Portuguese Cafés: the Secret Handbook (Part 2)

Coffee drink (garoto), pastel de nata and cinnamon in a Portuguese cafe.
A “garoto”, a “pastel de nata” and cinnamon powder. Yum!

In my last post, we explored the most common types of cafés in Portugal and their place in Portuguese society, as well as their usual clients. Think of it as a sort of ethnic-sociological study but with caffeine in the mix. 

From my experience living close to touristy Sintra and knowing quite a few expats I noticed both tourists and expats are usually aware of Portuguese café culture. However, they don’t always know what to expect when they enter a café, let alone their options in terms of food and drink, apart from the stereotypical coffee and nata combo.

So, what do you drink in a Portuguese café? Come with me, and I’ll show you around!

Before we begin, however, I feel like I should add two warnings: 

1 – generally speaking, we don’t care about the foam in our coffee drinks, whether it’s micro, macro, or anything in between. Yes, I know, milk foam is probably a thing in your country, but we just don’t care about it. In touristy places you *may* come across a coffee drink with milk foam, which may or may not be according to what you believe to be the right foam (it probably won’t be). The truth is, I don’t honestly see this issue over milk foam becoming a nationwide concern anytime soon. Why? You guessed it: because we don’t care about it!

2 – I’m not saying we make the best coffee in the world – I’m merely describing the coffee drinks you’re most likely to find in Portuguese cafés, so you know what to expect. If, after reading this post, you feel like you absolutely need to tell me Portuguese coffee is bad… please take a deep breath and just don’t. Namas-café, brothers and sisters! 🙂

Garoto (espresso with a bit of warm milk) in a Portuguese cafe.

As a rule, in any Portuguese café, these are the most common options:

Café = an espresso. Yes, it’s small, but espresso is small. If you want a big cup of coffee, ask for an americano (more on that later). The size of the coffee cup does not match the coffee strength – not here, at least. 

In the Lisbon area, you’ll hear a lot of people say bica instead of café and in the north, many use the word cimbalino. There’s no need to complicate things, though: anywhere in the country, ask for café and you’ll be served an espresso. If you pay attention you’ll notice there are variations:

  • Café cheio = normal espresso to which they add more hot water; it’s also served in an espresso cup
  • Café em chávena escaldada = normal espresso in a scalded cup (for those who like it extra hot)
  • Café sem princípio = normal espresso, except they let the first few drops of coffee go to waste
  • Café curto = a smaller espresso

Bear in mind you can ask for a combination of these, like a café cheio sem princípio, for example. In some places, you’ll also get a cinnamon stick in substitution of or alongside a spoon.

Descafeinado = decaf

Galão = a glass with an espresso and filled up with warm milk 

Galão (espresso with warm milk in a glass) and laptop in a Portuguese café.
Galão, a Portuguese favourite!

Meia de leite = a cup (a little bigger than a tea cup) with an espresso and filled up with warm milk 

Sorry, I had already eaten some of my toast and drank some of that “galão” when I remembered to take a photo: one of the reasons why I could never be a food blogger!

Garoto = an espresso to which they add warm milk almost to the brim of the coffee cup. In the north of the country, this is often called a pingo or café pingado.

Abatanado or americano = one espresso to which they add enough hot water to fill the cup (the same that’s used for meia de leite)

Carioca = a weak coffee made with the grounds from the previous coffee

Carioca de limão = lemon peel in hot water. Depending on how big you want it, it can be served in an espresso cup (carioca de limão pequeno) or in the meia de leite cup (carioca de limão grande). 

Carioca de limão pequeno.

Café com cheirinho = an espresso to which they add aguardente (a sort of brandy), filling the cup up to the brim. Usually drunk after lunch, this is not the kind of thing you’re likely to hear anyone asking for in touristy places. Other options I’ve seen include amarguinha or amêndoa amarga (bitter almond liqueur) and bagaço (basically an alcoholic drink made from the leftovers of wine pressing – the kind of thing that will make you grow hair on your chest).

In all of the drinks that include milk, you can ask for your drink to be escuro (darker) or claro (lighter) and they will adjust the amounts of coffee and milk. For example, a galão escuro will have a bit more coffee than a normal one. Most places only have cow milk, but especially in the cities and larger towns, you’ll find cafés offering vegetable milk options. In touristy areas, you’ll also find places selling cappuccino, although I could bet it’s quite different from what you’re used to calling a cappuccino in your home country.

A typical café breakfast for many Portuguese: bread with butter and a “meia de leite”.

Other drinks that you’ll see in virtually every café in the country include Ucal chocolate milk and Compal fruit juices. Ucal is the name of the brand but it’s something so common that you’ll hear people simply asking for an Ucal, instead of asking for a chocolate milk. There are other brands, of course, but this is the one you’re most likely to come across. Compal has a series of products involving fruits and vegetables but their fruit juices in glass bottles are the most common ones in cafés. Again, if you pay attention, you’ll notice people asking for a “peach Compal” or a “pear Compal” (two of their most famous flavours, I believe), instead of just saying “peach juice”, for example. This only goes to show how much of a staple this brand is in modern Portuguese culture. Their reputation is no doubt helped by the fact that they often use local varieties of fruit, like pêra rocha (a type of pear) and oranges from the Algarve (super juicy and super sweet). 

Needless to say, other brands of fruit juice exist, but Compal is a national favourite. If you like fizzy drinks, Sumol is the Portuguese brand to remember. Orange and pineapple are their most sought after flavours.

Then, of course, we have alcoholic drinks! This will depend a bit on location and style, but practically every café in the country will have at least one of the two most common brands of Portuguese beer: Sagres or Super Bock. Other brands also exist, but these are the ones that gather the most admirers. 

So, you’ve chosen what to drink, but what will you be eating? A toast? A half-toast? What’s the difference? Perhaps, you’ll go for a good old pastel de nata or maybe you feel adventurous and want to try something different. Don’t miss the next post on this series dedicated to Portuguese cafés!

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