Before going to our destination of the month, some news: Aroi Thai did not re-open as scheduled before Christmas because the chef hired in Thailand fell victim to Costa Rican tramites (bureaucratic red tape), a word that my dear departed friend and columnist, Jo Stuart, believed was built on the root, TRAUMA. Immigration lost all of the chef’s paper work. They re-opened on February 22nd from noon to eight with a limited menu. Welcome back. You were sorely missed.
Opa! in Plaza Momentum is “closed for remodeling” according to the sign in the window. Similar signs have signaled departure rather than remodeling. I hope they re-open or I will have pierogi withdrawal. Gone are Mi Sala Restaurant and Lounge and Bistango in Paco Commercial Center in Escazú, a pair of San Jose vegetarian restaurants, Jardin Del Parque and Veggie House, and Little Israel restaurant. The deli remains open.
Tilapia Park has reopened on the road between Turucares and Ciruelas or the Coyol Radial. Great place for little kids to fish with cheap rented drop lines and bait. The only rule is that fish caught may be prepared in the restaurant and eaten on site or taken home for the market price of ₡4000 per kilo. Turn down the gravel road that Tilapia Park shares with Quebrador San Miguel and follow the signs for 2.7 km.
ATENAS Atenas is indeed a grand place with lovely people and a nice climate, even if the oft quoted notion that it has the world’s best climate, never did appear in National Geographic as claimed. I go to the Atenas Chili Cook Off every year as a judge and have a grand time for an excellent cause. The judges are nearly all locals and well informed food lovers. They are among my best sources for trying to select a handful of places to mention in this update. Thanks especially to two Howards, Bill, Mary, Billy, Les, Kim, Bunky, Don, Harold, Norman, Lisa and two Davids.
First and foremost, let’s feature the newest kid on the block, open only a few months and still waiting for its sign when I ate there in early February. Augusto’s en Atenas has taken over Griego on Route 3 west of town. It already is gaining well-deserved popularity. The reasons include all the essentials you might desire in a comfortable happening place; very friendly people, top quality ingredients, extensive menu, prices in line with local fares, a ten percent discount for cash, a full bar, local beers plus quality bottled artisanal beers, great Sunday brunch buffet including eggs Benedict, French toast, pulled pork, a variety of omelets and many lunch items, half price kids menu, clean space, nicely plated food and karaoke on Fridays with a competition including nice prizes on the first Friday of the month. Most Saturdays, Bunky, one of the owners, is able to get good live music.
Daily specials are just that, special. For ₡4500, they include either unlimited fries or unlimited onion rings and bottomless iced tea plus a dessert. The specials are chicken fajitas on Monday, closed on Tuesday, meatball sub on Wednesday, BBQ pulled pork on Thursday, meaty pork chop on Friday, nachos on Saturday and chicken wings on Sunday. I haven’t had the opportunity to try many of them but my local scouts rave about the pulled pork, wings, pork chop and meatballs. Thus far, I haven’t heard a single negative. Personally, I am a wing fan and am often amused by menu chicanery in many places, which falsely double the number of wings per order by counting the drumette and rest of the wing as two wings. Augusto’s serves three very large whole wings averaging about a pound per order. Floats my boat. The fries are all hand cut and never frozen. The onion rings come crispy and rust colored from added paprika and black pepper in the beer batter. The tender baby-back ribs have a nice char on the outside (“bark” in BBQ parlance) and are sauced with a standard commercial sweet variety sauce that the chef elevates nicely with additional flavors. Just about everything is made on site from scratch or modified like the BBQ sauce, except for baked goods that are well made locally. The owners/managers have taste tested everything before deciding on the best offering available. You can get the wings with Buffalo sauce, garlic sauce, mild to hot sauces of your choosing and innumerable add-ons. Speaking of add-ons, there is an entire page of add-ons that you can use to alter or supplement any of their 12 inch pizzas, burgers or salads.
The daily specials are on the regular menu at modestly higher prices along with fish and chips (fresh local corvina, never frozen), sautéed or fried shrimp, a number of pork and chicken dishes, an assortment of salads, chicharrones and casados. For dessert you can choose from fine pecan pie made by Mercedes, cheesecake, chocolate cake, carrot cake, budin or a banana split.
