I am taking a sabbatical from this column while I am traveling. In the meantime, I wish you muy buen provecho!
Our destination for this update is a cluster of three small towns including my hometown of La Guácima and its satellite neighbors Las Vueltas and Ciruelas. This formerly sleepy area lost its main attraction when the Butterfly Farm closed a few years ago but has had a resurgence since its own exit off Route 27 opened and the Autodromo transformed into the new theater complex and Coca Cola concert hall in Parque Viva. These are an alphabetical scorecard of the local dining options:
Anthony Probably the busiest bar in the area and also an old reliable place for typical food from burgers to steaks to corvina to lobster tails. The lunchtime buffet has gained popularity with locals in the past year or so. Less than a block north of the town center just past the church and opposite the soccer field. ** $$
Burger Garage My favorite sports bar, burger and beer joint newly opened in Plaza Alicante less then a block from the La Guácima center on the south side of the road going west. Nice people with nicely presented upscale bar food. ** $$
Boqueria Palmeras On the eastern edge of town just before the San Rafael border. Great variety of nicely prepared bocas at bargain prices in a venue that is quite nice and a bar that that is comfortable and peaceful even for groups of Costa Rican women whom I know. Was built originally for a fancier restaurant that failed, thus the décor that surpasses most boquerias. Pristine. Good service. Nice people. ** $
Chicharronera Oviedo Probably my favorite chicharrón spot in the entire country. Always freshly cooked in its own bath of rendered pork fat in a caldron over a classic wood fire to the proper crispness with a mildly smoky undertone. Very nice people. Not fancy. Buffet style service. Closed Monday thru Wednesday. Across the street from Auto Mercado. *** $$
Donde George Shortly after this cevicheria and fish café opened late last year, it outgrew its space and closed to add a second floor. Packed and popular it is a local favorite for low cost tilapia and/or shrimp ceviche, fish and chips, seafood soup or pasta and a limited assortment of burgers, etc. Tilapia is not my favorite fish for ceviche, but they offer mahi mahi fillets fried or in a garlic butter sauce. Basic Tico style preparations of fresh ingredients. Nice people. It is about halfway between La Guácima town center and Auto Mercado. ** $
Guácima Country Inn Old friends Clara and Manuel have owned this gorgeous property forever. I attended Rancho Español there 14 years ago to begin to speak the language. The former student dorms have become very nice guest rooms and there is a brand new restaurant now open to the public. The outdoor part of the restaurant is gorgeous. I have yet to dine there because I had to travel as they were opening, but the menu includes authentic Tico fare prepared by an amiable young chef from Heredia. People who have stayed at the hotel have commented favorably about the food. Prices are midrange and choices include salads, chicken, fish, beef and seafood plus desserts. Just east of the town center, turn north at Bar Venus and follow the S curves until they head east. You will see the signs on the left. The entrance is on the nearest side. Please call first particularly in the evening, at 855-201-7819. $$
Hotel Robledal This charming B&B on the west side of the road (124) in Ciruelas near El Roble offers executive lunches from noon to two Monday through Friday at its open air Restaurante Lenchos. It attracts a nice group of upscale workers from neighboring Dos Pinos. The covered patio is surrounded by lush vegetation. The service is excellent. The food, classic Costa Rican, includes daily specials and fairly standard casados. The ingredients are always great, plating attractive and seasoning spot on. I had chifrio there once, the daily special. As the name suggests, chicharrones and frijoles are the basics in this traditional plate atop rice and itself topped with a dice of tomatoes, onions and cilantro. Surrounded by fresh crisp corn chips, it came with lemonade and a piece of moist tres leches cake for dessert. The chicharrones included both kinds, the meaty chunks with a rim of skin and the crunchy cracklings. You pay a little more than you would at a soda, but the quality and ambiance are well worth it. You dine. You don’t just chow down. 2442-5129 *** $$
Marisqueria Les Tough to park in the center of Ciruelas. The food is inexpensive and unremarkable. Local working men seem to like lunch with a beer there. The service can be inattentive. * $
MEStizo Gastronomia Y Café or MEStizo for short. That’s the way they write the name. I love this little café. It is in Plaza Guácima near Los Reyes. The chef husband, Manuel, is Chilean. His charming wife and hostess, Alejandra, is Tica. They both studied in a French culinary institute in Chile. She is the baker, pastry chef and hostess and he mans the kitchen. Breakfast starts at 8am every day but Monday. How about omelets, Belgian waffles, croque madame, granola and yogurt or the Patagonia special of toast, cream cheese, artisanal jelly, ham and avocado? The croquet madame rivals Parisian versions and is a great alternative to eggs Benedict. For lunch you can choose from three elegant salads or four gourmet sandwiches on artisanal breads and rolls. My favorite? Roasted lamb, marinated onions, greens and mild goat cheese on an herbal flat roll. I am not a lover of very sweet things, but if you have ever wanted to try a beautiful sweet multi-layered torta Chilena like they serve in Santiago, try a slice here for dessert if you have room. Their other dessert options all made in house are very good. Batidos, juices, fancy coffees and teas. So ---- fusion, creativity, great ingredients, charming people in a small simple tastefully appointed pristine café at prices that are moderate but a bargain for the quality. ***(*) $$ Hard to give a fourth star to a small simple café, but what they do, they do very well.
Pizzeria Alloro In the new Plaza Guácima across the road from Los Reyes gated community and golf course, Pizzeria Alloro offers pizzas and pastas that may fulfill a need for convenience, but is at best average. Nice people that also own a favorite sports bar and cafe of mine, Burger Garage. Alloro * $$
Pizzeria Calin 1&2 The locations are in La Guácima just north of the church on the east side of the road (124) and in Ciruelas on the west side of the same road across from the soccer field. They are spawns of the original local favorite under new ownership but they remain true to quality, style and pricing that made the original such a local favorite. ** $$
Restaurante Chalito’s You are not likely to pass it by chance. The paved road through the hamlet of Las Vueltas turns to gravel a few hundred meters farther west. The bar and restaurant, open only from Friday dinner through Sunday afternoon, is a happening place catering to people from La Guácima, Los Reyes and Las Vueltas. Typical of a hundred other small town Costa Rican restaurants, there are no outer walls except on the side of the kitchen and bar. The parking lot is basically the adjacent lawn. Until 2006, there was not even a sign out front. Why venture off the beaten path for Chalito’s? For the essence of authenticity, for the kind of Tico warmth and hospitality that upscale foreign ethnic restaurants often lack, for huge portions of delicious food and for prices geared to local working people. In addition to the usual mix of fish, shrimp, steak, chicken and pork dishes, there are a handful of Peruvian specialties – two soups (chupe, cazuela), three or four potato based appetizers (causas) and four chaufa rice dishes. Chaufa is the descriptive word for Peruvian style Chinese food. Favorites include pasta with mushrooms or shrimp in cream sauce, steak smothered in onions, seafood mariscada, fish fillets in a variety of nice sauces, fried chicken wings and chalupas. There is even a play area for kids. The bar prices are also well within even modest budgets. To get there, go west from the La Guácima turn off on the Pista del Sol (27), straight past the turnoff to Los Reyes and Auto Mercado past horse ranches and condos, through a cluster of tiny businesses and the school, and it will appear on the right side of the road. If you reach the end of the paved road, you have gone too far. Telephone: 2439-1029 *** $$
Restaurante Tayta The most upscale, refined eatery in La Guácima, Tayta features quality ingredients, artistically plated, nicely seasoned with a Peruvian bent and an international stretch. The eclectic menu even offers respectable tapas and sushi. On weekdays, an executive lunch of appetizer, main course and beverage costs ₡4950 from noon to three *** $$$
Shang Xing The only Chinese option in this area is actually not bad. It is better than most of the economical Tico style Chinese restaurants. The chef and owners are Chinese. Beef sao fan and wonton soup are decent choices. The egg foo yung is the only dish that I have ever tried at Shang Xing that was not at least OK. On the east side of the road that runs from Ciruelas to El Roble (124). * $
Soda Isabel, Soda Doña Kata & Soda Viqui all provide standard Tico breakfast and lunch. The first two offer fried chicken as well. Isabel serves quintessential gallo pinto thought by many to the best anywhere. She is an icon and so loved and respected that she would get my vote for mayor if we had one. Kata is less flamboyant but kindly and genteel. She serves casados from a steam table and the usual burgers, fries etc. The newcomer for the past few years seems to attract every 18-wheeler that drives through town. Viqui attracts locals as well as passing truckers because of quick service, rock bottom prices, friendly local folk in the kitchen and unadorned standard Tico type food. All offer value.
As I approach the end of my eighth decade, I am ever so thankful that my life has been such a joy. Given the opportunity for a fine liberal arts and traditional medical education, I loved my practice of medicine for thirty-two years. In the twenty years since, my adoring and adored wife and I have gallivanted all over the world and I have written nine books and hundreds of articles on and reviews of food and travel. In truth, I am still an eager explorer of new sites and fine tastes. Even here in Costa Rica I loved the discovery of Camille Ratton’s wonderful cuisine at Bakea a dozen years ago and the mastery of Richard Neat that won him a handful of Michelin stars before he came to the Park Café here. Even simple fare, when done very well, is a thrill, e.g. local ceviche with perfectly balanced acid and sweetness, al dente fresh pasta, or chicken roasted over coffee roots, mangos, passion fruit, tree ripened bananas and watermelon all year long. Pura Vida. In this update, there are some new experiences and some grand renditions of old favorites in new venues such as Chez Loic, which brings world class crepes to Escazú. All are off the beaten path of standard guide books, at least for now.
Escazú As a location, Escazú is so richly endowed with eateries of every ilk that it would be impossible to review them in a comprehensive way in less than an entire book. So I have decided to offer mini-reviews of a smattering of places with at least a single appealing aspect. Either they were resurrected locations that improved, sites that I have never reviewed before or eateries with unique features. Many are well hidden under from the mainstream. None are Michelin star candidates nor among the most expensive venues in pricy Escazú. Tastes vary. My hope is that one or more of these relative unknowns will become a favorite for many of you. My choices are necessarily subjective.
Chez Loic ***** Brava y bravo for amazing chef/owner Julie and her partner/ husband Louis (Loic). In 2014, Joan and I spent a Paris week in Montparnasse and discovered to our mutual delight a street populated by a swarm of creperies walking distance from our hotel. Le Breton was our favorite. Chef Julie is from Normandy originally but studied her culinary craft in Bretagne and then became chef in Paris at the very same Le Breton. Small world. Great for us. She is a master of classic Brittany crepe creation. Every February that street in Paris held a competition among crepe makers and Julie won much more than her fair share of championships. At Chez Loic, she uses only the best ingredients including buckwheat flour from France, imported cheeses and other additions that you can’t find in any other creperies in Costa Rica. When last we spoke, she was arranging to get imported salt butter from France as well. As you would expect to pay more for Chateaubriand than hamburger, so, too, are her offerings costly when compared to the less than genuine crepes served everywhere else. For such excellence, however, they are truly a bargain. Fabulous and absolutely authentic! The buckwheat crepes are not only delicious, they are rich in protein, vitamins and fiber and gluten free. To be perfect they must have edges that are crispy but not burnt. Seconds matter. Hers are perfect. She also offers a weekday lunch executive menu that includes a smaller but substantial crepe, a salad and a glass of French wine. Voila! Location: La Paco Centro Commercial Hours: Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Phone: 4702-7511
Mrs. Cotoletta *** Homestyle Italian is its logo. Owner and host Fabio had a restaurant in Verona, the home of Romeo and Juliet, for more than two decades. He used to vacation here and then he became a resident. His chef is also from Verona. The menu is unique. Two of the three parts appear fairly standard - pizzas and pastas. The pastas are all freshly handmade with imaginative toppings and sauces and the third part of the menu is new to me. About a dozen flattened cutlets of pork or chicken Milaneses are deep-fried then finished in the oven with a host of different toppings that I have not seen even in Italy before. They range from simple unadorned schnitzel-like classic size ₡6000 to giant size for ₡9000 to many with creative toppings for an additional ₡1000, ₡1500 and ₡2000 more. They come with a small fresh salad and a side of your choosing. The artichoke side is my favorite. Other side options include fries, baked potato, onion rings and white beans.
The Castillo is a nice combo of mushrooms, bacon and cheese, the Reina includes mixed mushrooms, cheese and truffle sauce. Unusual indeed. Pizzettas range from simple margheritas to fancy combos including mixed mushrooms or prosciutto for ₡3000 to ₡5000. Homestyle dishes include carpaccio, focaccia, minestrone and lasagna. Location: Plaza Florencia in the back next to Banzai. Hours: Open every day from noon to midnight. Phone: 2288-9880
History Gastro Lounge ***** Fifty years ago I first visited England and was aghast at how bland, overcooked, mushy and malodorous with essence of hours-long boiled cabbage British cuisine seemed. I relished only bar food like steak and kidney pie or Cornish pasties, fish and chips and family run Indian restaurants. In the past few decades London has morphed into a sophisticated internationally diverse culinary star on the world stage with chefs that rival French, Basque and Swiss for supremacy. The few pubs that came and went here in Costa Rica disappointed diners, yours truly among them. But now we have a first class British chef and kitchen staff completely hidden beneath a Mediterranean disguise. No bangers & mash, bubble & squeak, black pudding, spotted dick or trifle to be found on the menu. The restaurant is History Gastro Lounge and it offers superb food with accents from Romania, Greece, Hungary and Turkey, as well as the more commonly represented Italy, Spain and France in Mediterranean restaurants. Ingredients include New Zealand Lamb, cheese from Holland and Greece, wild salmon, wild boar, black angus beef, kalamata olive oil, Modena balsamic vinegar and an array of European wines. So many components are made in house from wild boar pate to yeasty bread, to lamb sausage, etc. Beautifully presented sophisticated dishes share popularity with rib eye burgers that are the favorites of cognoscenti Susan, Joan and Lisa. Among my favorites are the pate, saganaki fried cheese from Thessaloniki, lamb sausage with either hummus or in goulash. To expound and expand as examples, the pate is coarsely pureed wild boar seasoned with basil, Hungarian paprika, Greek uzo and made a bit crunchy with walnuts. Wow! It comes in a mason jar with fresh bread. Together with a glass of good wine, it could become a favorite mid-afternoon snack. The pate and saganaki are appetizer options with all the executive lunches along with cream soup of the day, a choice of entrees, a drink and dessert for less than $10. An example, I had pate followed by lamb sausage goulash. In Hungary, goulash is a soup, not a stew and the starch is most often noodles. Here it is wonderful lamb sausages with enough paprika to add a bit of heat, but not enough to put off Tico diners. The thick rick sauce is made from cherry tomatoes and potato cubes are the starch. My bowl shone without a trace left after the bread mop gathered every last drop. I drank icy lemonade and had a chocolate crepe for dessert. Presentations rocked. Service excelled. The comfortable, yet elegant, surroundings were perfection. Friends love the rack of lamb atop pasta and key lime pie for dessert. Dannyel, the owner by way of Romania and Turkey, greeted the majority of newly devoted regulars by name and many exchanged hugs. His previous restaurant on this site, El Mediterraneo, was good, but this resurrection with new Brit chef and staff has reached loftier heights in cuisine and popularity. Especially for Friday or Saturday dinners, reserve in advance or risk missing out. The prices are less than most of the upscale competition. A star is born! Location: 800 meters west of del Cruce de San Rafael, across the street from Plaza del Rio. Phone: 2289-8153
MadFish Café **** Young chef Teresa is a very talented Tica culinary school grad who apprenticed in Bogota. Her fabulous flavors, perfect marriages of ingredients and beautiful presentations are most praise-worthy, but too much praise causes her to blush. Her restaurant for the past year has occupied the once hallowed gringo hangout, Café de Las Artistas, down the block off the main street from Plaza Rose toward the Little Theater. It is a cozy small location with only half a dozen tables and not much parking out front. Tasteful artwork and brick add to the warm surroundings. Twice a week, she goes to Puntarenas and chooses the very best available fresh fish. If she has congrio as an option served in a Caribbean coconut milk and Panama chili sauce, prepare to be wowed! You can order it as mild or spicy as you wish. It comes with large, crisp, tasty patacones. Joan’s favorite Peruvian dish is shrimp causa limeña. Teresa’s is the best she has ever had. Add full-bodied chicha morada or even Inca Cola, complimentary starter of toasted bread slices with tomato, onion, salt and pepper coulis and you are likely to hum with delight. I hear that all of her various ceviches are memorable. After several more visits I shall be able to attest personally. Ah, such an onerous task! Her prices are quite reasonable considering the neighborhood and quality. She doesn’t have a liquor license, but you are welcome to bring your own wine or beer, with no corking charge. Hours: Sunday 12:30 pm - 4:00 pm, closed Mondays, Tuesday – Saturday noon to 8 p.m. Phone: 2288-2760
Passion Pasta Fresca **** Perfectly cooked, fresh, on-site, homemade pastas are the attraction here. The menu is on a chalkboard and weekday options are ₡6500 all inclusive for drink, appetizer e.g. of bruschetta, cream soup of carrot, leek and potato, gazpacho or Greek salad, and a generous main pasta course. We last had tender tasty ravioli with juicy small shrimp, shaved zucchini, bits of tomato in wine sauce and a Sicilian screw pasta (colochos Siciliano) dish with similar sauce redolent with capers, olives and anchovies. Both were excellent and the max that an ordinary person could finish. Other choices may include pasta in white sauce with wild mushrooms or a plate of squid ink chitarra with clams and mussels. Check out their Facebook site for the ever-changing daily offerings. In the attached retail store you can stock up on freshly made pastas and raviolis of all kinds at reasonable prices. How about raviolis stuffed with osso buco or amaretto and ayote or gorgonzola and nuts? Round, flat and curled pasta comes plain or tinted with squid ink or pink salmon. Pleasant busy place with good service and reasonable prices for perfectly prepared pasta simplicity and reliable perfection. Good desserts, too, I have heard, but never enough innard sanctum room to try one. Location: Calle 118 on the corner of Avenida Jacaranda just a block down from KFC on the main street. That block is one way in the wrong direction so turn off the main street at the large nursery Exotica, take your first left and it will appear on the left. Hours: Open 9am to 10 pm daily. Phone: 2588 2908
For foodies who enjoy arcane culinary knowledge and raucous names of dishes, brands or ingredients, my popular book is now available as an eBook on Amazon for $3.99.
