La Trocha del Boyero If I had a dollar for every time someone described to me the best steak ever, I could afford the most expensive filet anywhere. There are at least a dozen steak houses in Costa Rica where staff and/or diners have proclaimed “the best” in the area, the country or in the world. By contrast, most local beef cuts are lean, tough and gristle-laden. When I heard that a hard-to-find Tico restaurant in Atenas had the best steaks anywhere, I considered taking the news with a large grain of salt until Billy added that his favorite was a tenderloin napped in creamy jalapeño sauce --- my all time favorite from an experience at a roadhouse steak place outside Houston. So I hunted down the place and had an incredible slab of tenderloin cooked “medium” with my jalapeño sauce “medium spicy”. WOW!! It was so good that I saved a piece for my wife to taste despite my desire to lick clean every morsel on the plate. She talked about her small piece for days. “Termino medio” is not like North American cooked to medium doneness. It is equivalent to pink juicy medium-rare. So it was and fork-tender. The creamy golden jalapeño sauce had both green jalapeños and red hotter Panameños. The spicier you want the sauce, the more Panameños Frank adds. He is the amiable talented chef with 20 years experience. His lovely wife Ileana is the hostess. Sides include well-prepared local veggies and salad. They reputedly offer excellent seafood and Tico standards as well, but personally, I doubt that I will ever not order beef.
The restaurant is not far from the boyero monument in Atenas and the name translates as the trail of the oxcart driver. To find Frank and his marvelous steaks look for the sign “Terapia Fisica” on the main road that runs through Atenas from La Garita to Orotina, the route to the central Pacific coast prior to completion of the Pista Del Sol. The turnoff marked by the physical therapy sign is a small side road about about 200 or 300 meters east of the oxcart monument and only a few dozen meters west of a water tower. On the corner, a small red Coca Cola sign actually bears the name of the restaurant for those with eagle vision. The little street splits into a divided section for a short distance, then the two lanes reunite. Where they come back together there is a ceda el paso sign and a small T. The restaurant is not marked but it is directly in front of you behind the vegetation. Park on the side of the road.
It is a humble comfortable place decorated only with a single picture of oxcart, driver and surroundings on the southern and only wall and eleven simple tables for four. Like so many Tico restaurants outside urban areas, three sides are open to vegetation and the outside and the kitchen occupies space in front of the only solid wall. The cooler houses soft drinks and a modest array of wines. The menu includes many options, but diners come here for the steaks. Large groups of well-dressed banker types come from as far away as San Jose. About half the clientele are ex-pats. Prices are a little high for Atenas but a bargain when compared to more glitzy steak houses and a steal when adjusted for quality. 2446-0553
Solo Camerones is a fairly new addition to Plaza Itzkazu in Escazu. The concept is very creative and lots of fun. The brightly colored walls tout dishes from more than a dozen different countries and cultures. Except for a few fish dishes (including British fish and chips), the star of each hearty platter is about two dozen small succulent fresh shrimp from Guanacaste that pop their sweetness with each perfectly cooked bite. Choose among diabla Italian shrimp with rice, chili relleno overflowing with shrimp, rice and melted cheese, Thai shrimp with rice noodles, stir fried Chinese, New Orleans gumbo style, Texas fried shrimp and fries with Buffalo sauce, Caribbean, Hawaiian, Moroccan, Japanese, etc. Except for oversized shrimp buckets large enough to share, the main hot shrimp dishes run $10-15 and will leave an average eater stuffed. Seasoning is not timid. Pleasant servers. Everything is cooked to order, as it should be with fresh shrimp dishes, so be patient. 2294-5901 They have a second very similar branch in Plaza Lincoln in Moravia.
Café Lago How often have you heard astrologers mention the magic that happens when heavenly bodies align? I have never been much of a believer, but the metaphor works for me. Bring together great components and the results can be astounding. Most people, even those living nearby, don’t know that there is still a great natural forest, lake, pond and vineyard in Santa Ana. It is the Zamora Estate Hotel. For years it has been an event center with a few cabins on site and a destination for birders to view 140 some odd species. Hundreds of cattle egrets and a handful of herons and jacanas descend on the lake at sunset to join iguanas, a caimen and dozens of turtles. Old gnarled trees, stands of bamboo and flowering bushes complete the palate. The Zamora home now houses a beautiful restaurant with a dining room that overlooks the lake. Spectacular at sunset!
