It might have become one of the more fashionable places in Rio for a caipirinha, yet the name of this father-son joint – “Portuguese Kiosk” – suggests humility. Indeed, the pair got their start a decade ago in one of the numerous huts that line the city’s beaches. While the majority of their competitors served the tasty, tried-and-true Rio basics – traditional caipirinhas made with cachaça; beer and French fries – to sandy-toed beachgoers, Manoel Alves, now in his early seventies, wanted to offer something different.
He tried importing cheeses from Portugal, his parents’ homeland (hence the venue’s name), but found that the international products went bad too quickly to please health inspectors. Still bent on innovating, he began serving gin and whiskey on the beachside. Friends told him he was crazy – cariocas just want beers and caipirinhas for cooling off in the hot sun. Alves and his son Carlos proved them wrong, selling crates full of booze each week. Their “hey-why-not?” approach to inventing new drinks brought them citywide success and reviews in – by their account – 180 media outlets, which described their caipirinhas as among Rio’s best.
A year ago, the Alves duo left trendy Leblon Beach and relocated to an open-air restaurant on the city’s elegant lagoon, the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, where athletic rowers and families in swan pedal boats pass by. The new, more upscale space can accommodate 150 guests, who, along with caipirinhas, happily chow down on the delícia de camarão com catupiry, an appetizer of battered and fried shrimp with white cheese. Another top appetizer for pairing with the drinks is the queijo brie cremoso ao fogareiro, a slice of brie served over a flame to slowly melt it into the apricot jelly that surrounds it.
But the star attractions here are, of course, the Alves pair’s bold reinventions of the national drink – traditionally made with sugarcane-based cachaça, lime, sugar and ice – which also raise the question of when a caipirinha stops being a caipirinha. In some of their concoctions, just one of the original caipirinha elements is substituted, but others shun every traditional ingredient and are made with entirely different liquor and fruits instead. Caju, the acidic fruit that grows attached to cashew nuts and looks like a skinny bell pepper, is a hard swallow for some – many foreigners find the dry aftertaste on their tongue rather odd, while Brazilians gulp down the juice – but it becomes more than palatable when mixed with lime and high-end Santo Grau cachaça, in Carlos’s favorite caipirinha on the menu. Seriguela, a pleasantly sweet and slightly earthy thumb-sized orange fruit from Brazil’s northeast, is a much-ordered caipirinha flavor when in season. Another house specialty is jabuticaba, a Brazilian fruit similar to a grape but sweeter, which is served with cucumber vodka. The latter also mixes refreshingly with lima da pérsia, a sweet citrus fruit that tastes a lot like a less-pungent orange, for a caipirinha so light you can get away with drinking it at brunch.
A caipirinha of both vodka and cachaça, or caipivodka, with lemon and orange is surprisingly smooth, with a rich lingering aftertaste of the two alcohols. The Alveses have even invented something they call a caipicerva – a caipirinha with beer (cerveja) – which Manoel mixes with tangerine and passion fruit. For kicks, they recently bought a machine to add bubbles to the drinks, which they call a caipirinha com gas. (The drink needs to be enjoyed immediately, since the bubbles dissipate.)
“Any place in Rio can sell caipirinhas, but they don’t know how to make them well,” said 43-year-old Carlos, who was formerly a luxury car salesman. He and his father place importance on subtle details like the proper cutting of fruit – lime cut improperly becomes bitter – and faithfully use only fruits in season. Nonetheless, Carlos acknowledges that well-heeled Brazilians were long resistant to cachaça, seeing it as a cheap liquor from the countryside, and even now – despite the growing availability of well-regarded cachaças – the bar has 44 varieties of vodka for their caipirinhas and only two cachaças.
Though its lagoon-side location not far from some of Rio’s most upscale neighborhoods and moderately steep prices put Quiosque do Português among the hangouts of Rio’s see-and-be-seen crowd, the open-air setup and the passersby on the lagoon’s bike path that runs right in front of the bar call to mind the original beachside locale that once invited in sandy-footed bathers. And while this former caipirinha shack may have left its humble beginnings, it still remains a decidedly family affair. Manoel, a former furniture salesman who now bustles from table to table suggesting drinks to clients while wearing tinted sunglasses, visibly enjoys managing the spot with his son always in earshot. “It was a dream that I had, to transmit to him what I learned during my life. And he is doing even better than I imagined,” said Manoel. “It gives me so much pride.”