Café Liz: Felinto Marques’ Full-Blown Love Affair With Portugal
On a quiet Northeast Philadelphia corner, Café Liz Restaurant serves a charming ode to Portugal, all while embodying the traditional narrative of the American…
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“You can’t have a whiskey with a paella- you just can’t! What a disgrace!...,” Felinto Marques sighs, half-laughing and half-lamenting the state of knowledge his new customers have. “It’s almost like… It’s almost like they’re asking if a paella should come with a side of french fries and ketchup! Absolutely not!,” he complains in jest.
You can tell though, by the sincerity of the gleam in his eyes and the width of his smile, that Marques has no qualms about teaching his customers a thing or two about the proper way to enjoy recipes from his homeland (even if the curriculum has not changed for the past few decades).
“Americans will sometimes come here and automatically ask for a Coca-Cola with, like, their bacalao. It’s a part of their eating culture. But, I try to ensure that they have the most authentic and pleasant Portuguese experience, and that means giving them a glass of fine white wine with their fish. It pairs well, and it helps with digestion. And I want them to come back, you know!,” he good humoredly concludes, shifting the conversation to another amusing anecdote from the day-to-day at Café Liz.
Marques’ cheerful disposition and confident approach to the complications of life and lunchtime did not come at an easy or at a just price, though. Only through perseverance and vision would Marques be able to do what so many Americans fantasize about, but quite frankly cannot put into fruition: “pull himself up by the bootstraps.”
But, the journey towards reclaiming the revolutionary words our Founding Fathers memorialized in The Declaration of Independence did not begin once Marques stepped on Philadelphia’s soil on March 21st, 1988.
Rather, the yearning for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness started long before Marques had The United States in mind, during the peak of a brutal dictatorial reign and bleak poverty in a modest village on the province of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro.
While the average age of a person beginning to attempt “making a name for his, her, or oneself” (or at the very least, becoming a person that regularly contributes to society and pursues personal or professional endeavors), is commonly set at their twenties, Marques started much, much earlier, purely out of survival.
Marques was 8 years old when he received his first wages.
Felinto was born into a Portugal that was torn by class strife and ideology, under the fascist reign of António Oliveira Salazar, in 1961. The second of six siblings, the need for money and help around the household was so dire that Felinto was put to work as soon as he could get around on his own without getting lost in the mountains overlooking Galicia and the resplendent Douro River.
While other children at that age were getting out of school and going to play soccer (a lifelong and immense passion for Felinto), or brincando and getting into fights or shenanigans amongst the olive trees, Felinto was ensuring that he, his parents, and his brothers and sisters had enough food to put on their plates.
At sixteen, and after it was ascertained that his youngest brother had Down Syndrome (then diagnosed as “mongolism”), Felinto left to work in a pasta factory to further help with medical bills. At eighteen, he enlisted in the military, and served in France. Afterwards, he got his license in truck driving, and was essentially a “trucker” for five years.
With little formal education, and only the desire to push forward from having more than just enough savings to scrape by, Felinto’s love for his siblings (which, although geographically separated by France, England, Germany, and Portugal), he is still close to today, served as an impetus to be strong willed, to work assiduously, and to improve their situation.
“I never thought that I would own a restaurant. I never imagined myself owning anything. At that time, my biggest achievement was having my own truck to do deliveries. Now, three of us [the siblings] own restaurants... I came from a poor family. That is something that I am not ashamed of. I am quite proud of my roots and what I was born into.”
It was on one of these driving routes that Felinto would meet the future Sra. Marques. Jacinta, at the time only fifteen, had been visiting the relatives and the country she had left in order to migrate to Philadelphia four years earlier. Their chance encounter was one not only brimming with love, but also opportunity, leading Felinto to to bid tchau to his boyhood home, and adventure onwards to uncharted territory.
However, he never left Portugal in spirit. Nothing could be more apparent of his love and nostalgia than Café Liz.