Foods That Confuse and Amuse
1200 Eclectic Names Demystified
by Lenny Karpman
Did you know that mapo tofu is named after the Sichuan woman with the pock-marked face, that “Cats Pee on a Gooseberry Bush” is the name of a popular New Zealand wine, or that “Bombay Duck” is a fish dish?
Repeatedly, bizarre names for menu items, ingredients, beverages and ethnic iterations of dishes or products intrigued or humored Lenny Karpman enough for him to explore the culture, history and substance behind them. The compilation of many hundreds of confusing and/or amusing names prompted the author to inform and entertain others with the demystifying details that fill these pages.
The designated location for this update is Cariari, a high rent district because of three large hotels, a casino and a country club on site, but first a potpourri of other stuff:
My wonderful wife, Joan Hall, is back from having had surgery in California with great post op cancer-free news. A cause to celebrate. Add to that her 60th birthday and celebrate we did with a lot of private fun and a seafood meal at her favorite Pescatore Restaurant in Escazú 600 meters south of Multiplaza across from the BMW dealership, They serve beautiful seafood with both Peruvian and Italian options. (Open every day for lunch and dinner but only noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Phone: 2289 8010.) Yes it was an excellent choice. The seafood pasta I had may be the best in Costa Rica, replete with lobster tail. It cost about $24. Until recently it had been my favorite seafood option. I suggest that you skip the al fresco option during busy traffic hours out front.
While she was away, I ate at Na Praia in the central courtyard of the Sigma Business Center 50 meters west of Mall San Pedro with my friend Tio Steve. It is equally or even more impressive, but much farther from our home or I would be a regular. The tastefully appointed modern grey, black and white space is comfortable, free of any road noise or vehicle fumes and does offer validated free parking in the building’s garage. The large bar is very well stocked. The seafood is definitely the star at this eatery. Bravo to chef/owner Nacho and Chino his sous chef. Oysters, lobsters, balsamic glazed octopus, tuna seared, but rare inside, atop either tomato-based risotto or my favorite, the same tuna on a bed of buckwheat soba noodles with the flavor of sweet sake, soy and a hint of sesame. The mixed seafood ceviche and the tuna carpaccio appetizers are lovely. Reasonably priced; less than Pescatore. Beautifully presented. Absolutely fresh. Perfectly prepared. Seamless service. Casually pleasant. Clearly the best new seafood restaurant and raw bar in town. May it prosper. 11:30 a.m. to 11p.m. daily. 2234-0133
Susan tried the ribs at Augusto’s en Atenas after she read our last review and loved them. She wondered, however, why I hadn’t included Dominic’s barbecue food truck in my Atenas overview. She liked his ribs as well. The answer dear Susan is that I really liked his barbecue at the Atenas Chili Cook Off, but after that he seemed to have disappeared. Don, the talented and amiable chef-owner at PHO in Santa Ana filled me in. Dominic’s food truck was sabotaged. He has made the necessary repairs and plans to take up residence soon in front of Mega Super in Santa Ana across the pista from the Forum. For all you lucky nearby workers, his truck will rapidly become a favorite lunchtime destination. I plan to visit often.
And Don also told me that PHO Vietnamese Restaurant and Café on the Santa Ana Radial, Centro Comercial Boulevard, just south of Momentum introduced a new expanded menu in April. I have always loved his food. We have been to Vietnam for lengthy vacations twice and adore the cuisine. Exact authenticity would be impossible to create in our country, but Don is always striving for improved authenticity and flavor. I am anxious to try the new menu items and will visit again soon. Hours: Mon-Fri 11:30-3 pm and 6pm-9:30pm, Sat 11:30-9:30 pm. Phone: 2203-6969
Banzai in Plaza Florencia also has a newly expanded menu according to my friend, the owner and head chef Cassius. It includes half a dozen bento box specials at lunch and a handful of new main courses. It appears that his new neighbor, Mrs. Cotoletta, will be interesting to evaluate. Tune in to the July update and find out.
Our Monday night men’s night out for dinner group still rotates among a handful of relatively inexpensive Santa Ana restaurants that serve wine by the glass and craft beers. We have a new favorite. Very popular Tap House Bar and Restaurant (Plaza 5 de Marzo Centro Comercial, east of Bacchus) had nearly outgrown its space and parking when the owner opened a second location with easy access and ample parking also in Santa Ana called Tap House City. The menu, quality and choices of craft beers are the same. The second location is Centro Comercial City Place (in the back of the complex) just south of Taco Bar. Owner David is a Texan and the food reflects it nicely. In case you have forgotten my take on the first location, they serve good pulled pork, smoked brisket, Philly cheese steak, Reubens, artisanal burgers, nachos, sides of all the standards including decent mac ‘n cheese, pecan pie with ice cream and much more with friendly, attentive service and competitive prices.
So long to Solano’s Trattoria in Belén. A good chef and food in a difficult location. He will be missed.
Thanks to Shirley, Roz, Bill and Sid for their insider local tips.
El Novillo Alegre Parrilla Argentina Well-known, upscale steak and parrillada BBQ beef chain. I have eaten at a few, but not this one. All have a similar menu of well prepared food, served by highly professional staff in tastefully artistic surroundings at premium prices. Adjacent to Fresh Market, there are a string of three second-floor restaurants opposite an unfinished parking lot. They are La Focaccia, Lapa Roja and finally El Novillo Alegre.
Giorgio’s pizza, pasta, calzone and bocas abuts Mas Ke Café. It is a busy, modern, popular beehive of activity that serves large portions to a young crowd. The pizza options are many. The pies are crispy, thin crusted, and priced about the norm for comparable locations. Their pasta dishes are pre-prepared in oven heated tin aluminum bowls that come to the table with melted mozzarella cheese atop pasta that is softer than al dente with a bright red rich tomato sauce. The sauce however is devoid of any hint of Italy, sans garlic, onion, oregano, basil or crushed red pepper. Their Tico clientele seems to love it just the way it is. They also serve hot flavorful dense roll to the customers waiting for their orders. Other menu items include Strombolis, pepperoni rolls, focaccias, mozzarella sticks, stuffed mushrooms and garlic twists.
Hard Rock Café We collected t-shirts from Hard Rock Cafes for our daughter for a few years when she was a high-schooler and she loved them – Mombasa, Prague, London, Barcelona. Never had more than a cold drink or an infrequent burger at any of them, but was surprised to see the crowd of well-dressed workers having lunch at the Hard Rock Café in Cariari. We got there as the doors opened at noon. By 12:20 p.m. there were about 40 patrons. The executive lunches were all ₡5000 except for olla de carne (₡3000) and their take on chifrijo (₡4000). From our balcony vantage point, I could see that the olla de carne was far and away the most popular. A large bowl of fork tender chunks of beef, fresh corn on the cob, root vegetables, potatoes in a very tasty clear broth with a mound of rice on the side. All the specials came with a side of salad, soup, veggies or fries and a drink. Prices on the a la carte menu for larger servings were about double. I opted for ribs that came with fries and a side of soup, (it happened to be olla de carne, which allowed me to taste what so many others had ordered as main courses). The three well-prepared smoked and sauced ribs were quite good though a bit dry. Crisp fries sat alongside the ribs. A full serving was about three times the price, but the less expensive executive lunch special was adequate for me. Joan had a well-composed classic cobb salad. The same rock music memorabilia adorned the walls. The servers exuded happiness and attentiveness. Hours: Noon to 11p.m. daily. Phone: 2239 2828
La Focaccia Restaurante Di Martino Very nice upscale Italian restaurant that began in resort Martino Hotel and Spa in La Garita across from Zoo Ave. Another location sprang up next to PHO Café just south of Momentum Lindora and yet a fourth in Alajuela. They also serve decent sushi. Nice veal dishes. Wide variety of straight forward Italian dishes. Excellent sage scented focaccia, thin crust pizza, ravioli, fresh fish and more. Flawless service. Lovely surroundings and table settings. Many choices that are not too expensive. Tuesday to Sunday from 12 p.m. to 10 p.m. Phone: 2239-2338
Lapa Roja Sandwiched between La Focaccia and El Novillo Alegre around the corner from Fresh Market, this provider of typical Tico dishes improves on the standards with better than average quality ingredients and defter seasoning. The concierge at nearby Country Inn and Suites seems to recommend it to all his clients and the majority of them are quite pleased. They rated it mostly 5 stars with fewer 4 stars and rare 3 stars. No lower ratings. Their olla de carne is also very popular as is the ayote pudding. They all thought that it was a good value. Hours: 11a.m. to 10 p.m. everyday, but Monday. Tuesdays through Fridays they offer a 4900 executive menu from noon to 4. 2239-1500
Mas Ke Café shares the same strip of sidewalk as the entrance to Shang Hao. What was once a small coffee shop that served sandwiches and breakfast has aged fairly well. The triangular chairs around circular tables out front have become a bit tattered. The menu is basic Tico. The big draw is now a lunchtime buffet for a skosh less than ₡4000.
19th Hole The newly remodeled bar at the Double Tree Hotel where golfers exit the course is designed to accommodate members, but if you pay cash, no one cares about membership identification. Their breakfast fruit plate is particularly nice.
Ponderox Grill & Steak House is closed.
Quattro Restaurant Attached to the Wyndham Hotel, this modern restaurant abuts the casino on one side and Sakura on the other both behind Hard Rock Café. The first impression upon entering seems tastefully soft lighted and comfortable, but a closer look puzzles – a faux antique chandelier, modern amber hanging globes and a multifaceted disco ball all share ceiling space. Soft pastel backlights add to the disjointed concept that is not at all unpleasant despite the flat screen sports channel TV flashing through open arches of the adjacent room. The prices are high. $25 for a burger, most pasta dishes between $15 and $20, small pizza for one person, $16, but it is really a hotel restaurant and therefore not out-of-step for cost. What proved to be out-of-step was my food experiences. 83 out of 93 reviews on Tripadvisor rated the food as excellent or very good. Only 9 thought it was poor or terrible. I had spinach ravioli in in a thin, but tasty white sauce. The only trace of spinach was the green tasteless color of the pasta. The filling was dry crumbled white cheese. The raviolis were the thickest and toughest I have ever eaten and needed to be cut with a knife. My wife’s Panini was nicely toasted and the cheese, olive, pepper filling tasted OK but was so wet that the Panini was soggy. Her herb and parmesan fries were tasty, but no parmesan cheese was in evidence. My guess is that on the Monday we were there, the chef had the day off as many do on Sunday and Monday, and had we returned on another day of the week we might have enjoyed the food as much as most of the Tripadvisor posters. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. Phone: 2209-9860
Restaurante El Mesón de Cariari Follow the right hand fork in the road as you turn into the Doubletree entrance away from the front of the hotel, then left at the restaurant sign to park in front. Nice older venue with a spacious terrace. Large variety of tapas that cost between ₡4000 and ₡12000. They prepare all the standards including Serrano and Iberico ham, mussels, calamari, pulpo, shrimp, clams, meatballs and croquettes. My favorite is the mixed mushrooms with bits of Serrano ham. The only disappointment, the chicken croquettes that were cheese filled, absent any hint of chicken. Good sangria and nice wine selection, Attentive service. Quiet pastoral setting. Spartan décor. Hours: Tuesday to Thursday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. and on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays. Phone: 2239-1491
Sakura Nice peaceful location and amenities at Wyndham Herradura Hotel. Behind the modern stone façade, the old creaky wooden floors and walls and typically Japanese building remains as it had for decades before the outer wall appeared. The decorative art, curved bridge and ceiling fans reek nostalgia. The food has always been above average if not great. Wait staff includes helpful English speakers. Large menu. Pricey by Costa Rican standards, but average for hotel food. Like many Tico Asian restaurants, the kitchen overdoes soy sauce. Nice presentations. Cute sushi boat. Opening Hours: Mon-Sat: 11a.m.-3p.m. & 6p.m.-11p.m.; Sun: 12:30 p.m. -10 p.m. Phone: 2209-9841
Shang Hao, not Shanghai, is the name of a new Cantonese restaurant in Cariari. Hao means good. Hen hao means very good. Shang hao means the most superior or top notch good. Indeed this restaurant is at least hen hao if you order correctly. Shanghai translates as on top of the sea. I have tried their steamed buns filled with roast pork (cha siu bao), fried potstickers (guo tie), Singapore style curried rice noodles (sing chow chow mei fun), pork in oyster sauce with vegetables and wonton soup among other dishes and have enjoyed them all. Folks who have ordered dishes that are included on the menu to accommodate Tico tastes have been less impressed. The young woman owner is a Tica with roots in Gaungdong, South China. Her partner/chef is also a bona fide classically trained Cantonese chef from Guangdong. The menu offers a number of classics including sizzling rice dishes, seafood in a pastry nest and all the standards including some dishes from other regions of China such as kung pao chicken originally from Sichuan, but less incendiary here. He even makes it with fried tofu instead of chicken for vegetarians. His southern style hot pots are the less piquant version of the Mongolian-Hunanese dish for which you needn’t have an asbestos palate. The vegetarian options are many and special. The large comfortable venue bears the bold and red classic décor. The English speaking server was surprisingly knowledgeable and helpful. It is open every day from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. or to 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays. Near Fresh Market and the golf club. Well marked. Phone: 4700-0274.