The décor is Spartan, but it is a work in progress.
The people are a fine team. Bunky is the co-owner’s nickname. His actual middle name is August, hence Augusto’s. He had pizza franchises in Maryland before coming to Atenas. Bill Cook, another part owner, is among my favorite people on the planet. Along with his charming wife, Mary, they are the heart and laborious souls behind the Chili Cook Off. He offers chef skills, restaurant managerial expertise, the ability to actually change wiring, plumbing, carpentry and more. Billy, the third part owner, is an ex-marine from Florida who is congenial and thoughtful. The deft hand in the kitchen belongs to Laura, an Atenas Tica deserving of praise. Phone: 2446-4985. Hours: Closed Tuesday. 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for Sunday Brunch, but open until 10 p.m. Monday and Wednesday noon to 10 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday noon to midnight.
Antanos Restaurant: Traditional Costa Rican cuisine served in a charming, yellow and white, restored antique house – one of the oldest houses in downtown Atenas. Located 50 meters northeast of the Central Park. Phone: 2446-7542. Hours: Open for breakfast, lunch & dinner, supposedly 9:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. daily. But hours are distressingly inconsistent. A couple I met disagreed about the food. One loved it, the other didn’t. They challenged me to try it and adjudicate. Twice I headed there only to find it closed during posted hours. So I asked a handful of locals and they agreed that the hours and the food can be inconsistent.
Crema y Nata It is a quality bakery and coffee shop and one of the rare places in Costa Rica that makes real New York style bagels. Their breads and pastries are uniformly very nice. Other popular specialties are brioche hamburger buns, hoagie rolls, ciabatta, corn muffins, amazingly decorated cakes for all occasions and pita. It is located 100 meters east and 10 meters north of the ICE office in Atenas. Phone: 2446 6232 Hours: Mon-Sat 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Donde Bocha Antojeria Centro Comercial Mirague Avenida 3 and Calle 1, in front of Agencia de ICE. The name Bocha is not derived from the word boca. It is the owner’s nickname since childhood. Antojitos are Mexican fast food small plate, bocas. The food is Tex-Mex devoid of spice to suit Tico aversion to hot stuff. Phone: 2446-2028. Hours: Open for lunch and dinner, 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday & Sunday; 11:00 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday & Saturday; closed Mondays.
Don Tedeo is a sports bar across from the park that is in transition under new management. Rumor has it that the new focus will be Cajun, a nice addition to the options in Atenas.
El Balcon Del Café This is a repeat of a review on my blog a few months back. “(It) is on Route 3, the main road through Atenas, on the west side of town about 70 meters past the blinking traffic light on the north side of the road. It is the reincarnation of Melanie’s former very popular balcony ex-pat hangout that was forced to leave the center of the town when the building sold. For her several dozen well-wishers, she and her new restaurant are doing nicely. Her menu retains many of the previous favorites. Number one on my hit parade is gypsy style (a la gitana) pork schnitzel, perfectly fried and napped in a creamy light red sauce of slivered mushrooms, sweet red peppers, kernels of corn and white onions. The large portion together with either mashed potatoes or fries is quite filling, but it would be a shame to miss a fresh baked dessert of her apple cake with perfect crumb topping, one of three or four varieties of cheesecake, Linzer torte or rich chocolate cake. A large variety of breakfasts, sandwiches, salads, a very popular fish dish and daily specials add variety. Other to-go items include tasty quiches, turnovers and artisanal breads including potato nut bread. The display case to the right of the pastry counter offers a nice variety of German sausages to take home including tasty Bratwurst and Mettwurst. The restaurant is spotless, cheerful and comfortable with seating inside and out. The waitress speaks excellent English as do the majority of the clientele. Melanie speaks English, Spanish and German, all with a warm smile. Phone: 2446-8592. Hours: Monday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Sunday.