Fast-forwarding beyond a decade of working as a construction man (and somehow landing on the opportunity to purchase a bi-level establishment on the corner of North Lawrence Street and West Tabor Road), Felinto Marques’ unapologetically Portuguese restaurant has become a neighborhood staple and a hidden treasure in Philadelphia.
Marques works the kitchen and his customers, charming them with his gastronomic expertise and his jovial nature from lunchtime until the late hours of the night, sometimes closing up at 4am!
There, at Café Liz, he expresses his prime paella expertise, wine pairing skills, and bacalao fanaticism through his dishes. Though the space is simplistic, the service, attention to detail, and cuisine are nothing short of outstanding. Every plate is prepared thoroughly, ensuring that each bite comes with the bursting sensation of being on a culinary adventure in his pátria.
My production crew and I were generously served Marques’ favorites from the menu, “tapas” style.
And I have to say, even though I was just in Portugal’s capital and largest city last October, the food I ate in Lisboa was nothing compared to this.
The seafood was sumptuous; the camarao a guilho were swimming in flavorful garlic sauce, the mexilhao a bulhao pato were addictive, and the salada de polvo dish was an excitingly fresh take on the conventional “calamari” appetizer.
As far as meats and poultry go, Café Liz offered exceptional flavor and flair. Starting with the flames emanating from the chourico assado- probably the best chorizo I’ve ever eaten in my life -and the intriguing shape and texture of codornizes grelhadas, it was difficult to not ask for full-portioned entrees rather than these delectable and easily wolfed-down bites.
I haven’t even gotten to the wine. An authentic Portuguese blend of Tinta Roriz, Alicante Bouschet, Cabernet Sauvignon, Caladoc, Castelao, Pinot Noir, and Touriga Nacional, this red was hard to put down. Three drinks in back at the office, however, and I have no regrets from an overall superb and diverse meal.
“Councilwoman Maria Quiñonez-Sánchez, Mayor Nutter, Bobby Abreu from The New York Mets… I have people that come here from Center City, from King of Prussia, from Bucks County…. Our Google reviews are quite good, and technology helps bring customers in!”
Lacking prior experience or an educational background in being a successful boss or a talented chef, Marques admits to having struggled at first (especially since he was a “self-taught” entrepreneur), and says that he still finds the work to be laborious.
Being the owner of a restaurant is no stroll down Walnut Street.
Marques explains that, since the restaurant has the additional component of a bar, karaoke, and live music lounge on the first floor of Café Liz, customers imbibing alcohol while cheering for their favorite soccer teams opens the door for more fracasos.
“People can get very ignorant when they drink, as you know. When I didn’t know the language, it was complicated. It was worse when people, when things were bad around here, would try to sell drugs on my corner. I had to confront them with my character. Never violence! But I had to make myself heard with limited English and Spanish proficiency. After a while, I started to gain confidence in my language acquisition and negotiating skills, and, in turn, the neighborhood respects me and my restaurant. They know that Café Liz is open to everyone.”
When I asked him then, what restaurants in the City he enjoyed eating at when he had free time, he chortled at my insinuation that he ever had free time to spare. But, it seems like the long hours, varied array of clients, and occasional frenzy, bodes well for Marques. After many years away from Portugal, he has poured his energy and patriotism into sharing the best possible epicurean thrills from his country with his American patrons. As an immigrant, Marques has been able to achieve stability and a sense of belongingness through the realization of a dream, all while remaining true to his roots. He humbly acknowledges how much of a blessing this is.
However, I will say, I think Marques may have let his appreciation for the United States get the best of him. When I repeated the question about restaurants, he proclaimed- with no hint of sarcasm -Olive Garden and Red Lobster as two of his top three. The third, Tio Pepe, redeemed him.
You can try Felinto Marques’ cooking for FREE at Independence Live! on Thursday, December 14th, at 5pm. Don’t miss out-- RSVP on our site today!