Académica is legendary in Fall River. The Portuguese social and sports club opened in 1962 as a meeting place for the Portuguese community and throughout the years has sponsored many local events and sports teams. By the eighties, the club took it's kitchen public and opened a restaurant next door. In the decades since, the restaurant has been serving it's popular take on flavorful and affordable Portuguese food. Today, the humble and bare-bones dining hall bustles with its wait staff weaving between tables with platter-sized plates in their hands as they tend to hungry diners anticipating the meal they have coming.
Apertivo de Chouriço
Most people with a casual acquaintance with Portuguese food have probably tried chouriço. This Portuguese sausage is made of cubes of pork that have been marinated in paprika, pepper and garlic, then stuffed into natural casings and then smoked. The chouriço appetizer at Académica is a two-to-four-person portion of chouriço cut into bite-sized pieces and sautéed in olive oil with no other ingredients, save some salt. It's the simplest thing you can imagine, but so delicious. It's savory, tender, salty, spicy and served very hot. It's the epitome of dining at Academica - absolutely simple, basic , no frills Portuguese food.
The menu is a very quick read. It is clear that the Academica sticks to a handful of dishes and does it's best to provide a delicious and truly affordable meal. It should be noted, that like the immigrant groups that landed in America from southern Italy, or Poland, or southeast Asia, etc, the Portugese were a population that suffered from tremendous poverty in their home country. The Academica is born of this condition.
Today, things may be different there, but it wasn't so long ago that people were still coming to the USA in search of a better life for their families. Twenty-five years ago, as a teenager, I spent the summer on the island of São Miguel with my family. I remember the natural beauty of the land, the ocean that is such a part of daily life and the people that were so noticeably friendly and humble. I made friends during my time there and noticed that some children wore no shoes, except on Sunday. I noticed that in the homes of some of the kids, the floor was of exposed earth. I noticed that some kids would have a meager lunch of bread and sugar, or bread and nutella, every day. Bread and sugar was a treat my grandmother would make for us all the time. I thought it was a just a special snack — I'm not sure how my friends on São Miguel saw it. The stories of poverty that my mother had always told me about from her youth - having no shoes, crying for a piece of bread, "walking a mile to school in the rain...." - all of a sudden seemed like earnest warnings and advice to me to seek humility in my character. These same stories were still a visible realilty for some in the Azores of the early-to-mid-eighties. Stories I witnessed. Back in Fall River, even after generations of hard work and prosperity in the "new world", there is still a strong sense of frugality and value in the community that makes the Academica a relevant and popular place to dine.
Bife à Académica and Galinha
A casual glance around the room will reveal that fact that everyone knows that the Bife à Académica is the thing to order here. It's perhaps what made the Académica a legend as one of the first restaurants in New England to offer and popularize authentic Portuguese cuisine. One of the first restaurants the Portuguese themselves were willing to frequent. After all, they could get this stuff at home! The steak (Bife à Académica) dish is a pizza-sized steak, cut very thin, brutally hammered to almost fork tender, then sautéed with countless cloves of roasted garlic, a salty red pepper, some wine and maybe some other seasonings. It is terribly simple, wonderfully tasty and outrageously cheap. For $9.50 you get this hearty steak with a heap of hand-cut fries, two fried and eggs. For another couple of dollars, you can add some Shrimp Moçambique. This is an incredibly good deal. This is food that will put a smile on your face, while filling your stomach. If you prefer chicken, there is a chicken breast prepared in much the same way. The breast is pounded thin and wide, again, just like a pizza. There are a few other things on the menu, but I would stick to what they do best - the legendary Bife à Académica.
627 South Main Street
Fall River MA 02711