The restaurant team is no less celestial. Marco Gonzalez is a well-known chef/celebrity from his days at Earthly Delights in Ciudad Colon, work as consultant to a host of restaurants and resorts, food columnist in Sabores magazine, La Nacion and Perfil, teaching appearances at cooking schools and his television appearances on channels 6 (Giros) and 7(Sabores). He is also slated to begin his own show on the Destinostv International Travel Channel broadcasted from Miami to over 20 countries in Latin America. If that were not enough, he is one of my favorite people anywhere. We share a passion for fine food. He is committed to elevate natural, local tropical comestibles to new heights without preservatives, unnatural additives or processed “food products”. Although the ingredients are local, the creativity knows no borders.
Marco has a business partner, Roberto Leiva, another bright articulate talented chef and lover of fine food who shares the same vision and creative commitment. Roberto is married to Larissa Banting, the premier wedding planner in this corner of the world and internationally noted designer. She has contributed to the simple elegance and authenticity of the dining room. Of course their menu will continue to evolve, but I have tasted four appetizers, four main courses and a dessert already and the flavors are excellent from the purple grape sauce with the chicken breast to the reduced butternut squash soup to the tender steak to the fresh trout to the pizza boca and pejivalle salad. Add a wine policy that offers quality imports with a mark up over cost that is far less than any other restaurant I know and a commitment to affordability up and down their menu, and there is perfect celestial alignment.
For you fans of chef Mario Bello, formerly of Oasis and Earthly Delights, he is also part of the team and runs the kitchen when Marco is away. Check out their Facebook site: CafeLagoCR. The restaurant is in Santa Ana down the road past the parking area of Bacchus to the Zamora Estate. It becomes narrow and unpaved before you reach the parking area for the restaurant. Where they now erect a large tent for weddings, they plan to build a larger gazebo with its own kitchen, plus an upstairs deck and bar for drinks and bocas after the kitchen closes at night. Tue-Sun. Closed Mon. Tue-Wed from 4pm to 10pm, Thu-Sat from 12 noon to 10 pm and Sunday from 12 noon till 7pm.
I visit the Alajuela post office every week to ten days to empty my P.O. Box, usually in the early morning. A pale lime green eatery appeared a while back just around the corner to the west and caught my attention but was never open. Finally I went to El Chante Vegano for lunch and what a lunch it proved to be. The restaurant is vegan, organic, free of genetically modified foods and toxic additives. The furniture, chandeliers and adornments are made of recycled material. Fine, but how about taste? With no meat, fish, poultry, milk products or eggs, can there be satisfying variety and appealing dishes? Yes, even for a skeptic like yours truly. It takes only minutes chatting with Paulo, the charming chef/owner to know that he loves the food he prepares and uses innovative herb and spice seasonings. Care for an appetizer? Choose from onion rings, pita with hummus, garbanzo ceviche, caprese salad or tomato soup. Next course, if you are not yet sated, might be pizza with exciting combinations of toppings, burgers made from either garbanzos or Portobello mushrooms, penne or fettuccini with tasty fresh sauces, falafel in pita, nachos, a host of salads and a daily special choice. Let me recommend the Asian salad dressing of sesame oil, soy sauce, garlic and nice balance of herbs and spices. Among the drinks are lovely tropical fruit offerings and even a kale drink. The water pitcher is flavored with celery leaves and citrus slices. Prices are quite moderate, all in the $3 to $9 range. Portions are large. The pale walls display black images of trees, birds and plants. Open for lunch and dinner. You can see their menu on the website. The parking lot Parqueo Orosi is directly across the street. Phone: 8811-4787.
Sorry for my friends in Grecia. My favorite restaurant in your fair city closed on March 23rd. Happy days for folks in Escazu and Guachipelin. It is reopening in Plaza Florencia about mid-April. La Galeria served great steaks broiled to perfection by chef Jorge Castro at bargain prices in their former friendly venue under the watchful eye of charming Tatiana Ramirez. May your winning combination flourish in your new home.