Sura is the new name of the Soli Mart, the last door farthest away from Shang Hao on the same sidewalk. The charming older woman who runs the place loves her organic produce, gluten free flour, Tico preserves of all kinds and other gourmet and artisanal products in her small shop. Not a place to eat, but a friendly venue for take home items.
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.
Happy New Year and Buen Provecho!
I am going to do updates with restaurant reviews as before but I am adding location summaries in addition. Today we start with Ciudad Colon. We shall explore Alajuela, Atenas, Curridabat, Escazú, Grecia, Heredia, La Garita, Moravia, Pavas, Puriscal, Rohrmoser, San Jose East, San Jose West, San Pedro, San Ramon, Santa Ana and any other Central Valley locations of your choosing. To express your opinion, or to add to my knowledge of eateries in your city or town, please contact me by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and put “food” in the subject line to bypass my spam filter. I’ll include your name and preferences in the location summary.
Ciudad Colon: Thanks to local residents Carol Marujo and Richard and Barbara Highgate for keeping me up-to-date about their town’s restaurant scene.
Maya’s Biergarten closed without warning. The German cuisine, beers and wines will be missed.
Aroi Thai plans to reopen a week before the New Year after an eight-month hiatus according to employees who live in Ciudad Colon. Welcome back. I sincerely hope that they can resurrect what I considered the best Thai cuisine in the country.
L’italiano opened in August a kilometer west of the route 27 Ciudad Colon exit toll plaza. It sits on the north side of the main road where the barbecue place had been. It is owned by the same Italian family as Il Padrino on the main road in Pavas that runs from La Sabana toward the American Embassy. The menu is quite similar, less expensive and has the major advantage of easy parking out front. It should do well. I have a number of friends who love Il Padrino. My reluctance to join in their praise is that to my palate they lack ample amounts of Italian flavors like basil, garlic and oregano in otherwise bright and fresh tomato sauces and in their “Italian sausage” that also is missing any fennel seed. Despite the road noise, the interior is pleasant, service friendly and ingredients of good quality. Phone: 4031-2800
Sol Y Tierra is a brand new authentic Indian vegetarian restaurant that only opened in mid December. I ate there as they were just installing shelves in the kitchen, painting the walls and planning a menu. There was no sign, but they are 50 meters west of the Delta Gas Station on Avenida Tres adjacent to the veterinarian. The owners, husband and wife, Ram and Minbai (pronounced Min bee) Hirani are natives of the Indian state of Gujarat in the northwest corner of India, south of the Pakistani border where the Kutch Desert meets the Arabian Sea. They have lived in West Africa and Canada. We are fortunate to have them now in Ciudad Colon. On just their fifth day open to the public, I had a mixed platter of turmeric yellow long grain rice elevated deftly with a hint of clove, potato and green beans seasoned with classic Indian spices, a cup of dal of the day (she alternates among beans, lentils, black-eyed peas or split peas), chutneys of the day (mine were cilantro and green mango and a pineapple chutney – both very tasty). The plate came with a pair of tortillas, the flour milled on site and grilled to order for ₡4500. For an additional ₡1000, I drank home brewed ice tea mixed with fresh squeezed lime. Very humble eatery. Fabulous flavors. Not very spicy so even Ticos can enjoy the food. Lovely people. She cleans and dries all the spices and grinds her own blends and crafts her own sauces and chutneys. He sells samosas at the local farmers’ market. I will revisit often. Closed Tuesdays. Otherwise open 10 AM to 8 PM
Sabor a Pueblo is an old time typical Costa Rican eatery with campesino decorations, spit roasted chicken, pork tamales, corn pancakes and more, large portions at reasonable prices.
Café Arte is a burgers, bocas bar and beer place next to POPS. Tomatos features wings and Pizza.
Yogurtini has opened next to Fresh Market
Vino Mundo (restaurant and wine bar), Che Pizza (Argentinean and Italian) and Cantinetta El Marisco (fresh seafood well prepared and artistically plated at reasonable cost) continue to please diners who share their opinions with me.
The small basic Greek-to-go venue, El Griego, has moved to a slightly larger space just around the corner across from the park.
Mark Chestnut of the travel site Latinflyer.com asked for an overview of our top eateries. His request was a reminder that I haven’t shared my list of personal favorites for a number of years. So for Mark and for us, here are my current favorites with no regard to bang for the buck until the final two: (Top ten followed by a single*.)
#1 Park Café * in Escazú. The chef, Richard Neat, has Michelin stars for two previous restaurants in London and Cannes and a Top 50 in the World accolade from Conde Naste for a third in Marrakesh. Park Café holds top spot.
American bar food: Tap House, Santa Ana two locations (Burgers, pulled pork, Reubens, etc.)
American breakfast: Taco Bar, chain
Argentinean restaurant: La Esquina de Buenos Aires*, San Jose
Bakery: La Toscana*, Escazú (Only place left with quality bagels)
Chinese: P F Chang, Escazú
Dim sum Hong Kong style: Casa China, San Jose
French restaurant: La Terrasse*, San Jose
French café and bakery: Chez Christophe, Escazú
Indian restaurant: A Taste of India, Escazú
International restaurants (tie): El Grano de Oro*, San Jose and Saga, Escazú*
Italian restaurant: Bacchus*, Santa Ana
Middle Eastern restaurant: Sash, Rohrmoser (Lebanese)
Pan-Asian: Tin Ho*, San Jose Dishes from China, Japan, Korea, India, Philippines and Thailand
Paired wine and tasting menu by chef Gustavo Alvarado: Taller Gastronomico El Punto*, Escazú (molecular gastronomy)
Pizza: La Fabbrica, chain (thin crust)
Peruvian restaurant: Macchu Pichu*, Santa Ana and San Jose
Salvadorian pupusas: Fiesta de la Pupusas, Atenas
Seafood restaurant: Pescatore*, Escazú
Steakhouse: Doris Metropolitan*, Santa Ana
Sushi/Japanese restaurant: Kiraku, Escazú
Tex-Mex: Jalapeños Central, Alajuela
Thai restaurant: Aroi Thai, Ciudad Colon
Tico bar and bocas: El Rancho de Laly, Santa Ana
Tico ceviche: Donde Georges, La Guácima
Tico chicharrones: Oviedo, La Guácima
Tico restaurant La Crillolita, San Jose
Tico coffee root spit-roasted chicken: Pollos Del Monte, San Antonio de Belén
Vietnamese: Pho Café and Restaurant, Santa Ana
Great Steak for less than ₡10,000: La Trocha del Boyeros, Escazú
Good Seafood for less than ₡7000: Cantinita el Marisco, Ciudad Colon
Kiraku When Sushi Kai closed, I lost my favorite Japanese venue. So many are similar, but what made that place my favorite was Tomo, the chef from Tokyo who added art and culture true to Japanese cuisine to the standard array of available ingredients. Knife cuts were perfect, fish very fresh and plating simplistically elegant. I have been remiss for nearly ten months. Tomo and some backers opened their own restaurant, Kiraku, in Plaza Natura across the road from World Gym in Escazú about 300 meters west of Paco Commercial Center. I didn’t find it until a few weeks ago. Rediscovering his near perfection delighted me. We sampled sushi, tempura, pork katsu, salad and miso pleasurably. The only flaw was that the pork cutlet was tough. It was however perfectly fried and dressed with classic katsu sauce. The tempura was crisp and oil-free. Typical of the majority of sushi places, the nigiri sushi pairs and rolls are not cheap. The few places that offer cheap alternatives have never matched up to my expectations. His rolls are beautiful. The crunchy-coated last one on his sushi page seemed to be the most popular among his devoted regular diners.
Executive lunch specials offer a nice value package of tasty miso soup, pleasantly dressed salad, rice, potato wedges and a choice of katsus and teriyakis for ₡4000 to ₡4500 including both salmon and beef teriyaki.
Pleasing minimalistic décor and good service. For my selfish pleasure, I hope he thrives for a very long time in a location that has seen other restaurants fail.
Plaza Natura has two levels. Kiraku is on the upper level. Phone: 2289-5201 Hours are lunch from noon to 2:30 pm Tuesday thru Saturday and dinner from 5:30-10:30 pm. Open noon to 9 pm on Sunday. Closed Mondays.
Ron is a fan of Studio Café Bar and Grill. The information he shared with me was accurate. They offer a very nice executive lunch menu from noon to 3 pm on weekdays that includes chicken, fish, beef or pasta main courses, soup or salad appetizer, a drink and either coffee or a sweet for dessert for ₡5500. They also offer a ₡5000 Saturday and Sunday buffet from 6am to 11am. The breakfast/brunch buffet is pretty standard for a hotel, designed mostly for the convenience of its registered guests, but also open to the public. The offerings are juice, coffee, pastry, toast, fruit, fresh baked bread, cereals, and bain maries of scrambled eggs, gallo pinto and bacon or mini sausages. Ron was batting a thousand until we ate off the a la carte menu for lunch on a Saturday. First the positives: excellent attentive service, lovely presentation, very nicely seasoned dishes and a small warm loaf of bread. The cons were that most of the components - soup, appetizer and main course on our particular visit were prepared well in advance and reheated with a microwave before serving. Savory French onion soup would have been most pleasing had the soup been heated even enough to melt the nice mild cheese atop the untoasted bread that supplanted a crunchy crouton. The baked potato seemed as if the pureed filling had been nuked and spooned into limpid skins long detached from the crispness of an oven. The topping of caramelized onions added nice complimentary flavor, but the plate had to revisit the microwave to be heated past tepid. Then there was perfectly tender properly grilled tenderloin of beef. Delicious, but served with a garlic-laden chimichuri rather than the citrus butter advertised on the menu. The chef explained himself by claiming that the steak was slathered in citrus butter before and during grilling. That may indeed be the case, but neither of us was able to detect even a hint of flavor from citrus or browned butter. Lastly, I had fried calamari rings beautifully presented in a basket alongside lovely crisp plantain chips. The rings however were stuck together, rubbery and the coating was falling off and not crisp. Freshly fried rings could not have suffered so. Alas I guess they came from the microwave having been fried at an earlier time. The interior is visually appealing, seats hard and proximity to the busy street at times off-putting, particularly around rush hour. The wine and beer selections are very nice. The hotel per se has the reputation of being an excellent five star boutique venue.
Sorry Ron. I’ll take your word for it that the ₡4500 beer and boca combo, executive lunches and a la carte evening meals hit the mark, but they need to change their weekend lunch approach. One of my trusted scouts “had a just ok dinner there, that was a bit pricy.” She also commented on the superb service afforded by the waitstaff. 50 meters north of Cruz Roja de Santa Ana, Santa Ana, Costa Rica. Phone: 2282-0515 Monday through Thursday, 11am to 11pm, Friday and Saturday from 11 am to 12 midnight and on Sundays, it is open until 9 pm. Twice a week the place offers live music.
Opa! Soren is a retired Bostonian gourmet who used to visit his two grandkids and his daughter in San Pedro every four months. His son-in-law has been transferred to corporate headquarters in New York, so no more great tips from Soren. Mea culpa. His tips were always good, but I ignored one about a smallish café that primarily served limited breakfasts and the typical soup, sandwiches and salads, plus a few executive lunch options and nice pastries, adjacent to San Pedro Mall. I was excited at first because the name Opa! sounded Greek. When he told me that Patryk, the owner and chef, was Polish – not Greek, I lost my enthusiasm. In September, Patryk opened a second Opa! with the same menu in Momentum Lindora. It is in the corner location up front where Spoon and then Te Con Te had come and gone. Soren scores again even in absentia. The eclectic combination of well-seasoned and artistically-plated foods with quality ingredients are all the more appealing because of the modest prices even in a high rent location.
The menu is small but creativity abounds. Where else can you find Polish pierogi (meat, red cabbage or potato) with a creamy white sauce seasoned with chives? I had a mix of all three kinds for ₡3800. Yum. Joan had a smoked turkey sandwich with real turkey, not deli slices, gouda cheese and cranberries on a fresh baguette half. Her side of potato salad was delicious and pink from red onions. She had a bowl of very rich roasted tomato soup. The flavors of paprika and tomato blended perfectly. Her combo of soup, salad and half sandwich was ₡4700 and more than she could eat. We shared excellent hummus made a little red from paprika and a little tomato. It was refreshingly tastier than cookie-cutter hummus. The homemade pastries are lovely. Both apple and pecan pies are outstanding. I tried a croissant stuffed with scrambled eggs for breakfast and it was great, as was a large fresh fruit salad with cups of yogurt and granola on the side. Both were less than ₡1500. Pinto is also available.
Other menu offerings include lasagna (₡4500); mushrooms stuffed with bacon, three cheeses, sun-dried tomatoes and basil (₡4200); sirloin salad and soup (₡6000); executive lunches of beef, turkey or leg of pork (₡4200) and a host of flavor packed combination sandwiches (₡3800-4300). Soup choices are three; French onion, tomato and chicken with krupnik, Polish honey liquor. Good service, easy parking, open at 8 am every day. Closes at 8 pm, except on Sunday when it closes at 7 pm. (The San Pedro venue is closed on Sunday.) Good luck to Patryk and his staff. We shall return often.
Kitchen by Rausch Restaurant in the Sheraton Hotel in Escazú. Confessions of a sugar-free soft drink person: I buy cases of Shasta for ₡250 a can at Pequeño Mundo to last beyond the holidays so I can avoid the shopping crush. The exit out of their parking lot wraps around the Sheraton. A sign advertised executive lunch from ₡5900. “Let`s try it.” “OK.” Parking is easy. Enter the Sheraton and go left from the cocktail lounge past the blue felt pool table to the charming upscale restaurant. Professional helpful soft-spoken servers greet and seat us at a tastefully appointed table.
“The executive lunches are two. The light one offers salad at the buffet and either pasta or ceviche plus a glass of sangria.” “How much? ₡5990. The full executive lunch adds lomo, polo or pescado to salad and sangria. How much? ₡10,000 .”
“Yes the pasta is penne or spaghetti and the sauces are carbonara, pesto or pomodoro. The ceviche is marlin.” The salad bar was very nice with multiple, lovely choices of standard fare – nothing exotic. The beet salad was a little bland and the pineapple past prime. A fairly small bowl of ceviche came with one patacon. Marlin used to be my favorite fish for ceviche until I read about the mercury content in it. My penne carbonara was tasty, properly cooked and enough to fill my gastric void after a large salad. The bacon bits were nearly microscopic, but the flavor came through nicely and matched well with the grated cheese and mushrooms. We drank white and red sangrias respectively. They tasted surprisingly similar. Both were large, reasonably flavorful, but 90% of the fruit was diced temple orange with much more peel and pith than flesh. The rolls were forgettable. Worth it? Definitely, if your priorities are tranquility, comfort, seamless service and decent, but not memorable food in a genteel setting. The table spacing and low occupancy add to comfortable chats. Great place to relax over leisurely lunch and talk with a friend. Dress Code: Casual. Hours: 6:30 am - 10:30 am; 12:00 pm - 3:00 pm. The dinner menu in the bistro sounds nice, but my scouts have deemed it pricy, forgettable and challenged in the service department. I have not tried it.
