Café Lucia’s cuisine of the Azores

Four years ago, Manuel Azevedo and his sister Lucia Azevedo Fincher opened Café Lucia in Healdsburg, featuring Cozinha Nova Portuguesa (new Portuguese cuisine)—which combines the best of our local produce with the traditional dishes of the Azores, an archipelago of nine islands some 900 miles west of Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean.

With a mid-Atlantic location and hospitable climate, these islands were in the path of European exploration (and attack) beginning in the 1500s, when Prince Henry the Navigator established a colony of settlers. Merchant ships carrying spices, peppers and curries from Africa and India, and plants native to the Americas, came through the islands; their cargo enriched the dishes based on meat, seafood, dairy and fruits grown on rich volcanic soil that became the unique Portuguese cuisine.

Azevedo was born on the island of Sao Jorge in the Azores and came to Sonoma County with his parents as a young child; Fincher was born soon after in the Sonoma Valley where the family settled in 1968. When Azevedo opened LaSalette, his first restaurant featuring Portuguese food in Sonoma 18 years ago, “I was worried that people were not going to get it,” he said. Still, he felt compelled to share his passion for the food he ate growing up in his mother’s kitchen.

That restaurant, named for his mother, opened its doors 18 years ago and continues to thrive. But, with ambition to match his passion, Azevedo didn’t stop at one restaurant in Sonoma; he and his wife Kimberly became managing partners with Chef Ed Metcalfe in Shiso Modern Asian Kitchen, featuring a non-traditional Asian menu—mainly Japanese cuisine with a touch of Thai and Vietnamese.

Next, Azevedo produced a cookbook. His modern interpretation of Portuguese cooking is documented in the LaSalette Cookbook, co-written with Prerna Mankad and gorgeously illustrated with photos by Henrique Bagulho. Weighing a hefty 6 pounds—this volume is a virtual encyclopedia of the art and technique of the Cozinha Nova Portuguesa.

Right after the book was completed, Azevedo and Fincher found the perfect spot in Healdsburg for Café Lucia.

The charming restaurant is tucked behind La Crema Winery tasting room on Healdsburg Avenue. “I felt like I had to do something unique enough to get people to come down the pedestrian alleyway,” Manuel recalled.

With the menu offering the tastes of his native culture married to the bounty of Sonoma County, he certainly has. The arch-roofed alleyway leads to an airy patio with couches and tables for cocktails and outdoor dining, and ultimately to the welcoming interior dining room, furnished with handmade dark wood tables and comfortable leather banquettes arranged around an oval bar in the center of the room. Large colorful photos of scenes from Portugal are hung on the walls. A chalk signboard at the entrance announces Oyster Hour! from 5-6 every day—Café Lucia’s own version of happy hour, with $1 oysters and $5 bubbles.

A repeated motif of the Galo de Barcelos appears in a line drawing on the signage and the menus and in traditional touches around the dining room. This national symbol of Portugal (a rooster with a bright red crest and brightly painted designs of bright hearts and flowers) stands for honesty, integrity and loyalty, “and all those things that we aspire to,” Fincher said.

Authenticity is another important factor to Azevedo. “People will drive 2 to 3 hours to eat here. Coming here and dining often triggers memories to people.” The cuisine of the Azores is unlike any other, and Fincher believes “we’re here to educate.” For Azevedo, it’s important to tell a story, and for the food to have a geographic connection.

With the spices, African ingredients, and curries that were brought back to Portugal by explorers, “It gives me, as a chef, the world to choose from,” he declared.

“Portuguese food is not necessarily spicy. It’s like real Italian food—tomatoes, garlic, onions, wine—but different and more interesting. It’s a pork-centric cuisine and uses a lot of seafood.” Linguica, the traditional sausage of Portugal, is prominent throughout the menu. “The recipe we use is the one Mom taught me. We had it back home. I remember the linguica hanging over the wood stove to dry,” Azevedo recalled.

Based on that recipe with its distinctive spice blend, Azevedo has 200 pounds of linguica made to his specifications every week in at Fernandes Linguica in Tracy, California, to use at his restaurants. That same spice blend flavors many other dishes on the Café Lucia menu.

“It’s a way to marry the ingredients from Sonoma County with the traditional Portuguese flavors. Using the spice blend makes it Portuguese, even though the dishes are not necessarily traditional,” he said. The term ‘piri piri’ appears often on the menu. This African pepper, also known as birdseye pepper, provides the heat in a lot of the spice mixes used in Portuguese food.

