NEWARK, N.J. -- Most purchases you get to see before you buy. You try on the suit, you test the television. If you change your mind when you get them home, you can usually exchange them for another model. Restaurant meals are another matter. You buy them on hearsay and (unless you find a gracious manager or you have been served some clearly defective merchandise) you're stuck with what you buy. Yet taste is so personal and kitchen performance so erratic that choosing a restaurant is sheer gamble.

For me as a restaurant critic the stakes are higher. It's not a financial risk when a critic chooses a restaurant; the newspaper foots the bill. But when I'm on a trip and picking a restaurant in hopes of writing about it, I'm risking one of my all-too-few mealtimes; and if the restaurant turns out to be uninteresting I have no story.

Like any professional gambler, I gather all the data I can to reduce my risk. I ask people for their recommendations, read past reviews, look at menus. Sometimes I think I'd do just as well to stick a pin blindfolded into the telephone directory.

In Newark I might have done better. For a long time I have wanted to try the Portuguese and Spanish restaurants in the Ironbound section of Newark. New Jersey is the most joked-about state since vaudeville laid Philadelphia jokes to rest (first prize, one week in Philadelphia; second prize, two weeks). And Newark is considered by many even beyond jokes. But the Ironbound area, also called Down Neck, is a thriving, fascinating ethnic community that locals consider a safe, lively urban center. Its main streets are thick with dress shops, jewelry stores and hairdressers in between dozens of snack bars, seafood shops, sausage makers, luncheonettes and Brazilian, Portuguese and Spanish restaurants. Many of the restaurants are long-established, but new ones are opening all the time.

I'd heard good reports about Forno's, Sagres, Don Pepe, Iberia and Rogue and Robelo's. But I had only one dinnertime available, so I narrowed the choice to a Portuguese restaurant called Tony Da Caneca and to Spain, a noisier and more casual favorite of my companions. We opted for the more sedate.

Tony Da Caneca seemed promising, which means very Portuguese. Our busboy didn't speak English, and in the next room a family birthday party was under way. The waiter brought to our table samples of the specials -- a mixed meat and a mixed seafood platter -- to show us. And the menu, in Portuguese and roughly translated English, listed such insider dishes as clams "Portuguese style," which the waiter described simply as "with red sauce." Seafood stews were being served in domed copper casseroles with clamps to seal in the steam, and sausages were aflame on handmade pottery platters with grids to let the juices drip onto the fire. Our waiter brought us a pitcher of sangria, which was, to our delight, unsweetened and very good. We settled in expecting an authentic and exotic dinner.

We were disappointed. The meat and fish entrees were cooked dry, their sauces so thick they held their shape. The clams and mussel appetizers were steamed in broths so thin that soup spoons were more relevant than forks. Shrimp were tiny chewy bits, mussels were shriveled and sandy. Portugal's famous cubed pork with clams is a combination so delicious as to overcome a few missteps, so it was the best dish even though the meat was chewy. Some of the food was good, some was bad, and not much was distinctive. In all, Tony Da Caneca was an environment with character that served food in great proportions but with little worth remembering, less worth writing about.

Our response was predictable: We wish we had gone to the Spain restaurant.

We couldn't resist driving by Spain on our way home. And then one of us wanted to just peek in to see if it was crowded. As she did, a man was leaving the restaurant, so she asked him if the food was as good as ever. Yes, he replied, it was still great. But his car had been stolen from the parking lot while he had dinner, he said. Suddenly we weren't sorry we'd gone to Tony Da Caneca.

As I said, going to a restaurant is a gamble.

Tabletalk

Signs of the times on highways now include more than fast-food billboards. On Route 95 in Newark, Del., a billboard advertises a "caterer of distinction." It certainly is an attention-grabber, coming as it does after a rest stop's Roy Rogers and Bob's Big Boy.

Most Virginians would consider it worth having a big family just for an excuse to buy a country ham, which runs at least 10 pounds and is so strong and salty that it is eaten in small portions. Edwards ham company in Surry, Va., has made that unnecessary, though. It is selling small boneless cooked hams -- 2 to 3 pounds -- which have all the salty, briny, hickory intensity of real well-aged Virginia ham but are easy to keep and use. They cost $24.95 including shipping, and can be ordered by calling 800-222-4267 (in Virginia call 804-294-3121).

PORTUGUESE PORK WITH CLAMS (4 servings)

FOR THE MARINADE:

1 1/2 cups dry white wine

1 tablespoon paprika, preferably Spanish

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 bay leaf

2 pounds cubed lean boneless pork

FOR COOKING THE PORK:

3 tablespoons oil

2 onions, sliced

1 red bell pepper, julienned

2 teaspoons minced garlic

2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely chopped

1 to 2 pinches dried hot red pepper

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 dozen clams in the shell

FOR THE GARNISH:

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro (coriander)

1 lemon, cut into wedges

Combine marinade ingredients in a large bowl and add the pork, turning to coat it thoroughly. Cover and refrigerate for 8 hours or overnight.

Drain pork well, reserving the marinade. Dry pork thoroughly with paper towels. In a large, heavy skillet heat 1 tablespoon oil and brown the pork well. Remove pork to a bowl. Add marinade to skillet and bring to a boil, scraping the bottom of the pan. Boil until marinade is reduced to 1 cup. Pour over the pork and set aside.

In a 6- to 8-quart casserole heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil, add onions and red bell pepper, and saute' over moderate heat, stirring, for about 5 minutes until soft but not brown. Add 2 teaspoons minced garlic, tomatoes, hot red pepper, salt and black pepper. Add clams, cover the casserole, and cook over high heat until clams open, about 10 minutes. Stir in pork and marinade, simmer for 5 minutes. Discard any clams that have not opened. Serve casserole immediately, sprinkled with coriander and garnished with lemon wedges.