Doris Metropolitan Alice sent me a note from New Orleans. She and two old classmates had just had a “spectacular steak dinner” near Jackson Square in the French Quarter at Doris Metropolitan. The three ordered an appetizer each for about $15 apiece and a 34 ounce Porterhouse steak that they shared for “a little more than $80.” They couldn’t even finish it. But “it may have been the best steak I have ever eaten.” Her question to me was about the Santa Ana venue and whether she could get an affordable comparable steak. The answer is a qualified yes. Their porterhouse may indeed be the best steak in Costa Rica, but it, too, costs more than $80. It can easily feed two and maybe three. For the best value options on their menu I suggested she try either of their executive menu’s two steak options. The executive menu of veal carpaccio or Cesar salad followed by a number of main course choices and concluded with caramel ice cream costs ₡11950. The 200 gram flaming tenderloin is one of the options. The steak is very tender, adequately thick and juicy and cooked to perfection. Of the three sauces, I chose the green peppercorn, over special steak sauce or gorgonzola. It was great. The single side was a lettuce salad dressed in nice honey vinaigrette. For my first course, I had the veal carpaccio. The plating was beautiful and featured not only paper thin slices of veal, but also finely sliced parmesan cheese, arugula and caviar. My only criticism was that the chef used a bit too much very rich top quality balsamic vinegar reduction and it overwhelmed any veal flavor. Beware that the pretty little green pepper rings are jalapeños, not sweet bell pepper. Joan began with the Cesar. The salad was fine, the dressing classic. She opted for the other steak option on the executive menu, a 300gm sirloin with oven browned potato wedges for an additional ₡2500. Her steak was also thick and juicy with great flavor enhanced by bits of attached caramelized fat. It may have even been tastier than my tenderloin, but not as tender. Slicing it thinly across the grain made it easier to chew. The potatoes were perfect. She couldn’t finish. So, Alice, don’t cringe that these executive meals were pricier than any other executive menu offerings. Compared to regular steak dinners at other upscale restaurants, they are more than competitive. The restaurant is among the very best in Costa Rica, the service perfect and the ambiance understated elegant. I love the hot loaves of tarragon and salt baguettes too. I asked how their personal herd of cattle had fared in devastated Guanacaste and learned that they had to end the operation there two years ago. All their meats are now imported from the US. Phone: 2282-2221. If you head east on the main road thru Santa Ana from Cruz Roja towards Escazú, turn left (north) past the back of the old stone church and you will see it a block and a half later on the right. Noon to 11 pm every day.
Happy holidays. See you again in January. Please share your experiences both good and bad and your favorites or questions. Send them to me at email@example.com. Please put the word FOOD in the subject line to escape my spam filter.
Aquí Es I listened intently as two friends debated the merits of their favorite Argentinean restaurants. Both acknowledged that Esquina de Buenos Aires was great. One, however, claimed that his current favorite was Aquí Es, a block south of Paseo Colon on 38th Street at Avenida 2. (Turn south at the corner of Paseo Colón by Subway and a public parking lot is on the left just twenty meters before the restaurant). The original restaurant was tiny, the square front part of the current location. Three years ago Mateus, the friendly welcoming owner, expanded the space and created a charming Parisienne bistro-like setting with walls covered in photos and paintings. The ease of getting there and finding seating is superior to the always crowded and tumultuous Esquina de Buenos Aires. And the food? Very good indeed. My friend, who loves the place, says that the rib eye with mushroom sauce or four-cheese sauce is the best steak in Costa Rica. We tried it with the mushroom sauce and sampled a bit of the cheese sauce on the side. It was very, very good but it did not emerge a cut above our other favorites at Furca, Doris Metropolitan or La Trocha Del Boyero (lomito en salsa jalapeño). It was, however, nearly in the same class and quite reasonably priced for generous portion size and quality. I liked the mushroom sauce very much. The cheese sauce had a bit too much Parmesan dominance, but was tasty. The pork and chicken empanadas were perfect. Flawless baked pastry and well seasoned generous fillings. Our friends had grilled fresh tuna and chicken salads. They are huge and very well crafted. I am a sucker for parilla-grilled thinly sliced sweetbreads. The appetizer plate rocked. It could have worked as a lunch plate by itself. The sides with the steak were roasted potatoes and tomatoes and grilled vegetables. Very nice additions. Dessert was a blast. We had flan with swirls of dulce de leche. Whipped cream and syrup filled the central crater in the flan. Marvelous. Very attentive service. Which is better between these steakhouses? They are close. Personal preference is yours to determine, but we shall return often to Aquí Es as ours. We favor the price to portion ratio, better sides, flan and empanadas, Tip: It is growing rapidly in popularity. We had a table for four in a half empty dining room a few minutes before noon. Every table was filled by 12:30. Try arriving outside peak lunch hours. Phone: 2221-5727. Open 7 days. Monday to Thursday 11:30am to 6:30pm. Friday to Sunday noon to 10:30pm.
Challenged to compare, we revisited Esquina de Buenos Aires. Like Aquí Es, it began as a small Argentinean bistro, bought out the house next door and expanded into one of the top ten fixtures it rapidly became. Friends Susan and David are moving back to Portland after decades in Costa Rica. We offered them a goodbye lunch at any restaurant of their choosing. Esquina is far and away their favorite. They were greeted like family members throughout our lunch and were comped after-dinner drinks. We shared empanadas, shrimp in garlic butter and three different tenderloin steaks. All were reasonably tender, prepared as ordered and well seasoned. The portobello mushroom sauce was excellent. The dark, rich reduction of malbec wine a bit too sweet for my taste. The sides were ok, but not out of the ordinary. I had a green salad with average dressing. Dessert flan with dulce de leche was better than average. The empanadas were nicely fried and not at all oily. The best flavor went to the empanada “filled” with blue cheese, walnuts and celery. It was half empty, however, from a paucity of filling. Over the years, I have never had an inferior meal at Esquina. The service has always been amazing. Their sweetbreads are also great. They will remain number one among their traditionally loyal patrons. Calle 11 and avenida 4, open for lunch and dinner. If you are there at noon when they open, you should have no trouble being seated. Thirty minutes later, they are likely to be full. Phone: 2223-1909.
We are indeed fortunate to have such a fine collection of Middle Eastern restaurants here in the Central Valley: Sash – Lebanese, Aya Sophia – Turkish, Istanbul – Turkish, Sisso – Israeli, Mediterraneo – Romanian/Turkish, Lubnan – Lebanese, Beirut- Lebanese and now two new ones, our first Persian restaurant and another Lebanese both featuring kabobs.
Kebabs & Sherabs We had lunch on a Saturday at this new Persian restaurant in Santa Ana called Kebabs & Sherabs (wine). Foods included a beautiful lamb kebab and lots of other yummy sides (cornichons, roasted red pepper, French fries, mashed eggplant, roasted tomatoes) for ₡4500. Other dishes included: chicken biryani, stew-like beef and greens with basil and oregano, mashed eggplant, chicken with yellow lentils, ginger chicken with basmati rice and large kefte (meatballs) filled with dried cranberries and egg. The basmati rice is the real deal, c-shaped, thin, fragrant grains, not the faux basmati served all over Costa Rica. The spice mixes reminded me of home cooked Persian meals. I don’t know if young handsome chef Medi uses advieh, an Iranian spice mix like a milder garam masala or whether he blends cumin, oregano, thyme and sumac to his own taste. I know only that the flavors work. Weekdays they have a buffet for ₡5500. I tried it a few days later and was totally satisfied. Lots of choices well prepared including most of their menu entrees and six salads. The restaurant is located across from Studio Hotel on the Santa Ana radial in the new Murano Mall. It has only been open for a month. Usually I give new places at least two or three months to shake out the glitches and hit their stride. I jumped the gun here for two reasons. First, they are already running a smooth operation and second, when I find a place I like, I try to give them a PR boost to help them succeed for purely selfish reasons, so they will still be in business when I return. Very nice people. They speak some English. The service is friendly and efficient. Plenty of easy parking is located nearby. Phone: 2582-2814 Hours: Open every day from 11am to 9pm or later if diners are still eating.
Kabobgy is a Lebanese restaurant in Plaza Itskazu. It has been open for about eight months and has attracted a number of devotees on Trip Advisor. Hanging from the ceiling, red and white drapes simulate an upscale faux tent. The setting is striking and comfortable for everything from an informal lunch to a formal business meeting or romantic date.
The shish kebab cubes of beef are cooked perfectly, tender, juicy, and loaded with authentic flavors that I would guess to be sumac, thyme and oregano. The pita is remarkably thin and serves dual purposes as a toasted wrap and as crisp flakes in the fattoush (mixed bread salad). To add acidity to the salad, the talented Nicaraguan chef, Marjorie, uses pickle juice in her vinaigrette. She also adds pickles to her wraps. Her kibbeh lamb and beef balls exude nice flavors. The hummus is rich though a tiny bit bitter from the tahini. Appetizers are ₡2900 for small portions and ₡4900 for large. They include falafel, dolmas, tobuleh (their spelling), babaganoush, fried kibbeh, creamy garlic dip and fattoush salad.
I assume that because of high rental costs, everything in Plaza Itskazu tends to be pricey. Their best values appear to be the lunch special that last for a week at a time and their combo wraps. A falafel in pita with fattoush salad and a fruit drink for ₡4500 was a recent special. The combo wraps combine foot-long, generously filled, tasty wraps oven toasted with fattoush salad and a drink for ₡5900. With hummus, the combos are ₡7900. The kibbeh and tender cubes of chicken breast in our wraps were fine. Main courses with fattoush and rice were ₡9900 to ₡10,900. The baklava was nice. Good service. Phone: 2588-2923. Hours: Open daily 11am to 10pm.
Of the two, Joan prefers the bolder flavors, use of pickles and pickle juice, thinnest pita anywhere and classier setting at Kabobgy. I prefer Kebabs & Sherabs for value, the buffet and my personal aversion to the vinegar dominance of pickles and pickle juice.
El Griego Friendly Phillip from Thessaloniki has a to-go Greek eatery the size of a walk-in closet in Ciudad Colon that surpasses the competition … What competition you ask? Precisely. There is none. Welcome Phillip. I am delighted that you are here. Even if the food is less than gourmet, it fills a void in the Central Valley. His moussaka layers eggplant, potato, pleasantly seasoned ground beef (I can taste cinnamon) and white sauce that firms up when baked. Nice. Add to the assortment pork or chicken souvlaki Griego, Lebanese kabobs, minced eggplant salad, Greek salad with feta, tzatziki, falafel and hummus and you have the makings for a great picnic at Ciudad Colon’s Central Park only a half block east of El Griego on 4th Ave. or a meal at home. Add tortilla Español large enough to serve 4 (₡5000) and seafood paella (₡4200) to the options. Except for the latter two, everything is ₡3500 or less and the portions do not skimp. He is about to remove pastitsio from the menu. Too bad. The standard Greek macaroni dish is one of his and my favorites, but locals never order it. The tiny front is easy to miss. It is west of the corner of 4th and Central abutting a barbershop near the large tattoo sign. Sol and Mar gift shop is across the street. Phone: 7290-5868. Hours: Open every day from noon to 9pm. Thanks to Carol for the tip.
Norman Flores is as well-liked as anyone I know in the restaurant business in all of Costa Rica. His Tex-Mex restaurant, Jalapeños Central, has satisfied a mixed clientele of Gringos and Ticos for more than a decade. He is on a first name basis with many dozens of his regulars and greets them all with a smile that radiates light. He won both first prizes at the charitable annual Chili Cook Off in Atenas for the best chili as voted by the hundreds of attendees and the best as voted blind by the panel of judges. Recently he acquired the space adjacent to his often jam-packed restaurant and opened Señor Patacón and Doña Arepa 75 meters south of the Alajuela post office. The offerings are typical Colombian street food, patacones and arepas topped with a nice variety of options. I have tasted shrimp, pork and Colombian sausage (very nice) toppings all mixed with a flavorful dice of pico de gallo atop a grilled arepa corncake or plantain disc. Hot sauce comes on the side. To accommodate groups who are divided between Tex-Mex and Colombian, he offers them the chance to sit together in either venue and order from both menus. The entrances are only a few feet apart. When I asked about thicker stuffed arepas Venezuelan style, Norman did what few among us are charitable enough to do. He told me about a competing restaurant that featured Venezuelan arepas in San Antonio de Belén. Phone: 2438-7978. Closed Mondays. Hours: Open every Tuesday through Sunday at 11:30am. Closes at 9pm except Sundays when it closes at 8pm.
Sabor Venezolano When we went at lunchtime, we sat at the last available table in this spacious very popular new restaurant. Next to us was a couple, she from Venezuela and he quite familiar with Venezuelan food. Both attested to the authenticity of the plethora of homemade offerings.
If you go there for nothing else, you must try the arepas. Thicker than Colombian corncakes, opened like an English muffin and filled with any of 14 different options then grilled crispy. They include everything from vegetarian to Paballon with well-seasoned shredded beef, beans and cheese stuffed inside the arepa and topped with a fried egg. Unfilled arepas are called viudas (widows) (₡1000). Filled large arepas are ₡2500 each.
Beginning with breakfast, they offer a typical Venezuelan plate of caraotas (beans), cheese, two small fried arepas and avocado or typical Tico gallo pinto with egg, sausage and bread for ₡2500. You can also opt for any of six lovely different empanadas for ₡800 - the classic empanada de pabellon with shredded meat, beans, cheese and tajadas (called maduros in Costa Rica- fried plantain strips) for ₡1200. Add quesadillas, sandwiches and wonderful cachapa con queso. It is similar to a sweet Tico chorreada (corn pancake), the sweetness pairing nicely with a slab of salty homemade farmer’s cheese. Many folk fold the grilled pancake over the cheese to eat it.
Among the appetizers are small fried arepas, arepitas, served with natilla (sour cream), Venezolano fried pastry fingers filled with cheese called tequeños and pastelitos, little empanada-like fried packets.
In addition to a list of Tico fast foods (e.g., burgers and fries, chifrijo, hot dogs, nachos) that could satisfy any kids in the group, they have large hot meals including chicken, pasta, lasagna, lomito and casados for timid locals. For those who want to try Venezolano favorites, try arepan, super patacon, pepito or all for less than ₡4000. Or you can order a huge parilla of beef, chicken sausage, pork riblets, patacones, plantain, salad, yuca and guasacaca, a dipping sauce for the patacones (₡5800). Finish if you are not stuffed with assorted desserts. Drink any of a large number of hot or cold offerings, including batidos and chicha Venezolano.
Hours: They open at 9am every day and close at 10pm except Friday and Saturdays when they close at 11pm. They are on the principle one-way street (heading east) on the south side of the large soccer field adjacent to the church in San Antonio de Belén.
We plan to return often. Thanks again to Norman for the tip.
