The three partners who own Carvao BBQ are perfectly matched for the diverse Bergen Avenue locale on the edge of McGinley Square. Steve Papathanasiou is a Greek-American whose family owned the building where the restaurant is located. For years, they operated a pizzeria there. His Cousin Jordi Papaspyrou is Greek-Canadian, recently from Montreal, and Max Rudenko comes to Jersey City by way of Ukraine.
The first thing you should know is that Carvao BBQ is not a barbecue “joint” like the ones you’re accustomed to. We visited on one of those hot days that the summer of 2016 will be remembered for. Entering from the steaming sidewalk, you’re greeted by a sizeable, cool space with a gigantic ceiling fan, wood tables, a large bar, and a general feeling of a contemporary, cutting-edge eatery.
Max relates that they fell in love with the Portuguese restaurants in Newark’s Ironbound District. “We wanted to combine the elements of so many things under one roof,” he says. Those things included the Shake Shack burger, the Chipotle concept with bowls and wraps, and European-influenced barbecue. “The neighborhood didn’t have anything,” he says, “and we wanted to offer products that they did not have access to, with affordable prices in comfortable surroundings.”
While we’re taking in our comfortable surroundings, we’re brought a superb Carvao Sangria, with red wine and fresh fruit. Another popular cocktail is the Caipirinha, Brazilian rum, Velho Barreiro Cachaca, with lime and sugar. The bar serves more than 30 beers, in drafts and bottles, from Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Japan, and right here in Hudson County.
The “open pit” concept was especially appealing to the partners. Carvao is Portuguese for charcoal. “You don’t need to cook with too many spices,” Max says. “The charcoal does the job.”
On the evening we visited, the Olympics was playing on one of several TVs. The Brazilian backdrop was perfect for the Portuguese-influenced ambience and offerings. Jordi calls it “fresh, easy comfort food.”
Fresh is the operative word. We started with the Mediterranean salad. It may have had what you’d expect: tomato, cucumber, onion, feta cheese, kalamarta olives, and olive oil vinaigrette dressing. But each item was so fresh, it seemed to jump off the plate. In Terri’s pictures you can see the bright reds, greens, and purples.
Next up was a “bowl,” which comes with a choice of protein. We chose chicken from a list that included pork, beef, and veggies. It comes with white or yellow rice, with black or pinto beans, topped with lettuce, corn, cheese, sour cream, salsa, and hot or mild sauce. Other additions include bacon, peppers and onions, and guacamole.
Everything worked together, and again the ingredients were so fresh that there was no chance of a wilted or soggy combo.
You could smell the next dish as it approached the table. This piquant appetizer of shrimp and garlic sauce was served with Portuguese bread toasted in olive oil and oregano. Whatever you do, don’t blow off the bread. Though delicious alone, its main role is to soak up the delectable garlic sauce.
Before the next entrees come out, Max wants to talk meat. The meat for Carvao’s burgers and steaks is supplied by the venerable Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors of North Bergen, operating in the United Sates since 1909. “The quality is so good,” Max says, “that we’re not afraid to serve it rare and medium rare. We’re very proud of our burgers.”
To prove a point, we’re brought the Carvao Burger, a short-rib blend, with cheese, Portuguese sausage, caramelized onions, lettuce, and tomato, with a side of fries.
This was followed by a ginormous “combo” platter with a half barbecue chicken and medium pork ribs. Both meat dishes were a testament to the high-quality products supplied by La Frieda.
Carvao already has a fiercely loyal group of regulars, from across the street and all the way from Brooklyn. Jordi wants the place to be the “groundwork for future businesses.” McGinley Square, he says, “is really up and coming and can be a destination area.”
He cops to no culture shock, coming from Montreal. “I love the people here,” he says. “They’re very real, not trying to be something they’re not. They’re honest and open and know who they are.”
Sounds like Carvao BBQ.—Kate Rounds
686 Bergen Ave.