“The traditional food is simple peasant food,” Azevedo said. “We needed to take it to a higher level.” An example is Caldo Verde (the national soup of Portugal, with stock made of beef, veal and chicken bones, and ham hocks, with potatoes and linguica, and collard greens added at the end for a bright green color), which is on the menu and which he also prepared this year for the Holy Ghost Society Portuguese Festival. Pork tenderloin “recheado” is stuffed with olives, citrus, almonds and figs, with a port wine sauce. Curry Clams – Goan-style includes exotic flavors of Portugal’s former colony of Goa on the coast of India, combining chourico and tomatoes with a flavorful coconut-curry sauce and cilantro.

“In the Portuguese culture, bread and cheese are very important. We lived on a dairy, and mom made her own bread and cheese every day,” Azevedo recalled. “We use bread made from mom’s recipe.” The cheese they serve is made by and sent to them by their cousins in the Azores. “It’s a special, intimate connection.”

Also notably special are Café Lucia’s desserts. There are six of them listed on the menu. The broad categorical names, like “chocolate” or “caramel” or “traditional,” don’t begin to describe the wonderful combination of flavors and textures that appear, beautifully plated, in front of a diner. The chocolate dessert, for instance, is composed of chocolate mousse with almond tuile, salted chocolate tart with ruby port gelee, and hazelnut ice cream with caramelized banana, all artistically anchored on a white plate with a stripe of mint puree (or ‘shmeer,’ as Fincher referred to it, adding a Yiddish phrase to the melting pot that is Portuguese cuisine). This writer, a chocoholic, was delighted to not have to choose, but to have all of the chocolate possibilities on one plate!

There is an all-inclusive theme here. The “traditional” dessert includes all of the following: sweet rice pudding with Madeira-braised figs, malassadinhas (little donuts with cinnamon and sugar) and an almond ice cream sandwich with fig cake. The dessert menu includes an extensive selection of Ports and Madeiras, the fortified wines of Portugal.

Although there are many people of Azorean descent living in California—likely the largest population in the US—Azevedo’s restaurants are the only eateries north of San Jose that offer the full spectrum of the distinctive flavors and traditions that were infused in him from childhood. When they arrived in the Sonoma Valley in 1968, his parents established a dairy farm, following a long tradition brought from their home in Sao Jorge. The children (four in all) grew up on the farm’s milk and cheese, produce from their vegetable garden, eggs and meat from their chickens, meat from their own rabbits, and an annual half a cow and half a pig from neighboring farms.

The goal for both Azevedo and Fincher was to have people to understand their culture—and to build a family feel at Café Lucia. For Azevedo, “At the end of the day, the most rewarding part is the people, the team—the guys that are in the kitchen. They’re working hard and looking out for each other.”

The restaurant has a staff of 20, with seven working in the kitchen under the direction of Chef de Cuisine Margarito “Pancho” Rodriguez. Azevedo comes in frequently to make sure the quality is up to his standards, while also making the rounds to each of the other restaurants. “I’m the boots on the ground here,” Fincher said.

Their other siblings and the extended family back in the Azores are also involved in aspects of the food business; their cousin Fatima in Sao Jorge runs Café Central, and the rest of the cousins are in dairy. Asked what led them to choose the restaurant business, Fincher replied, “It’s a bit of a calling,” and Azevedo said, “This business—you don’t seek it out, it finds you.”

In addition to running Café Lucia, Fincher, who has a business degree, also does catering with her husband, Tracy Fincher, a Healdsburg native. “We sell piri piri chicken at the Windsor Certified Farmers Market on Thursday evenings,” she said. The couple’s two daughters work part-time at Café Lucia.

Now that all of Azevedo’s restaurants are established and running smoothly, he wants to deepen his knowledge and raise the already high quality of what he offers his customers.  “My goal is to look at all the restaurants and go back to the drawing board as if I’m learning from scratch. For instance, learning how to break down a goat properly—the real art of doing it properly. Or, say, filleting a monkfish. Now I’m going to revisit everything, but with no compromises.”

Early this year, Azevedo opened a fourth restaurant, once again in Sonoma. “It was my dream for over 10 years to open a place that serves real Portuguese-style tapas and Portuguese wines.” The word tasca means pub or tavern in Portuguese, and Azevedo named his newest venture Tasca Tasca, with its playful double syllables, because “we wanted it to be light and fun.”

A visit to Café Lucia offers a unique food experience. You’ll also get an education in history, geography and culture, served up in a delicious way, and prepared with love. For this writer, who had never before sampled Portuguese food, the education was a revelation, opening up a door to the delicious multi-cultural cuisine of the Azores.SD