The Red Door is a small white box of a building on the northwest corner of the soccer field on the main road from the Pan American Highway into Grecia. It is Route 154 which becomes one way into town only a few blocks past the Red Door. It looks like a small fish market that sells ceviche from the outside. NOT SO! It does do a large take-out business, but there are a few small tables and barstools at a counter to seat more than a dozen people. The cook spent eight years in New York and speaks better English than some of my classmates when I went to med school in Brooklyn. He is a candid food lover who won’t prepare or serve anything but the freshest quality seafood from Puntarenas. For starters, I must rave about his ceviche. The hint of sweetness is from adding Fresca to fresh-squeezed lime juice along with plenty of cilantro. I had always used ginger ale, but admittedly, his tastes better than mine. His preference is to use corvina or bill fish, but during the three-month annual moratorium on both, he uses fresh local tilapia which he makes taste great (₡2400). Fish and shrimp combo ceviche rocks (₡2500 for a generous portion). Just shrimp is ₡2600. Other choices when available include mixed seafood (₡2500), Peruvian style (₡2800) and my favorite, chucheca (called black clam, though technically not a clam, ₡3400). For less than ₡3000, you can get all of these: rice with mixed seafood or just shrimp, fish filets fried or cooked in garlic butter, fried shrimp with or without buffalo sauce, seafood soup or for those who prefer chicken, chicken with rice, six chicken wings or a Caesar salad. The are pasta dishes of which shrimp pasta Alfredo (₡3400) seems to be the star, paella, beef platters and more. Tasty fresh food served in-house or to-go with a smile at bargain prices. Hours: Noon to 10pm. Phone: 2444-0037. To park, circle the soccer field and park on the side street adjacent to the restaurant.
In the Montecillos suburb of Alajuela, the very popular Chinese eatery Restaurante Puente de la Fortuna exploded and burned when three gas tanks caught fire. Four people were injured. Incredibly efficient and pleasant employees provided large portions of good food at outstanding value to hoards of loyal customers. They will be missed. Our hearts go out to the injured.
Uncle Earl’s Fine Meats and Speciality Goods Thanks to Bill Cook for touting Uncle Earl’s. I was complaining to my friend about the lack of fresh quality Italian sausage here in Costa Rica, the kind where good ground pork exudes the flavors of fennel seeds and red chili flakes. He suggested I try Uncle Earls. Wow! What a treasure trove! Very nice hot Italian sausage, Canadian bacon, corned beef, lamb, pastrami, barbecued smoked brisket, steaks, chops, marrow bones, honey glazed smoked bacon, pulled pork and more. He avoids buying or selling any products laced with those ingredients that are potentially harmful such as dyes and preservatives. As a result, many cuts that we are accustomed to seeing dyed pink or red, appear their more natural grey at Uncle Earls. The corned beef and Canadian bacon still taste the way they should. It pays to call and order in advance because he does have a limited stock on hand at any given time. He strives for freshness and advises that his products not be frozen for long periods of time. Other cooking specialties such as coconut oil and Himalayan pink salt line his shelves.
Hours: 10am to 6pm Monday thru Friday and 10am to 5pm on Saturday. Closed Sunday. Phone: 2289-6105. As you exit the autopista (27) to Escazú, stay in the left lane and turn left at the first light. As soon as you cross the road, turn left again into the parking lot. If you are coming from Escazú, turn right at the last light before the autopista and cross immediately into the driveway entrance on your left. Located near the back end of the parking lot. Nice people. Healthy quality stuff!
Growing up in New England, I looked forward to June as the beginning of seafood season and festivals from Connecticut to Maine nearly every weekend that ran until early October. Would that it were the case here in Tico Paradise. Better times are coming, however. A dozen years ago most Costa Rican seafood other than smallish shrimp and octopus, farmed tilapia and coastal corvina were exported and rarely reached local restaurants. There are now several options. Among my affluent friends, they rate Pescatore Restaurante (across from the BMW dealership south of Multiplaza, 2289-8010) and Product C (Avenida Escazú 2288-5570) as co-holders of top position. Both are excellent, but the cost of an appetizer, main course and non-alcoholic beverage is likely to cost $45-50 per person even at lunch. Of the two, I slightly favor Pescatore because of the Peruvian and Italian fusion options created by chef Regis Molina. Probably my favorite dish is risotto in green cilantro sauce studded with tender calamari tentacles and a few clams and mussels topped with perfectly grilled juicy corvina for about $21. So where do cost conscious diners go for seafood? Banco de Mariscos in Santa Barbara de Heredia, Go Fish Seafood Company in Curridabat and any of the Princesa Marina venues were always popular mid-range choices that we visited until we discovered these three lesser-known options that offer unadorned quality and value:
Cantinita Del Marisco - Joan and I love this little humble seafood eatery under the sign of a happy crab on the main street of Ciudad Colon. On the block between the two gas stations, it is across the street from the parking area of Maya’s Restaurant and Biergarten. Delightful co-owners Kathy and Wen are also waitress/hostess and chef. Their seafood is fresh every day and they are open from noon to midnight seven days a week. Joan particularly likes their fried shrimp, juicy, sweet and perfectly crusted (₡3800); and I am fond of smallish firm scallops in their shell sauced with a perfect light Parmesan flavored mornay sauce (₡5800). Both come with crisp fries and a small fresh salad dressed in Wen’s tasty thousand island dressing. Plating is artistic. For budget minded folk, a generous casado with a nice piece of grilled fish, maduro, rice, beans and salad is a bargain at ₡2500. Oysters are pricey as they are everywhere. Décor is minimalistic. Street parking is usually not a problem. What a nice addition to the ascendency of Ciudad Colon as a foodie destination. Added to Aroi Thai, Chez Pizza and Maya’s one can choose from authentic Thai flavors, Argentinian parillada and pizza, hearty German food and now fresh, well-prepared seafood.
A note about Maya’s. Dirk has moved on to a hotel in Nuevo Arenal, but the staff under new owner Alberto continues to serve the same tasty German food true to Dirk’s recipes.
La Fuente de los Mariscos - For thirty years, this no frills, noisy, chaotic, unromantic emporium between mall shops and the diesel smoke belching trucks on the Pan American Highway (Rte, 1), has been serving huge portions of very fresh seafood at reasonable prices to hordes of working local people. It sits on the service road of the highway in Centro Comercial San Jose 2000, adjacent to the Best Western Irazu in La Uruca. Climb the front stairs and go left. The only reason to go there is for the food, value and polite efficient service. Large, tasty chunks of garlic bread come unannounced. Many beverages come in small pitchers and the waiters keep glasses filled. The choices include lobster, squid, mussels, shrimp, pulpo, mahi-mahi, salmon, seafood platters and an assortment of rice or pasta dishes and large casados. Surprisingly, they offer some nice wines reasonably priced. 2231-0631
Marisqueria y Cevicheria Brisas del Mar - Muchas gracias to Tio Steve, Barbara and Bill V. for all touting my new favorite seafood restaurant in the entire Central Valley. It also evens the geography score with one of the three recommendations from west, center and east ends of the Central Valley. Brisas del Mar is in San Rafael de Heredia a half a block north of the gas station (up the one way street) on the left side of the road. The delightful owner and staff serve the very best ceviche I have ever tasted, whole corvina, fillets of white swordfish, outstanding fried shrimp perfectly prepared, Caribbean seafood soup with a little kick, well seasoned black bean puree, a great green drink of pineapple and basil and yummy pianguas (a mollusk from mangroves also called black clam). Five of us ate like royalty sharing two appetizers, two large soups, two shrimp dishes, a filet of swordfish and drinks all around for only a bit more than ₡20,000 total or about the price of bargain basement executive Tico lunch specials elsewhere. The menu also includes seafood casados, pasta and rice dishes, calamari, pulpo, baby langostines and inexpensive beer and soft drinks. They are packed on weekends but still serve efficiently and quickly. Atmosphere? Unpretentious. Blue walls. A few fish depictions and a fish net on the ceiling. Try not to miss the mixed ceviche, fried shrimp or pineapple basil drink. Very nice people, large portions of fresh seafood prepared flawlessly at bargain prices. If it were a little closer, I’d eat there very often. 2260-2544. Closed Monday. Tues –Thurs & Sun 11am to 9pm. Friday and Saturday 11am to 10 pm.
Adios Cerruti. Thank you for many years of memorable fine dining. You gave us romantic charm, elegant service and fabulous haute cuisine. I’m afraid that my first two choices for this update are far more pedestrian than Cerruti was. But they serve good wholesome dishes at far more affordable prices. My third choice serves excellent quality food in a far more relaxed and casual manner.
Adios tambien to Il Torino for its years of delivering fine Italian deli comestibles to eat in house or to take home. You will be missed. Both places suffered from rising prices that limited appeal to a wealthier, smaller clientele. Los Cebollinas tried to appeal to the wealthier end of the Mexican food market as well and closed.
La Posada de Las Brujas
Many thanks to David B. and David M. for touting my new favorite basic Tico eatery. First the location: 250 meters east of the main Catholic Church in Escazu center. On the south side of the street a charming old house sits on a hillside with an ample parking lot at the end of its driveway. The house became a restaurant about two years ago.
60 oversized inexpensive bocas very nicely prepared by Tico chef Tony easily outshine the competition. If that were not enough, he uses a very hot parrilla to grill steaks from churrasco to lomito and New York cut and a superb chicken breast(s). I added the (s) because the portion size must indeed be from more than a single chicken. It came with grill-marked exterior, yet moist and tender inside, a rarity in Costa Rica where breast meat is usually overcooked and dry. The chimichurri sauce was good. On the plate were both a baked potato napped in a light and delicious Hollandaise-like sauce and a salad dominated by fresh tomatoes in lovely sweet vinaigrette. The portion was so large that my wife took home half of all three components for another satisfying meal. Two meals for ₡6300.
Describing a liver dish may turn off some of you, but I shall, to reinforce how Tony wins my praise. The very large slices were well caramelized as were the mound of grilled onions. Every single bit of chewy vein had been removed. The ample half plate of fries came golden brown, crunchy on the outside and very soft inside. I can guess that they were boiled first, dried, lightly floured, and fried in oil that was both fresh and adequately hot to avoid any surface grease. ₡1800.
Among the bocas are every standard you can imagine and nearly all were ₡2500 or less. The parade of dishes filing past our table all looked scrumptious and bountiful.
Typically, the dining room is less than a designer’s showpiece with basic full bar and two flat screen TVs. The servers are pleasant efficient young women. Despite the absence of romantic trappings, it is cozy and cute with all the witch symbols and statues extending out the door, down the stairs and along the driveway. Three reasons to visit: food, value and food (sic). Phone: 2228-1645. Hours: Tuesday thru Sunday 11am to 1am.
This small very humble Caribbean eatery in Barva serves very tasty authentic dishes loaded with flavor. Joan and I really like it.
It took us a while to find it and I’m afraid my directions are less than precise. If you can find your way to the park and large white church in the center of town you are only a few blocks away. So many of the narrow one-way streets look the same to me. Ask directions to the Casa de Cultura. It sits on a corner with the entrance facing one street and the side facing another street. If you stand on the side of the street next to the building’s side and look across the street in the same direction as the sidewalk you are standing on, you will see a large sign for an attorney and notary office. Cocori is right behind it. The fence has a poster showing owner/chef Walter’s adorable little boy. The three walled green and yellow venue sits back about 20 meters. The tantalizing aromas greet you half way. Inside there is a single ordinary table with four chairs and four wooden picnic tables with attached boards for seats. Bring a cushion if you are backside-challenged as I am. Ignore the pocked paint and rustic surroundings and enjoy good home-style food.
Walter is a charming fountain of information bedecked in dreadlocks. He and wife Janet are from Puerto Viejo. He will explain any menu item or spice medley that may puzzle you, take your order and cook your food. He knows his flavors. A Caribbean favorite of mine has always been snapper in the style of Veracruz (huachinango Veracruzano), scored and pan-fried whole fish smothered in a sauce of sliced and diced peppers, onions, tomatoes, lime juice and lots of thyme. Walter does his snapper the same way and it is yummy. A large fish is ₡6000 and a smaller one is ₡5000. The plate includes coconut milk flavored rice and beans, a small salad and patacones. The Caribbean chicken consists of two pieces on the bone flavored beautifully and served with same accompaniments for ₡3000. Both dishes require a little fork and knife tenacity, perhaps a little finger assistance, and a few extra napkins. Not for dainties, but fine for gourmands. Other options include other fish, rendon soup, shrimp, paty and whatever he brought from the market that morning. If you like Panamanian incendiary peppers, try Janet’s homemade hot sauce.
If you are a ginger lover, you must have a glass of hiel, the essence of gingersnap in liquid form. It is more flavorful than usual agua de sapo, Walter explained that hiel was the original name until some folks added chan (chia seeds) that looked like frog eggs suspended in the drink. Now, away from the Caribbean coast, the drink is called agua de sapo even without the seeds (₡1000). A variety of batidos also go for ₡1000.
The sweet dessert turnovers (₡1000) are filled with either delicious minced coconut or plantain. If you try the coconut, it comes two ways, with or without ginger. For me the ginger version rocks. The savory turnovers, paty, come spicy or much less spicy. I like lots of spice, but the spicy version may be a bit to hot for most folks.
Five of Walter’s customers have rated Cocori four and a half stars on Tripadvisor, remarkable for such an out-of-the-way humble place. I agree. Phone: 6089-5260
When Saul (sah-ool) opened 4 or 5 months ago, I received so many conflicting reports that frankly I was confused. Was it a “cool and trendy hot cocktail lounge where hipsters go to be seen,” or a “laid back preserved old adobe full of understated charm, perfect for relaxing with friends,” or “so well staffed by efficient and friendly waiters that all eight of us received exactly what we ordered with minimal wait,” or “the service was slow and our hot breakfast food came to the table cold,” or “very expensive hamburger ₡8000 and just bar food,” or “great ingredients beautifully prepared and presented at very reasonable prices for super quality”? Wisely I waited for management to work out the kinks, and they most certainly have. The food, ambiance, service and décor have become fabulous.
Let’s start with the team. The Tico chef has years of quality international experience and executes the vision of the owners to perfection. They, the Mendez family from Guatemala, own more than 20 restaurants and their experience and expertise show. Their flagship venue in Guatemala is also called Saul. In five or six months they will open their second Costa Rican Saul near Curridabat. All have unique identities rather than the cookie-cutter chain essence. Family member Gustavo Guzman Mendez shared that the Escazu bistro is intended to be a place for people to relax unhurried with friends and enjoy basic light food made to perfection. By design, beer and wine, not hard drinks, are offered along with creative fruit and/or specialty coffee drinks. This is neither a nightclub nor a cocktail lounge. The waitstaff team is professional, well informed and attentive. Coordination with the kitchen now appears to be excellent with hot foods served hot and cold foods cold. Turn-around times do not seem lengthy.
Yes the burger is ₡8000, but it is inches tall quality juicy beef capped with melted goat and Gruyere cheese and a pickle on an artisanal roll with an arugula and cherry tomato salad and shot glass of gazpacho. A word about the gazpacho – it is so loaded with flavor that it nearly explodes in one’s mouth from herbaceous, spicy and vinegar elements in bold harmony.
Three other sandwich plates worthy of mention are all ₡6500. El Nordico is a toasted submarine roll overflowing with imported moist, delicious Canadian salmon, crema tartara, sliced cherry tomatoes, sliced cucumber, arugula and avocado. Fabulous and filling combination of flavors and textures. I had a small bowl of mixed yuca, plantain, potato and papaya chips on the side. Joan’s steak club was huge on three pieces of fine artisanal bread with tender steak fillet, a Dijon mustard mayonnaise, Virginia ham, slices, lettuce, tomato, egg slices and bacon. She chose a side of fresh hand torn lettuce and cherry tomatoes dressed in creamy vinaigrette with a hint of garlic. The Vietnamese sandwich has slices of sirloin, cucumber, mint and an aioli spiced up with chipotle peppers. Three well-crafted sandwiches with beautifully matched medleys of ingredients.
The rest of the menu includes other sandwiches, pasta, pizza, creative salads, soups, savory and sweet crepes and a wide variety of breakfasts served until 10:30 pm. I have tasted neither the French toast nor the crepes, but have heard from reliable sources that both are outstanding. Most of my knowledgeable friends prefer breakfast to either lunch or dinner at Saul.
