Sautéed shrimp at the J and J Restaurant
The J and J Restaurant may be the best-kept secret around Union Square – if not Camberville. Granted it’s on the outskirts, tucked away under the McGrath and O’Brien Highway where Washington Street takes you over into Sullivan Square, but I’m not convinced it’s on enough folks’ radar as it should be. The website, which looks like a relic of HTML 1.0, also doesn’t demand attention. But J and J opened as a convenience store selling barbecue chicken back in 1990, and has kept its old-school feel in the most endearing ways. To get to the dining area, you enter through the store and go down a little side chute that looks like you’re heading to the loo or a utility room. You pop out into a warm, inviting enclave with wooden cafe tables and a lacquered service bar you wish there were stools to sit at.
J and J opens for lunch and dinner with the same tightly honed Portuguese menu (the one online is more limited than what you get at a sit-down) dominated by gifts from the sea such as cod, clams and shrimp. My last lunch there, I think I was the only one who did not speak the mother tongue, and most every table had a bottle of vinho verde – a great carbonated low-alcohol wine for which a glass or two is a refreshing zing, not a sleepy slog maker. Right off the bat a server drops you a heaping chickpea salad topped with a salsa of red peppers and onions and dressed with a zesty Brazilian barbecue vinaigrette. I was apprehensive initially but curious, and, boy, after one or two bites, what an addictive treat (and on the house, too). For appetizers there’s classic Portuguese comfort such as linguiça, a Portuguese sausage; littlenecks in a wine and garlic broth; and the requisite soup of kale, beans and linguiça.
The mains have a whole fried side with your basic shrimp and scallops and fish and chips, but also spins such as fried cod fillets with sautéed onions and peppers. There are also dishes of grilled tuna and boiled cod (both with boiled potatoes), but the thing to get is the shrimp – big meaty prawns you can get three ways: grilled, fried or how I had them, sautéed with a garlic port wine sauce. In concept it’s a simple dish. The shrimp, plump and tender, were perfectly done (there’s nothing worse than overcooked shellfish); the rice was slightly sticky, making for a perfect sop mop for that port wine sauce; and the sauce, smooth, slightly tangy and intoxicating, made me keep coming back at that rice even after the shrimp were gone. The dish, as almost all do at J and J, also came with home fries. These are not your usual home fries, they’re plump chips – and yes I mean a potato chip if it was a quarter-inch thick – crispy on the outside but baked-potato-soft on the inside. Like the rice, they’re another means of soaking up that glorious port wine sauce.
It’s all part of the experience that makes J and J an epicurean journey to place that’s not the same shiny, retro-hip nouveau, but a down-home, earnest eatery that feeds you right.
Cambridge writer Tom Meek’s reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.