Chi-Chi’s owner Arthur Alves in front of his restaurant. (Photo by Bert Wolfe.)
Chi-Chi’s owner Arthur Alves in front of his restaurant. (Photo by Bert Wolfe.)

By Norma Saltz

Running a restaurant brings in less money than building swimming pools, says Arthur Alves, the owner of Chi-Chi’s BBQ, Trenton’s only Portuguese restaurant — but it’s a lot more fun.

Alves, a civil engineer, used to build swimming pools and waterfalls for people’s back yards until the economic downturn zapped his business. That’s when he decided to make a change. These days, most of his time is spent grilling chicken, ribs, pork, seafood and T-bone steaks with a Portuguese flavor in his cute, cozy establishment 13 E. Front St.

He enjoys it, he says. “When people are eating, they’re happy. When I was building, if the job was late everybody was complaining. This is less hassle, less BS.”

Alves is well versed in things Portuguese. The son of immigrant parents, he learned Portuguese traditions as a child during long visits to his grandparents’ farm.

Now living in North Jersey, Alves first noticed Trenton’s severe restaurant-deprivation on occasional visits here on business. Barbecue was dying out, and there were no Portuguese places at all — clearly a cry for help.

“I grew up in Newark,” he says. “In the Ironbound section, there are … Portuguese restaurants … on every corner. My favorite was one on Bloomfield Avenue. They’re bigger than Burger King or McDonald’s!”

He feels that barbecue is making a comeback. From above a charcoal-fired grill big enough to hold 24 chickens, the tantalizing smoke can be smelled two blocks away, luring customers. Although in business only a short time, he figures he serves about 100 diners a day from surrounding government buildings, banks and businesses.

One day in October, a mechanical problem had temporarily closed the restaurant, but Alves was still turning away disappointed customers. Sonia Mitchell, a clerk at the Division of Civil Rights, was hungering for a Portuguese-style T-bone with fries. As it turned out, she was also from Newark, and also a former patron of the Portuguese restaurant on Bloomfield Avenue. “This is the closest thing to it,” she said.

“The place is becoming popular,” Alves said. “The mayor is becoming a regular.” Although he could have named his restaurant “Arthur’s Barbecue,” Alves said he likes the name “Chi-Chi’s.” “It sounds young, alive; it has a buzz to it,” he said.

The facade, which he had painted a mustard-color dribbled with scarlet, gives the same impression.

Alves said the building was vacant for two years before he acquired and completely renovated it. Before that it housed an Indian restaurant and a Puerto Rican one before that. From the name, Chi-Chi’s might be mistaken for a Mexican restaurant, but Alves said Portugese food is vastly different, being from a European tradition.

What makes a dish like Picadinho (sauted barbecued pork chops with onions and peppers) especially Portuguese? “The sauce,” Alves said. What’s in it? “A secret,” he said, with a big smile on his amiable face.

What’s next for this budding restaurateur? “First I want to get this up and running perfectly — maybe start serving breakfast, with Portuguese pastries. Then, who knows — “Chi-Chi’s 2, Chi-Chi’s 3 …”

He’s already looking at locations

Chi-Chi’s BBQ is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and offers takeouts and delivery. Major credit cards are accepted.