The building is indeed a resurrected old adobe clad in playful imaginative accessories and both a small garden and bamboo forest. The sounds from the old Santa Ana to Escazu road virtually vanish under the trio of castanet-like clacking of bamboo tree on bamboo tree, laughing wind chimes and the sounds of the tumbling water from a recycling line of spouts in the front garden. You may also choose to sit in the charming back patio.
It is exactly what Gustavo shared as the family image and a unique addition to our dining scene. We will return often. It is rated among the top 10 % of Escazu restaurants with four-and-a-half stars by Tripadvisor despite its past growing pains. Bravo!
Open 7am to 10pm every day. 2228-8685. Adjacent to Plaza Laureles on the Old Road from Santa Ana to Escazu there is a C shaped side road that is one way from West to East. The restaurant entrance is on the side road at 7 Bancas. The opposite side of the restaurant faces the Old Road.
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El Balcon Del Café 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 Valentine’s Day breakfast special was gorgeous. Joan loved both the presentation and the flavors. Picture a platter adorned with hard-boiled egg slices each topped with a tiny floret of horseradish sauce and a caper adjacent to individual slices of white onion coated alternately with paprika and dill next to a generous mound of lightly brined and smoked salmon, plus slices of home baked bread. It came with a mimosa and coffee for only ₡4800. For even less, I had scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, a fresh fruit plate and coffee and the eggs were moist as I ordered them, unlike the over-cooked dry renditions served nearly everywhere else in Costa Rica.
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 8am to 6pm. Closed Sunday.
Just an aside for breakfast seekers, on Sundays when Melanie’s restaurant is closed, renaissance man Bill Cook is making eggs Benedict on the first Sunday of the month and an array of fine omelets for breakfast/ brunch on the other Sundays at Kay’s Gringo Pastries near Cruz Roja. Old friends Kay and Tom are long gone back to the states, but Lisa will bestow her Texas charm on diners who return for unpretentious comfort food like meatloaf and chili con carne.
Another breakfast note: “Lenny, Bob and I will be staying in Alajuela in early April. We used to vacation in Mexico every spring and have grown accustomed to starting our vacation mornings with huevos rancheros. Can we do the same in Costa Rica? Thanks, Molly.” Yes, Molly you can. The huevos rancheros are a bit different here because Ticos don’t like heat, but do like sweet. Soda Tapia is a classic Tico chain that opens early and serves decent huevos rancheros. They have a branch in Alajuela. On the bottom of the plate, two corn tortillas envelope melted cheese and a thin bean layer. They are topped with a pair of fried eggs typically a bit overcooked, and all are drenched in a tomato onion sauce devoid of chili peppers and sweeter than most Mexican sauces. If you want runny yolks, you have to plead your case. Red Chili sauce on the table adds as much heat as you choose. Not a bad substitute and only ₡2100.
La Masia - Two restaurants in one served by the same outstanding kitchen crew expands the appeal of this fabulous rustic traditional Spanish brick-clad beauty. Let’s start with the less expensive side of the restaurant. From Monday through Saturday they offer a ₡5000 meal of appetizer or salad, main course, dessert and beverage from 11:30 am to 5 pm. The choices are many and beautifully plated. The flavors are exceptional. Portions are small, but the combined courses satisfy most for an adequate lunch, albeit less than a manual laborer or typical teenager might crave. Among the appetizers are one of the best tuna tartars I have ever tasted on a layer of mashed avocado and a delicious shaved pulpo. For the entree, both the thinly sliced rib eye and osso bucco are a bit chewy, but yummy. One of the desserts is suspiro perfectly prepared and the other was a lovely light lemon pie. Among the beverages offered as part of the meal are a glass of beer, sangria or coffee with dessert.
On the other side of the wall the menu begins with ₡5000 tapas and goes up to ₡20,000 dishes. Joan’s large grilled octopus dish was outstanding and atop her all time pulpo hit parade. If you liked their tapas at the old Sabana Norte location, you won’t be disappointed here. Good variety, authentic preparations and lovely flavors. Opinions are mixed about their paella from only OK to very good, but I haven’t tried it. The wine list is large and prices are not off the charts. The service is professional, attentive and informative. For an upscale (euphemism for pricey) evening Spanish meal in a lovely venue, Masia satisfies most patrons. Live entertainment on Saturday nights. Phone: 2288-7190 Hours: 11-11 except 11-6 on Sunday.
When I want it all for lunch -- ambiance, fine service, artistic plating, comfort, tasty food, satisfying portion size even when I’m very hungry, a small rich dessert at the end of the meal, and a quality beverage included at a very reasonable price, we head to Tintos y Blancos in Multiplaza, Escazú. They also have a restaurant in Terramall. The weekday lunch specials fall into three categories that cost roughly ₡5000, ₡6000 and ₡7000. Each includes a starter of soup of the day or very nice fresh salad, a substantial main course, dessert and a beverage. The lowest priced offering has Snapple as the beverage and either chicken or vegetarian main. Among my favorites is eggplant Parmesan that is not breaded and is beautifully seasoned. The mid range combo elevates the beverage to very nice sangria, which comes red or white with the unique flavor of fresh passion fruit. When they offer risotto with seafood in this grouping, I leap. The baby pulpo, clams and mussel match well with the Arborio rice. In the top grouping, tender tasty meat rules and the beverage option includes a generous glass of decent wine. The daily soups are always flavorful. Though most are creamed, they are not excessively rich. My favorites are the asparagus and beet varieties. Don’t shy away from the creamed beet borsht because of the color. An old favorite of mine when we travel, it is a first for me here in Costa Rica and I love it. Music at times. Phone: 2201-5937. Hours: They open at noon every day.
When Wendy’s closed all its branches and left Costa Rica, management noted that there was too much competition. Perhaps the restaurant population has outgrown its customer base after all. What a dramatic change in just a decade. The entire Bagelman’s chain and Schwarma King have joined the departed. Among my favorites, Cilantro Café in Grecia closed while they look to find a new location with a larger kitchen
Cesar shared that his three kids liked Bambai Mongolian Grill, a new-to-Costa-Rica chain with locations in Curridabat, San Pedro Antares and Santa Ana Momentum Lindora. It is a do-it-yourself variation where you pick ingredients from a buffet and they are stir-fried on a griddle for you. Some folks, particularly youngsters, love the hands on approach. Cesar asked if the food was really Mongolian.
I have not been to Mongolia, but I met a Mongolian cook a year or so ago who laughed when I asked about Mongolian hot pot. “Chinese,” he giggled.
“How about the chain of restaurants called Mongolian Grills?”
“Not even remotely Mongolian. An Asian stir-fry fad. A salad, rice and pasta bar with flat-top cooking surface. Strictly American. Without mutton, horse meat, goat, dumplings or a bunch of yak milk products, they are about as Mongolian as Outback is Australian.”
At Bambai, bowls come in two sizes, $11 and $13. For pork, beef, chicken or shrimp that look like plastic-wrapped quarter pounders, add another $5. The sauces are not bad. Younger people seem to enjoy the novelty. I guess I’m getting too old for sharing space with Cesar’s kids. From what I hear, service has been a problem at the oldest venue in Curridabat, but not in the newest in Santa Ana. Phone: 2234-3191 Hours: Noon to 9 PM
Randy asked, “What ever happened to one of the original gringo hangouts, Rock ‘n Roll Pollo?” After a handful of unsuccessful restarts it finally morphed into Cabaña Don Manuel Restaurant/Bar. The new menu is once again loaded with bar-style bocas and a handful of main course dishes. Prices are very affordable like the other sports bars farther up the hill heading east on the old road from Santa Ana to Escazú (Yakkis, Killer Beez, Cebolla Verde). Of the four, Cabañas Don Manuel is probably my favorite despite the similarities among them. Good service. Comfortable seats. Very nice ribs, burgers, fajitas, chifrijo, fish, etc. Six of us whiney old farts ate there recently with nary a complaint. Unusual for these often demanding curmudgeons. The pizza oven should be repaired by mid February. The next week, five of us again ate without complaint. A rarity. As you head east on the main road out of Santa Ana, the road changes from two-way to one-way. After the change, the restaurant is up about 150 meters on the left. It is open daily 11AM to11:45 PM. Phone: 2203- 1600.
The very next week, the invading horde of ten old farts ate at Old West and by consensus agreed that food was even better than the above mentioned four places. I heard happy remarks about everything from burgers, to fish and chips, to olla de carne (Sunday and Monday only), to chifrijo, to ribs. I had a huge plate of fresh shrimp that still had their pop, lightly crusted and fried to perfection. Their quality was akin to expensive seafood places and the dish with mashed potatoes and nice chopped salad was ₡4500. Good service. A bit loud from the busy large bar, hard seats and neither bright nor lovely. Just good food at good prices. The fried fish boca with fries and chopped tomato and lettuce salad for ₡2000 is well prepared and large enough to satisfy most diners as a meal. It may be the best value lunch anywhere. The fish has nice texture, but is a little lacking in flavor. It is open every day from 11am to 1am. Location: 200 meters east of Cruz Roja in Santa Ana on the one way road that runs east to west.
Mocapan is a delightful addition to the San Rafael de Escazú scene. It is a modern two story immaculate bakery/café. The baked goods have a European flare with excellent soft pretzels and pretzel rolls (brezn) and very tasty croissants and muffins. Add hearty peasant breads, pastries and yummy seeded rolls to the mix. Freshness is never a question. The inventory changes every morning. They serve reasonably priced breakfasts, especially when compared to their upscale neighbors, including a spinach, tomato and cheese omelet; pancakes and a nice pretzel roll sandwich of scrambled egg, cream cheese, lettuce and tomato and all the standard coffee options. For lunch the choices include salads and sandwiches. Joan’s favorite is the Mediterranean sandwich made with Serrano ham, tasty aged parmesan cheese and arugula. One day at one p.m. we grabbed the tenth and final available table. After just a few months, Mocapan has become deservedly popular. Katrin from central Germany and Simon from Munich deserve credit for creating a nice niche in only their first year in Costa Rica. Katrin charms all and speaks perfect English. They are located on the main road at the western end of the cobblestone crescent that runs west from Mall Las Laureles and includes Saúl Bistro. Their wall along the main road reads “From Germany With Love” and they live up to the promise. Hours: Monday to Saturday from 7am to 7pm, and Sundays from 8am to 6pm. Closed Tuesdays.
A Taste of India is a tiny place that seats only twelve at five small tables and parks only four cars out front. But if you love the aroma and sounds of spices popping in a hot skillet, releasing their perfume, seek this jewel and be amazed. The intersection that abuts Scotia Bank in Escazu is called el cruce, the cross, by locals. If you take the uphill or southern branch in the road about 200 meters, the restaurant is immediately past Mil Sabores on the left.
Kamal is a bright, young enthusiastic Punjabi charmer. A client of his Indian take out restaurant in Glasgow convinced him that Costa Rica could really use an emporium of full-flavored robust Indian food at reasonable prices. So he took his main cook with him and brought their combined culinary skills to Escazú. They decided to start small and expand as needed. Well, fortunately for us, they have fared well enough so that expansion is about to happen. The food, WOW! Best lamb masala I have had in many a decade. Joan said the same about her butter chicken. Good naan. Ground hot chili peppers on the salad. The all-inclusive menu boasts 16 appetizers, about 30 main courses, about a dozen executive lunch specials including basmati rice and salad for an average of about ₡4500, about ₡1000 more for lamb or prawns. Add lassi (yogurt based spiced cold drink) and ginger/cardamom flavored hot chai to the drink options and an enormous bowl of not too sweet kir (rice pudding with ground cardamom) that can easily satisfy two or three people. To assure that you can park easily and find a table, consider that they offer a 10% total menu discount from 3 to 7p.m. Arriving closer to 11:45 a.m. is another good weekday option. They open at 11a.m. every day and close at 9 p.m. on Sunday, 9:30 p.m. Monday thru Thursday and 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Nice people, friendly efficient service, unpretentious, good prices, great flavors. Phone: 2289-9123
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First the sad news, La Galleria in Mall Florencia, Escazú, closed its doors. Nice people, great food, will be missed. I guess they might have done better staying in Grecia. Also, La Tache in Plaza Tempo also closed. Quel dommage.
Good news. Cilantro Café in Grecia continues to attract devotees after their first three exciting months. To accede to the wishes of their fans, Kevin and Bronwyn have extended their hours to 8pm Monday thru Friday so folks can now have dinner there as well as breakfast and lunch. They will still close at 3pm on Saturday and stay closed on Sunday. The only concession they have made to the kids is to open at 11 rather than 8 on Mondays. Other days they open at 8am. They have already added desserts to the menu.
Another success story is El Mediterraneo. The fabulous little charming Romanian restaurant owned by an ethnic Turk with a Greek chef has outgrown its digs across from Scotia Bank and has moved into a larger venue a bit farther west (0.8 km) on the road that heads from Escazú towards Santa Ana just across the street from Plaza Del Rio. They can now seat forty comfortably, more than double their previous capacity, and they have a parking lot. The décor is Mediterranean (same designer as Dad’s gigantic restaurant in Istanbul) and comfortable. The expanded wait staff have been well-trained and are most attentive. The menu has grown but has not forsaken any of the old favorites. I loved the original and hoped that the basics had not been lost in the move.
Recently I was in the mood for pasta and lamb, usually an impossible combination, but I scored. Linguini with lamb turned out to be homemade pasta in a spectacular sauce of yogurt, white wine, goat cheese and dill. The flavor was very rich, but with neither cream nor butter in mix, it was less fatty and lighter than the bold flavor would suggest. The ground lamb also exuded the flavors of the Mediterranean. I was one happy diner. The owner asked me try a new Greek dessert that he had just made. I did, and smiled all the way home. Arlakis had ground pistachios and sliced almonds atop the foamiest meringue ever which sat above a velvety lemon pudding on a biscuit. The flavors abounded and included a light touch of anise. Wow!
More good news. At last my hometown of La Guácima de Alajuela has an upscale restaurant of sufficient quality that I feel comfortable bringing guests with demanding culinary expectations. Tayta Restaurante Peruano is in the small mall, Plaza Via Guácima, 600 meters south of AutoMercado on the road to Los Reyes on the east side of the road. It is number 5/6.
Jorge Valencia Palacios, the charming owner, mans the attached gelateria and dining room and prominent chef imported from Peru, Ipolito, creates attractive dishes carefully prepared and authentically seasoned. I can vouch for very nice renditions of corvina in seafood sauce, causas, fried calamari, parihuela, tacu tacu with fresh seafood, risotto, shrimp with yellow rice and suspiros for dessert. Several classics grace the opulent menu including Peruvian style ceviche, anticuchos, papas rellenos, chaufa, mar y tierra, an assortment of rice and pasta dishes, steaks, tataki de atun, cau cau de mariscos, chicken in three regional sauces, salads and desserts. The setting offers comfortable seating inside and out, minimalistic but attractive décor and the spacing and quiet that allows for leisurely conversations and dining. The attentive service is never intrusive. Average main course prices for generous portions average about ₡7500. Not a place for an inexpensive casado or executive bargain lunch, but a most pleasant place for a good meal. Phone: 6057-4945. Noon to 11, Sunday noon to 7. Closed Mondays
On the opposite end of La Guácima, right before the river that borders with San Rafael de Alajuela, an older restaurant has been resurrected from a long sleep. New name, new management, new menu and a new chef call out to locals to try Boqueria Palmeras. It clearly is a place for a bargain lunch or an affordable cocktail with a light dinner from a well-stocked bar.Eight of us answered the call on a recent Friday night. The spacious, nicely appointed, comfortable restaurant had more people in it enjoying their food that night than visited the restaurant’s predecessor in any given week previously. The menu consists of a 67 bocas. Prices range from ₡1000 to ₡3500 with most plates priced at ₡2500. Servings are generous and, although a few of my friends order two each, I am usually sated with one. Preparations appear similar to or a little better than other boca locales. The offerings are well seasoned and the ingredients reflect decent quality. Star offerings seem to be the very large platter of patacones mixtos with a bevy of toppings, filet mignon with mushrooms, liver and onions, pulpo al ajilo, fajitas mixtas and aros de calamari. The expansive cocktail menu prices drinks at ₡2000. Service is friendly, but not yet very sophisticated. Not a problem. Opens at noon on weekdays and an hour earlier on Saturday and Sunday and closes every day at 11 PM. 4031-6583.
