NEW BEDFORD - Located along the cobblestone streets of historic downtown New Bedford is a place named Tia Maria's European Cafe. It's a spot where a bubbly young woman is living her dream. That woman's name is Jessica Coelho.
"Coelho means rabbit in Portuguese, so it's Jessica Rabbit," she laughed.
Jessica is proudly Portuguese. Her parents immigrated to the US in the 1970's, but as a teen, Jessica would spend her summers back in the old country.
"Most people go to, like, summer camp. My parents would send me to Portugal, and I absolutely loved it. I love the culture, I love the ambiance. You go to the coffee shop in the morning; that's where you meet your friends, and I kind of wanted and always felt like this is what I want to do. I hope to one day to have my own little cafe."
So about two years ago, Jessica opened Tia Maria's, paying homage to her Portuguese roots, and her four aunts, all named Maria.
"Tia Maria means Aunt Maria in Portuguese. In this area, we have a large Portuguese population, and so everyone has a Tia Maria."
Tia Maria's serves breakfast and lunch every day, and dinner on Friday and Saturday nights. There are fresh baked pastries, fresh brewed coffees, and plenty of flavor-packed Portuguese fare.
"Portuguese food tends to be garlicky, spicy, very flavorful," described Jessica. "A lot of my recipes in my menu is from my Mom and my Dad, from what they brought over from Portugal."
Mom and Dad don't just provide the recipes, they also help with the cooking, back in Tia Maria's cramped kitchen.
"My mom is my secret weapon. She's the one that gives me the authentic Portuguese cooking," Jessica shared. As for Dad, "he's my potato peeler. He'll start his mornings off where he just peels the potato. From there he puts them in water, and then we slice as needed."
Dad does all that slicing by hand, cutting the spuds into fried potato rounds known as rodelas.
"Rodelas in Portuguese means round. They are similar to a potato chip, however they're a little bit thicker, they're not as crispy, they're a little bit on the softer side," explained Jessica.
They're served with just about everything: alongside a sandwich, with a steak, or even atop the outrageously awesome Portuguese Burger.
"It's an eight ounce, hand packed, 100 percent Angus burger. It's topped with a piece of linguica, an over-light egg, the rodelas, and then it's topped with hot peppers, and it's served on a Portuguese roll, which is similar to a bulkie roll," listed Jessica. "Most people will then smoosh it all together and they just go for it."
Breakfast at Tia Maria's is extra hearty. There's Portuguese style Steak and Eggs, a Portuguese take on an Egg Sandwich topped with linguica, plus Loaded Home Fries and Sweet Bread French Toast.
Lunch and dinner are just as filling, especially when you order one of the most popular dishes to come out of the tiny kitchen: Shrimp Mocambique.
"Mocambique sauce is a spicy garlic saffron sauce," Jessica said. "Ours is also a little bit on the spicier side. It's garlic, olive oil, we use a little bit of lemon juice, and a few little extras that gives it our own twist."
Another dish where the sauce is the star is Tia Maria's Portuguese Steak. This perfectly grilled steak is topped with two eggs and hot peppers, then smothered with deep, dark, delicious homemade gravy.
"My mom makes my gravy, and it takes her, I'd say, a good five hours from start to finish. It's meat based. In addition to that she purees vegetables into the gravy, and on top of that, of course, we add the garlic and the spices. So it's super flavorful."
The value here is off the charts. Entrees are in the low teens, and appetizers are less than ten bucks. So start your meal with an order of Portuguese Nachos, Homemade Shrimp Croquettes, or the fiery and festive Chourico Bombeiro.
"We actually pour some Moonshine over it, and then we light a flame to it, and it's served open flame to the table. A lot of people, they get a little nervous, like 'oh my hair is going to get on fire.' Or 'oh, I'm going to burn myself.' We're super careful," Jessica assured us.
Tia Maria's is housed inside a building that's almost two-hundred years old, and customers love to hang out sipping coffee and snacking on authentic Portuguese pastries called Pastel de Natas.
"They're custard tarts. They have a little bit of a lemon zest, and a crusty outer shell," described Jessica.
In fact, it's so comfortable here, sometimes customers stay a bit too long, leading to a parking ticket. But Jessica found a way to turn that sour note sweet.
"When you get a parking ticket here at Tia Maria's, as long as it's dated today on the parking violation, we actually use the city's parking violation as a form of coupon. So to kind of sweeten up your day, we'll give you a free Pastel de Nata," Jessica said. "It's just kind of my way like 'hey, I appreciate your business. I'm sorry this happened to you, but here's something sweet to possibly turn that frown upside down."
But just to be clear...
"The customers pay the ticket, I'm just giving you the sweet and hopefully that entices you to come back."
You can find Tia Maria's at 42 North Water Street in New Bedford, and online at tiamariaseuropeancafe.com.
Watch Phantom Gourmet on Saturdays and Sundays at 10:30 and 11 a.m. on myTV38.
for more features.