Hump Day Cocktail: Caipirinha at Leon's Lounge
It's Wednesday. Hump Day. Still two days until the weekend. Honey, you look like you need a drink. Here's our suggestion. Tell 'em the Houston Press sent you.
Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg It's arguably the oldest bar in Houston, depending upon your criteria.
"I've been looking for a place like this," the gray-haired man said as he sat down at the bar next to me. "It's dim. I was hoping for sofas, but that's OK."
I was intrigued by the specificity of his desires. Usually when I go to a bar, I'm hoping for a drink.
"I just moved here from San Antonio," he continued. "There was this bar there I used to go to all the time, and I'm looking for a place like that. It was called Rebar."
Rebar. I remember that place. Rather, I have vague memories of that place, the dark, dingy bar in San Antonio where I spent my 21st birthday, back when my drink of choice was vodka and club soda. Well vodka and club soda. And shots.
Today I'm drinking a Caipirinha, a classic cocktail (and national cocktail of Brazil, for those of you still keeping up with the world cup) at a classic bar. My taste in drinks has changed, but clearly my taste in bars hasn't.
Leon's Lounge is the oldest bar in Houston, depending on who you talk to and how you define "oldest," and from what I can gather, it's retained the funky, chill, dimly lit atmosphere since it opened in the late 1940s. Back then, it was La Bamba Bar or La Bomba Bar, according to Houstorian, who combed through the city's records to settle the oldest bar debate once and for all. When it opened in 1949, there weren't bars as we know them today due to Houston falling in a largely dry county. Many places served beer, and to drink alcohol, you had to have a club membership. The Caipirinhas weren't so free-flowing.
This classic South American cocktail is simple and refreshing in the summer.
Nevertheless, Leon's opened a full ten years before La Carafe (often thought of as Houston's oldest bar), but La Carafe is housed in a much older building.
Like me, Leon's has cleaned up its act a little since back in the day, for better or for worse. There used to be shuffleboard and an old, beat up piano where, if you were lucky, you'd find Blues legend Little Joe Washington tickling the keys. Today, vinyl records are played on a modern record player, and though the air conditioning unit struggles during the summer heat, it's there, puttering away. The Igloo coolers that used to chill drinks behind the bar (no joke) have been replaced by electric coolers, and though the phone still has that warbly, old-fashioned ring, it was interrupted on my visit by a cell phone with an electric version of the exact same tone. Times have changed.
Leon's is still a classic, though, as is the Caipirinha, which the bartender, Caitlin, says is her favorite drink for summer.
My new friend from San Antonio and I both ordered one, and I made him a list of other dark, dingy bars in Houston. Turns out we have a lot.
Leon's Lounge Caipirinha
1.5 ounces Cachaça
half a lime
.75 ounces simple syrup
Cut half a lime into two more slices and muddle them in the bottom of a lowball glass. Combine Cachaça and simple syrup with ice in a cocktail shaker and shake until blended. Pour over ice into lowball glass with lime.