Istanbul is a great very new addition for Turkish cuisine. Owner Güven Özel is a dynamo, working tirelessly to achieve perfection. He is from beautiful Cappadocia in central Turkey. He and his Venezuelan wife were hotel owners before they landed in Costa Rica just six months ago. Their managerial expertise glows. The restaurant on the Santa Ana Radial adjacent to Don Fernando, Subway, BAC and Mitsuri is nicely appointed with colorful cut glass oil lamp shaped chandeliers. The décor is comfortable. The friendly staff are learning ingredients, flavors and the fine points of customer service rapidly. I don’t remember all the mezzes I sampled, but the seasoning was spot on with enough sumac, garlic, cumin and citrus to tingle my taste buds. They make their own sauces, breads and yogurt. Good babaganoush, hummus, borek, cacik, dolma and tashi. The puffed up small loaves of nigella and white sesame seed topped warm bread out of the oven is a heavenly adjunct to the dips and sauces. An added bonus is their variety of lamb dishes which are hard to find in Costa Rica. The chef is from Turkey where he labored in a restaurant kitchen for fifteen years. I haven’t tasted the entire menu yet, but so far he is batting a thousand. Prices are midrange. Currently they are open from 11:30 AM to 2:30 PM for lunch and again at 5:30 PM for dinner every day but Sunday. 2203-3872.
P F Chang’s - Congrats to P F Chang’s for bringing its classy international template to Costa Rica. The undertaking required enormous preparation and training of kitchen and waitstaff and they managed remarkably well. From the gorgeous horse statues facing the entrance to Avenida Escazu and flanking the front door to the table settings, attention to detail is worthy of praise. It is a beautiful venue. Although I am not their biggest fan in North America because of more authentic regional competitive options in large cities, they do bring more choices to the table for Chinese food fans here. The vast majority of first timers vow to return. Lunchtime crowds of white-collar workers flock to the front door before the noon opening. Appetizers seem to be the most popular from what I have observed, particularly the lettuce wraps and dynamite shrimp. The hot and sour soup is great. Rich dark broth is redolent with black pepper, quality vinegar, lily buds, cloud ears and more – the best rendition I have eaten in Pura Vida land. Long hand pulled Tan Tan or Dan Dan noodles with a spicy dark rich Sichuan sauce has always been a personal favorite of mine. Their rendition is not great by international norms, but excels by Tico standards. It and a vegetarian rendition of Mapo Tofu are only on the dinner menu, but either can be ordered for lunch. My dining partners have been more complimentary of the chicken dishes than I would have been because I find the basic chicken nugget design less appealing. They all raved about the various sauces that bathed the nuggets. Two companions liked the salt and pepper calamari least of all the ten dishes the four of us tried and shared. For spice lovers, you have to ask for the spiciest option available. The table condiments are very nice. All in all, P F Chang’s is a welcomed expansion of upscale Asian offerings in a lovely setting with well-trained professional servers and visually appealing, healthy portions of flavorful well-prepared dishes. Valet parking is available. 220-88844 Opens daily at noon. Closes at 10PM Sunday thru Thursday, 11PM Friday and Saturday.
Rincón Cubano - Owner Arturo Napoles is a charmer intent on pleasing folks like Joan and me who are lovers of Cuban food. He opened this cheerful and festive little gem about three months ago next door to La Fabbrica in Plaza Momentum on the Santa Ana Radial. When club Cubano ceased to be Cuban and Gua Gua closed, we tried two other “Cuban “ eateries in San Jose with disappointing results. Now Arturo gets our vote for favorite Cuban eats. Thus far, the crowds have not discovered it, but I am convinced they will. All they have to do is taste the pulled pork picadillo with olives and raisins, the bursting-with-old- Havana-flavor of beef ropa vieja, the traditional Cuban style vaca frita roasted beef or the delicious roast pork sandwich. His menu continues to expand to include these classic favorites: Cuban chicharrones, ham croquettes, shrimp creole, roast pork with mojo sauce, a number of chicken and seafood dishes, sandwiches and salads. Cuban style live music fills the room on weekends. Very friendly staff help make you feel like a guest in Arturo’s home at Rincón Cubano. Despite its newness to the expansive and competitive Santa Ana dining scene, it has already climbed to number 6 on Tripadviser’s charts with a four and a half of five star rating. Prices are mid-range. Sun 12:00 - 20:00, Mon - Thu 12:00 - 21:30, Fri - Sat 12:00 - 23:00 2582-2495. Executive lunches for ₡4800 weekdays from noon to 2:30
Madame Cheese - We spent September in France and had the good fortune to attend a master class in food and wine tasting in Chartres. We hopped from cheese shop to bakery to wine and champagne cellar there, in Burgundy, Lorraine, Epernay and Paris like kids trick-or-treating on their maiden Halloween. If only we had such options at home, we mused. Hooray! We do have a decent, though not as spectacular as the French models, option in Guachipelin just 100 meters south of District 4. Madame Cheese is a café, wine bar, bakery and fine place for a cheese and fruit platter, a nice lunch or dinner and great roasted tomato soup.They do have creamy dulce de leche with a hint of Gorgonzola flavor, yummy with a crisp fruity Chilean white wine and a small stem of grapes.It is a charming artistically decorated mid-priced delightful little place with a small French garden.
Open from Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 10:30 PM. After an end of the year vacation, they will re-open on January 13th.
To share your latest restaurant discovery with us, or to agree or disagree with my impressions, please send me an Email at firstname.lastname@example.org and put the word food in the subject line to bypass my spam filter. The interactive function of the website died a while back and even my dear friends at the PC Club can’t resurrect it.
Feedback matters. Restaurants change. Good chefs have bad days. Places that are less than stellar may serve an occasional fine meal. Locations and menus change. I thrive on multiple opinions and suggestions. Sometimes I get it wrong even after two or three visits. Without feedback, I may never have a chance to correct fallacious impressions.
Rita is a business traveler throughout Meso America. Her favorite seafood restaurant by far is Restaurante Pescatore. She softened me up first by complementing me on my recently published restaurant guide and food book, Feasting in Costa Rica’s Central Valley. Then she admonished me for not raving about Restaurante Pescatore and not giving it more than three stars. My first visit should have been discounted because they were still evolving. It was underwhelming. My second visit was absolute perfection. I gave them a positive three stars, but fairly bland endorsement in the book. After Rita called me a few choice names, I polled a dozen friends who are knowledgeable diners. My question to them was “What is the best seafood restaurant in the Central Valley?” Seven said Restaurante Pescatore, two touted Product C and three other venues got a single vote. Back to Restaurante Pescatore for a third visit. Mea Culpa. They get a fourth star and the hyperbolic rave they deserve. Thanks Rita.
Al touted the Eggs Benedict at Te Con Te in Momentum. “And for only C 4000, what a bargain!” Perfectly poached eggs on toasted English muffin exactly as ordered, but no Hollandaise sauce, Canadian bacon, regular bacon or even deli ham. Sorry Al.
If you want first class Eggs Benedict, however, I have a tip for you. After Galeria Steakhouse left Grecia for Escazú, my numerous Grecia friends lamented the lack of an exciting restaurant on their turf. They are happy again and raving about a breakfast and lunch place called Cilantro Café. Kevin, the young chef left his home in Grecia a dozen years ago to see the world and to learn how to use foreign ingredients and prepare worldwide cuisines. On board ships for Crystal Cruise Lines, he visited ports in India, Vietnam, Thailand, China and more. In each port, a local chef came on board with a bevy of new, different local ingredients and taught the kitchen cooks how to prepare them. With demanding clientele mostly from Western Europe, he had to perfect individual Wellingtons with similar crusts and a variety of different doneness orders for the beef inside. He garnered more and more culinary skills by doing, not watching. On one such cruise he met his wife, Bronwyn, from South Africa and they settled there for five years while he mastered yet another cuisine. Now they are back in his hometown of Grecia. In mid October they opened Cilantro Café. After just their first week, I heard from four different joyful Grecians singing praises for the place, the food, the artistic presentations, the charming couple and the very low prices for the quality. My first taste? Eggs benedict: Two poached eggs on crunchy bacon atop a crisp yuca pancake, napped in slightly citrus flavored excellent Hollandaise and surrounded by grilled halves of cherry tomatoes and a green herb-flecked oil. And less costly even than Al’s “bargain” recommendation. I can also vouch for a classic from South Africa, spicy beef and dark beer pie with nice mixed salad, an onion-tomato chutney with perfectly balanced sweet and spicy elements and a fine well-seasoned slightly spicy tandoori chicken sandwich. I had ginger flavored limeade with my lunch. Two days later he introduced his pulled pork sandwich. Fabulous flavor. His sourdough French toast also draws raves. Open Tuesday thru Saturday from 6 AM to 3PM
Lou called me out after a visit to Mike’s Southwest Grill. I had praised his North American-style fast food and of course his cheesecakes. When he closed Big Apple Cheesecake in Heredia and moved up the road, his new clientele was nearly all Tico and his fast food changed away from Gringo to pure Tico. Lou preferred the old style burgers and chili dogs to their new incarnation. I tried both and have to agree with Lou, but the cheesecakes remain GREAT. Mike is a charming host and his cheesecake business is spreading to more markets all the time.
Shan Xing is a family run pleasant Cantonese restaurant in Ciruelas that offers better-than-average Tico style Chinese food in nice surroundings by efficient pleasant staff. Locals flock there for lunch. I have ordered or tasted many of their dishes and they are fine. Flor asked me if I included it in the book. I should have, but didn’t. Thanks Flor.
I owe Steve and his charming wife Barbara an apology. Oporto in Heredia was once their favorite and among my favorites as well. After a hiatus of years, I revisited the place and had an average meal with impersonal service at much higher price than before. The three sisters who created it were no longer part of the scene. I guessed that they had retired. An aberration? I discounted it at the time. When they opened a new place in Alajuela, I had a similar average, but pricey experience with a menu that no longer was eclectic. Not long after my visit they closed in Alajuela. I should have rewritten and downgraded my previous endorsement.
I believed the owner of Chester in San Rafael de Alajuela when he showed me his new outdoor oven for Hawaiian style roast pig. The oven roasted only chicken and ribs. Ty from Hawaii went there on my recommendation looking for roast pig. Sorry.
Indigo and its three Tico stars are gone from the same San Rafael de Alajuela. They will be missed. So too will Sushi Kai be missed. My favorite sushi and Japanese food locale is now empty on the Santa Ana Radial.
Thanks go to Neal and Judy for alerting me to Kalu’s move to Calle 31 near Avenida 7 in Barrio Escalante 50 meters east of Parque Francia. Located a mere three blocks from the Eugene O’Neill theater where we often go to see Metropolitan Opera simulcasts, the new Kalu (Kalu & Kiosco) is of course endowed with the culinary excellence of master chef Camille Ratton. The marvelous international menu includes the very best Bun (beef or chicken) I have had this side of Vietnam dressed with spot on nuoc cham. Other terrific dishes included creative eggplant falafel, very good Thai chicken and an amazing Italian dish of oversized delicate raviolis called ravioloni, filled with a perfect duxelle of wild mushrooms and sauced with a butter wine coating that added only perfection topped with perfectly prepared shrimp. And of course her tarts remain world class, but portion sizes are large, so we took the tarts home for deferred consumption. Visit their Facebook page for untold raves. You can no longer “friend” them because so many appreciative diners have done so, that they have reached their max. Tel. 2253-8426 or 2253-8367
Be sure to join us again in the New Year for an comprehensive appraisal of P.F. Chang and an introduction to seafood restaurants from Heredia to Grecia.
Email me at email@example.com and put food in the subject line to bypass my spam filter. Happy Holidays.
Back home in Guacima after a splendid three weeks in France. Loving our doting menagerie of clinging pets that obviously missed us, a bevy of blooming orchids in the palm trees, gentle breezes and innumerable shades of green on our finca, paying homage to the rain. First stop, lunch in San Jose in what used to be Café Roma on the northeast corner of Avenida 2 one block before (west) the crafts center and Plaza de la Democracia.
Sappores Trattoria has been its new name for the past year and a half. When charming owner David nearly perished in a motorcycle accident, the old place closed. After several surgeries he moves gracefully and smiles warmly. The new look of the trattoria is also perfect – black trim on white and grey walls bracketed in fieldstone and adorned with black and white photos of Rome, Florence, Venice and Sophia Loren. Red and white checkered tablecloths of course. The menu covers all the bases with expertly prepared and attractively plated dishes or meat, fish, poultry, pasta, salads, appetizers, pizzas and desserts. The menu del dia for less than ₡5000 offers choices among cold drinks, starters and main courses of meat, fish, chicken or different pastas. The a la carte prices are mid-range and offer good value for very nice unpretentious food.
We arrived just before noon on a Friday and beat the rush of well-dressed happy diners who filed in after us and all seemed to know and appreciate David. Our waiter Eduardo was an old acquaintance from his days at Saga. The food arrived hot, well seasoned and delicious. I had garbanzo bean soup as a starter and pasta amatriciana, a simple dish made to my taste. The sauce is rich tomato reduction seasoned only with a little basil and cured small pieces of pork cheek, called guanciale. It is hard to get guanciale on a regular basis so the kitchen mixes it with thick cut bacon 50/50. It works so much better than all salty bacon disguised under an overabundance of garlic and onion served in so many places. Add to it freshly shaved curlicues of pecorino sheep cheese and I am in heaven. Joan had a well-seasoned perfectly cooked cotoletta Milanese (veal cutlet similar to a German schnitzel but flavored with Italian herbs, spices and cheese) under an arugula salad with roasted potatoes on the side. Add a shared old fashion lemon flavored gelato and a creamy lemon complimentary digestif and we left very happy.
2222-8906 Sun 12:00 pm - 3:00 pm 6:00 pm - 10:00 pm
Mon - Thu 11:30 am - 2:30 pm 6:00 pm - 10:30 pm
Fri - Sat 11:30 am - 3:00 pm 6:00 pm - 11:00 pm
Crema Y Nata A couple of months ago I sampled a bagel from Isau at a stand in the feria in old Escazu. It was the best I have ever had in Costa Rica. “Where can I buy these?”
“My cousin is opening a bakery in Atenas next to POPS:”
“Where did you learn your English?”
“I lived in New York City for a few years.”
