A taste of Portugal: Sargent Avenue business clings to its ethnic roots
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/06/2015 (2901 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Go back a couple of decades, and the West End was predominantly Portuguese-Canadian. Now, Sargent Avenue boasts Winnipeg’s most culturally diverse collection of independently owned restaurants, with Filipino breakfast joints, Vietnamese noodle houses and Ethiopian diners scattered along the glorious 1.5-kilometre stretch from Banning to Balmoral streets.
A few remnants of Sargent Avenue’s Portuguese past remain in the form of indefatigable pastry purveyor Lisbon Bakery and a relative new kid on o bloco, Viena Do Castelo, a Portuguese grocer, caterer, bakery and take-out food counter that opened west of Arlington Street in 2011.
Four years ago, most of the sales in this shop, which occupies the blocky end of a nondescript commercial strip, came from the sale of Portuguese dry goods. Owners Luis Esteves and Ana Godinho Esteves also sold pork bifanas — fried slices of marinated pork, slathered in sautéed onions and slapped into a slightly crusty roll — as well as some form of soup.
Now, the bulk of the business is made up of catering and counter sales of Portuguese specialties that make no pretense of appeasing non-Iberian palates. There’s fried whole baby mackerel, pork-blood sausage, octopus stew, salted cod with potatoes in cream sauce and a fantastic, house-made chourico.
The disappearance of these foodstuffs from Winnipeg restaurants was part of what inspired Luis Esteves to quit his job as a commercial banker — and enjoy the relative comfort of bankers’ hours — to spend 15-hour days stuffing sausages.
“There was a lack of what we do in the city,” said Esteves, sitting at one of the few sit-down tables in his shop. “For some reason, this city hasn’t been able to maintain a Portuguese restaurant.”
The main reason is prior Portuguese restaurants ignored what many food-literate consumers want: authentic dishes prepared from scratch, without the pretense of a fine-dining experience.
The lunch-counter format has proven so successful for Viena Do Castelo, the clientele has expanded past a Portuguese ethnic base to serve the West End’s cultural mosaic. Esteves said Caribbean customers come for the salt cod, Filipino-Canadians like the fried fish and families with no connection to Portugal whatsoever have used the catering service for weddings.
“We feel we’ve changed the perception of Portuguese food in the community,” said Esteves, speaking about the city as a whole.
The changes to the West End — both ethnic and socioeconomic — are another matter.
“I’ve grown up in this area. I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve seen the changes, and I’m used to the changes,” he said.
What he said he doesn’t comprehend is the notion his inner-city neighbourhood may be perceived as undesirable or even scary to people who live elsewhere in Winnipeg. Sargent Avenue’s diversity has proven a boon to all the food purveyors along the strip, he said, even though he acknowledged there could be easier places to park than along the pedestrian-oriented inner-city artery.
What definitely isn’t easy is the life of an artisanal sausage maker. It takes five days for Esteves and Ana to make chourico, which they crank out at the rate of 90 kilograms per week.
First, pork butt (actually the shoulder of the pig) is trimmed of most of its fat and cut into coarse chunks. Grinding would produce the wrong consistency, Esteves said.
The pork is marinated in wine and spices for two days, stuffed into pork-intestine casings and then hung for another day to dry. After that, they’re smoked off-site at a butcher for another day.
The end product is best eaten fresh but can survive three weeks in a refrigerator, Esteves said. Commercial sausages laden with preservatives just can’t match the flavour or the consistency.
“As soon as you add preservatives to the meat, it’s going to change the texture and the flavour,” he said. “This recipe has been handed down for generations.”
It cost the Esteveses about $120,000 to start this business. Esteves gave up his banking job, Ana ditched a gig at the Winnipeg School Division. The grocery must support them and three kids aged 10 and under, whose birthdates are inscribed in tattoo form below the word “Familia” on Esteves’ arm.
“I used up all my personal savings to open this place up,” he said. “It’s still scary. In March, we hit our five-year mark and there are a lot of decisions to make.”
The big one involves whether or not to remain in the location, but Viena Do Castelo is not leaving the heart of Portuguese Winnipeg. “We want to stay in the West End,” Esteves said.
Updated on Monday, June 22, 2015 7:07 AM CDT: Replaces photo