El Restaurant Guanacaste Care to have lunch or dinner with lots of loyal local Ticos? This unpretentious neighborhood restaurant and bar more than fits the bill. It is, however, off the beaten path. Head west thru Atenas on Route 3 past the gas station and turn right toward Barrio Mercedes, Palmares/Grecia just before the flashing light. Stay on the main road with all its hills and curves for 1.6 km. Do not turn off toward Palmares and St. Eulalia, but enter Mercedes instead. The restaurant is on the left side of the road near a hilltop. The sign is not very large. It abuts a white house with TV dish and antenna on the roof. Go left up the driveway. Don’t be put off by the appearance. No view, no glamor, just solid local food, authentic in every respect, prepared and served by nice people at local, not tourist, prices. Tico smoked ribs are a bit drier than the BBQ sauce drenched juicy Gringo style. I like Gringo ribs better, but this place does Tico ribs very well. Good small plate bocas and large plate platos. The small plate rib dish is a mere ₡1500. Prices are quite low. The menu does contain some main courses in the range of ₡5000 to ₡6000, such as large plate steaks and shrimp dishes. Covered open air, easy parking, full bar, simple décor. Phone: 2446-4995 Hours: Open for brunch, lunch and dinner. Closed Wednesdays.
Etnia Bar and Bistro Eclectica in Belen was not very eclectic, but Etnia is as eclectic a gastropub as there is in and around Atenas. The chef is always trying out new combinations of flavor and texture to enhance simple basic favorites. One of the Howards loves the burger that is a mixture of chorizo and beef topped with caramelized onions, apple and blue cheese. The chef often runs out of some ingredients so you might want to go early. The setting is lovely and peaceful and the beer selection is unmatched. Located diagonally across from the eastern most of the two gas stations on route 3 drive under the concrete bar entrance along the bamboo fence. Voila. Phone: 4702-8677. Hours: Open for lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Sundays, but only dinner 4 to 11 p.m on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Kay’s Gringo Postres For years Kay and Tom hosted Gringos galore in a pie and coffee shop that became an eatery for simple wholesome American and Tico comfort food. When they went back to South Dakota, Harold and Lisa not only perpetuated the extended family tradition of the place, but actually upgraded the cuisine somewhat. Their salads are great. The mix of Gringo and Tico comfort food continues. Nice omelets. Sunday brunches including Bill’s eggs Benedict were quite popular, but Bill is now the manager at Augusto’s. My favorite pie used to be the pecan, but alas the recipe and/or baker has changed and the new version doesn’t thrill me. Located 100 meters west of Cruz Roja. Phone: 2446-0664 Hours: Open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday thru Saturday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sunday
La Fiesta de las Pupusas Old favorite Salvadorian pupusa emporium right on the old highway west of the oxcart statue in Barrio Los Angeles next door to Don Yayo’s. Good place to introduce newcomers or visitors to these stuffed cornmeal pocket breads. Phone: 2446-6987. Hours: Open 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday to Friday; 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Saturdays & Sundays.
La Troche de Boyeros Chef Frank with 20 years experience is a rare talent. 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 and fresh seafood when available, look for the sign “Terapia Fisica” on the main road that runs through Atenas from La Garita to Orotina. The turnoff marked by the physical therapy sign is a small side road about 200 or 300 meters east of the oxcart monument and only a few dozen meters west of a white 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. The sauces rock. Fish with shrimp sauce is popular, but my favorite is tenderloin of beef with jalapeño sauce. One of the two Davids doesn’t eat red meat. His favorite, while his wife is eating lomito, is chicken in coconut sauce. The restaurant behind the hedge is open on three sides, minimalistic, decorated only with a boyero painting on the one wall, but pleasantly rustic. Prices are a little high for Atenas but a bargain when compared to more glitzy steak houses and a steal when adjusted for quality. Phone: 2446-0553
Pizzeria la Finca Unassuming open-air pizza and pasta place under a tin roof. Great thin crust wood-oven baked pies with15 varieties. Clearly the most popular pizzeria in Atenas and among the favorites in all of Costa Rica. Humble, clean, good service, reasonable prices, red or white lasagna, panninos, calzone, half a dozen pasta types with more than a dozen sauces, salads, desserts, good selection of beers. Located in front of the Civil Registry in downtown Atenas (125 meters west of the Central Park). Phone: 2446-6666. Open for lunch and dinner, 11:45 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily, except Mondays.