the middle of the following century, the area now known as Little Portugal, on the northeastern side of San Jose, held shops, restaurants, social services organizations, and sports clubs, in addition to one of the city’s most recognizable churches: Five Wounds. It is here that an exploration of Little Portugal should begin, just to the west of US 101 on Santa Clara St. (on the other side of the freeway the road changes name to Alum Rock Ave.; San Jose is just flush with streets changing names, making for frustrating driving for visitors).
Five Wounds Portuguese National Church was founded in 1914. Containing the twin towers common to Iberian Catholic churches, it is easily recognizable and visible from the freeway. The outside is beautiful and graceful, but it is the interior that contains an airiness that belies its European counterparts. (Note: the church was closed when I arrived, but the caretaker agreed to let me in when I stopped at the rectory to ask.)
The interior is done in pastels, significantly less stark than most churches dating back more than a century, although some elements still hold the basic Catholic obsession with torment. Don’t miss the stained glass, beautiful by any standard. To this day, Five Wounds still holds mass in Portuguese, a testament to the numbers of Portuguese-Americans still living in the area (estimated at nearly 125,000).
On the other side of the freeway is Trade Rite Market, a small market of Portuguese goods, like a fantastic selection of port. In the back – there is a separate side entrance if you prefer – is Bacalhau Grill, which makes Portuguese and Brazilian comfort foods and sandwiches. I opt for the linguica sandwich, a zesty Portuguese sausage (more on this in a bit). The twin (one Portuguese and one Brazilian) feijoadas, a stew of meat and beans served over rice, also look incredible.
Of course I buy a port on the way, a delectable looking ruby.
Outside the market is a terrific mural depicting Little Portugal. It is worth a quick stop and photo.
A block down and across Alum Rock Avenue is the Popular Portuguese Bakery of San Jose, an establishment dating back decades. This is the place to go for a pastel de nata, the traditional Portuguese egg custard tart. I just wish they weren’t served cold here.
Next door is Adega, San Jose’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, and the only so starred Portuguese joint in the US. I’ve never been, but post-Covid, when I will be again willing to eat indoors, it’s on my list.
Back on the other side of the freeway, I walk past some of the old Portuguese social clubs to Goulart, the Portuguese sausage company. This is their factory, but a tiny storefront with a single case sells their wares to visitors. I buy regular linguica and a spicy version, which will combine to make my own feijoada later in the winter.
While Little Portugal is not exactly a staunch reminder of Lisbon the way it once was, there is still enough here to make it worth a couple of hours to explore. Good food, a cool church, and a friendly “obrigado” will be your souvenirs.
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