Twice I drove to Atenas and looked for the bagel place without success. Shortly after we returned from France in early October, off we went again. The brand new bakery Crema Y Nata had opened less than a week before after a brief tenure in a closet-sized place that didn’t work. Leonardo the baker/owner and his assistant/friend Mariana greeted us warmly. I saw the bagels, but the one customer in front of us was raving about them and threatened to buy all of the last dozen. She settled for four and we bought the remaining eight. Wow! My preference is for New York style, dark-baked, extra chewy, dense bagels that have been adequately boiled before baking. Hooray!!!! Exactly!!! Isau brought back the knowhow from New York and Leonardo makes them fresh a few times a day with all natural ingredients. I can vouch for the plain, onion, and poppy seed varieties. They also have a variety of surprisingly moist cakes, that are far better than the usual dry Tico types, cookies, tarts, baguettes, ciabatta and coconut donuts with passion fruit icing. The immaculate little bakery, pastry and coffee shop is a short half block from POPS away from the park. They are open fro 7am to 6 every day but Sunday. Since Boston Bagel closed and Bagelman’s changed to a cakier recipe a year or so ago, I had given up on my favorite carrier of lox and cream cheese. I sure hope that Leonardo et al succeed and keep their recipe intact for years to come. Is it worth the drive to Atenas? I think so.
Phone: 2446-6232 Email: CremayNata.firstname.lastname@example.org
Ready for another rave? One of my favorite chefs is back in the restaurant business after a hiatus as a caterer/personal chef. Joanna, master of eclectic originality, artistic plating, gentle demeanor, warm smile, friendly conversation and lots of tattoos, has a restaurant in a house in Trejos Montealegre, Escazú that is off the beaten path, but very worthy of a little exploration. Cocina Eclectica has no sign. It is on Avenida O Las Acasias about 900 meters past Oasis restaurant and Aparthotel Maria Alexander. If you are coming off the pista into Escazú, turn right (west) at the large corner nursery Exotica, then left at the corner where the street becomes two way. Follow the street as it heads south then turns west. At the second speed bump, it is the white house with wrought iron gate adjacent to the bump on the right side of the road.
There is no menu. Joanna will greet you and seat you at a lovely table in her living room. She will ask you about you’re your food preferences and disappear into her home kitchen. There is no menu. She will simply bring you a series of amazing small courses until you ask her to stop. The average price runs ₡7000 to ₡10,000 per person depending on the number of courses and cost of ingredients. Joan and Sandy eat there often and have loved every meal. Here is a sample of what Joan and I ate the first time she took me there:
1. Fish jerky (tilapia) with fresh shredded daikon and seaweed
2. Olive oil poached tilapia with passion fruit sauce
3. Chicken soup with oyster mushrooms, yam noodle bundles, gingko seeds
4. Pork loin with sauerkraut and lavender fronds with pink peppercorns
5. Gorgonzola and nut ravioli, topped with slices of green apple, raisins and dressed with olive oil/balsamic vinegar, pink peppercorns and smoked paprika
6. Brandy, cinnamon and nutmeg homemade ice cream with Danish cookies
Each course pleased us both. Our tab was ₡9000 each.
Phone number: 8529-2509. It is a good idea to call first. She opens at noon.
Copies of Feasting in Costa Rica’s Central Valley are loaded with new and updated restaurant information. It is organized by restaurant ratings, location, type of cuisine with reviews and ingredients and is very user-friendly. Responses by readers have been amazing. Thanks. While they last, you can buy a copy for ₡7500 at any of the following restaurants:
1. Alajuela - Jalapeños Central
2. Ciudad Colon - Aroi Thai
3. Escazú - Banzai
4. San Jose - Tin Jo
5. San Pablo de Heredia - Mike’s Southwest Grill
6. Santa Ana - PHO Restaurante Vietnamito
For those of you in the states and Canada, it is now available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Booklocker in both paperback and ebook.
The interactive part of my website does not work for comments. If you want to contact me or let me know about a great place to eat that you have discovered, email me at email@example.com and put FOOD in the subject line. If you don`t do that, your email will end up in the spam file.
Thank you for the fabulous responses and reviews to Feasting in Costa Rica’s Central Valley. You can buy a copy for ₡7500 at any of the following restaurants:
1. Alajuela - Jalapeños Central
2. Ciudad Colon - Aroi Thai
3. Escazú - Banzai
4. San Jose - Tin Jo
6. San Pablo de Heredia - Mike’s Southwest Grill
7. Santa Ana - PHO Restaurante Vietnamito
For those of you in the states and Canada, it is now available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Booklocker in both paperback and ebook.
Il Gourmet Multiplaza, Escazu - I have delayed reviewing this venue because I couldn’t decide whether to praise it or pan it. In fact, it is worthy of both.
First the praise: The lounge-like setting is comfortable and attractive, perfect for a shopping break, relaxation and people watching. Coffees, cookies and other pastries are all quite good. The young women servers are friendly and fairly attentive.
The negatives include these: The prices understandably reflect the high cost of doing business in Multiplaza, but still are higher than most of the competition. Judging by the subscript on the sign and their internet ads, Il Gourmet considers itself Italian. Their fettuccini Bolognese was typical of Costa Rican pasta, not Italian. The noodles were overcooked, the sauce bland and watery and meat completely lacking in character. Giving the Italian side of the menu another chance, we tried pizza. The crust lacked elasticity and flavor. The prosciutto was of nice quality. Advertised arugula could hardly be seen or tasted. Despite the potential engendered by good components, the presentation looked haphazard and the small pie cost ₡7000. The lunch prices did include a beverage and small dessert. I would return for a cappuccino and butter cookie break, but probably not for lunch with so many other options available close by. Open every day from 10am to 9pm.
Yorgo’s - Two regulars of this blog had opposite opinions of the Rohrmoser Blvd. Peruvian restaurant, Yorgo’s. The spot on the north side of the boulevard about a block and a half west of Plaza Mayor across from a park has parking in front. The interior décor pleases the eye with a lovely painted ceiling and stylized Andean pictures on the walls. The ever-present flat screen TV played the mid day soap opera, but with minimal volume. The menu offered more fish and seafood than meat or chicken, but more than enough of each. The average price range per plate including salads, rice dishes and cold plates was ₡5000 to ₡6000 except for more expensive steaks and beef brochettes. Having been reassured by the pleasant waitress that the seafood was fresh, I ordered one of their designated special plates of picante de mariscos, spicy seafood. The portion size was decent. The seafood consisted of mostly calamari rings and chopped tentacles. There were a few smallish shrimp and nothing else. The sauce looked so good I asked for a spoon. It turned out to be fairly bland despite visually suggesting a medley of herbs and spices. When I added a teaspoon of the mustard color house hot sauce, the flavor improved mightily. It had more than enough fire-power. The squid was a little chewy, but not bad. Neither were the shrimp, but they lacked the juicy pop of the never-been-frozen kind. The rice was properly cooked. So, my friends, my first impression falls between your stated extremes. Not too expensive but not a bargain. Adequately prepared food, but hardly memorable. Flavors suggestive of Tico-style Peruvian rather than what a Peruvian chef might prepare. Comfortable setting with attentive service. Worthy of a visit if you are in the vicinity, particularly on a Monday when most of the nearby restaurants are closed. I watched half a dozen main courses go by to the back room. They all bore a certain sameness. Perhaps I’m being unfair since I nearly always go to a place at least twice before offering an opinion, but I doubt that more visits would elevate Yorgo’s to gourmet status on the one hand or inedible on the other. Open daily from 11am to 9pm except 11 to 6 on Sunday. 2290-2960
Panaderia La Petite France. For those of you with good memories, I have reviewed this gem before. My favorite bakeries had always been La Toscana and Chez Cristophe, both in Escazú. I praised La Petite Paris as an east side of the valley alternative. During the International Book Fair, I spent more time in Los Yoses, San Pedro and Curridabat and had a chance to try more of their take-out items and sit happily over in-house lunches. My wife loves both La Toscana and Chez Cristophe, but admitted, as did I, that this Curridabat panaderia and café has eclipsed both of them to the number one position on our family preference list. It feels a little disloyal, but this place deserves our new loyalty. Croissants, baguettes, quiche, éclairs, almond and marzipan pastries, great sandwiches and fine coffees fill the bill. Add a nice family, fair prices and good service to the appeal. Joan’s favorite sandwich is croque madam and mine tuna, anchovy, hard boiled eggs, lettuce and tomato on an arms’ length perfect baguette. Haven’t tried their popular breakfasts. 7 to 6 Wednesday – Saturday. 7-2 on Sunday. If you are heading through San Pedro into Curridabat on the main road, turn right at the large POPS on the right side of the road and continue until you see Plaza Cristal on the right. Turn right just before Cristal and the café/panaderia will appear shortly near the end of a small strip mall called Plaza Milano.
Da Marco has been one of my favorites for years and I have heaped praises on chef Marco Di Nando a number of times. The reason I am praising him once again is because we went to a wedding there with about 50 other guests recently and the quality of the three courses (six options), service and attentiveness of the staff surpassed any group event I have attended in recent years. Bravo! I chose eggplant Parmesan, duck lasagna and pane cotta as my three courses and really enjoyed all three. Although three stars constitute high praise in my new book, Feasting in Costa Rica’s Central Valley, I felt a bit uneasy after the wedding that I hadn’t given Da Marco a fourth star.
Location: From the highway to Ciudad Colón heading west, turn left at the first corner past the exit from the Pista Del Sol towards Piedades. On the right side as you climb the hill you will see the building and its sign. Enter to the right of the building and park past the gatekeeper for the hotel. 2282-4103. Tuesday to Thursday noon to 3 and 6 11. Friday and Saturday noon to 11. Sunday 12 to 5.
La Posada de Las Brujas My favorite restaurateur for quality Tico food at bargain basement prices has been and continues to be charming Colombiano, Laly. He quit the business for a while and sold Casa Laly in Escazú to new people who opened Casona de Laly across from the Forum, capitalizing on his fine name. He opened Rancho de Laly in Santa Ana just west of Cruz Roja and it is as good and as inexpensive as his original Casa de Laly. When I wrote about gastropubs in September, I hadn’t heard that Laly had done it again, great food at bargain prices, this time in a gastropub near Escazu’s town center. From the northeast corner of the Catholic Church, go 250 meters east on avenida 30. Your choice of 60 Tico bocas and main courses are sure to please at La Posada de Las Brujas. Closed Mondays, otherwise 11 am to 1 am.2228-1645
The interactive feature on this website has not worked for quite a while. I always welcome your comments and restaurant tips. Please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and put “food” in the subject line to avoid my spam filter.
First a plug for a favorite that I previously praised: Galeria Steakhouse in Florencia Mall, Escazú serves great food at reasonable prices. The décor is lovely. Talented Chef Jorge and wife, the lovely Tatiana, are warm and friendly. Of 47 Trip Adviser reviews, 36 were great and 10 were very good. I have no idea why so many diners haven’t gone there yet. You should. If they were to go under for lack of support it would be a crying shame. One nice feature is their economical section in the menu. Many places take quality ingredients and reduce size to sampler portion size and make it a daily special. Not at Galeria. We recently felt like eating less than their grand portions and ordered instead Delmonico steak for less than C6000 and pork spare ribs for less than C5000. We started our meal with complementary bowls of superb cream of pejibaye soup. Both entrees came with crisp fries and a salad of lettuce, tomato and avocado nicely dressed. The meat portions were as filling as many other restaurant top-of-the line dishes and both were prepared perfectly. The steak was juicy, tender and flavorful. Garlicky fresh tasting chimichurri and picante strawberry sauce added extra splendid touches. The meat from the five ribs fell off the bone and they were beautifully seasoned and sauced. We could hardly finish (we both left some potatoes on the plate) two lovely meals from the economy menu. 2289-3901
Four decades ago, London was a gastronomic wasteland. Pub food and neighborhood Indian restaurants were the only decent venues short of high tea in exclusive hotels. I spent a month as visiting faculty at Hammersmith Royal Postgraduate Hospital and dined pleasantly on pub food. In the past quarter century, London has become an international dining mecca and gastropubs have ascended far beyond steak and kidney pie, shepherd’s pie, bangers and mash, etc.
On the subject of gastropubs…
Last month’s update included Santa Ana’s Tap House, a nice pub with good burgers and sandwiches. The owner has added a fine Reuben sandwich to the menu and probably deserves a promotion to gastropub, since corned beef and pastrami of decent quality are endangered species in Costa Rica and his burgers, pulled pork, smoked brisket and smoked chicken are more nearly gourmet versions of pub food than all the competition in Santa Ana.
A Hause Alajuela Stuart was one of the first readers of Feasting in Costa Rica’s Central Valley. He asked why I left the Alajuela gastropubs, A Hause, out of the book. The answer, my friend, is that it serves well as a pub, but the gastro part of it disappointed me so much, that I can’t recommend it. Rather than malign the entire operation, I’ll keep the specifics to myself. It is located 350 meters south of Agonia Church on the opposite side of the street.
Ravi Gastropub & Cafe Located in Barrio Escalante, 200 meters north of Intensa. Does a vegan restaurant qualify as a gastropub? Clearly it doesn’t fit my sausage and meat pie image. All I sampled was a refreshing cold beer on a hot afternoon with Portobello pizza that was quite tasty in a pleasant environment. Two of my neighborhood food scouts love their cheese board. One also raved about a mason jar drink of gin, ginger and soda water. They really like the owners and friendly service as well. One audiophile commented that the music actually goes through quality speakers rather than typical standard amplifiers. Good service. Good drinks. My vegetarian friends are at odds with each other over the food. They agree that the menu is creative and presentations attractive, but disagree on flavor and execution. I will defer to knowledgeable vegetarians. They do agree that it deserves the designation of gastropub. It would take too many visits for me to form a valid opinion and weigh in between Ravi’s admirers (majority) and detractors (minority) and most of my visits to restaurants happen at the noon hour when they are closed. 2253-3371. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 3 pm to midnight.
El Gaff is a delightful gastropub. Dozens of local and international beers pair nicely with three or four well prepared daily specials. Chef Eric is half Brazilian, half Tico, fluent in English and 100% charming. He buys the freshest and best quality ingredients in the morning markets and prepares them accordingly. Having sampled his salmon with crispy skin beautifully seasoned and cooked (C5500 with a bed of mashed potatoes and a side of vegetables plus a cold drink), reasonable seafood and rice and standard olla de carne, I can attest to his kitchen abilities. I hear his New York strip steak is also a fine special. In addition to daily specials, the menu offers burgers, pizza, fish and chips, seafood and veggie options. The prices are about average for gastropubs. Two dozen beers range from C1200-3000 except for pricier triples. An entire menu page of hard liquor options are roughly in the same price range. The three comfortable dining areas are front patio, bar room and back garden. Focaccia drizzled with pesto was a complementary sample starter on our last visit. Baked on oven stones it could not have been lighter or nicer. We also sampled four small glasses each of brews on tap. The IPA was my hop-laden favorite. There were about twenty taps. Located near the intersection of Avenida 8 and Calle 29 in Los Yoses, across from the restaurant Il Retorno. Hours: Tue.-Fri. noon.–2:30 a.m.; Sat., 7 p.m.–2:30 a.m. All major credit cards accepted. 2234-1596, 8886-0156.
Tico Pub Momentum Plaza, Santa Ana - In the location that Bagelman’s vacated, Tico Pub moved in late in July. The décor has been upgraded including the second floor and both balconies. The place is first and foremost a pub. It offers 24 beers and a full bar. With no pretense of being a gastro pub, it has a straightforward menu of classic Tico bar food including all of these: nachos, chicken wings. chifrijo, patacones, French fries, tomato soup, chips and dips and a dozen more. The tomato soup is on a par with the best tortilla soup around. The base tastes like chicken broth rich with bright red tomatoes accented with a splash of citrus. With a generous bowl of the soup soup come avocado slices, fresh crisp corn chips and grated cheeses that melt easily. The chicken wings can be ordered uncoated or empanizado. The latter are terrific. Crisp meaty wings coated in flavorful coarse breadcrumbs reminiscent of Panko are done perfectly, juicy and not oily. Six pieces include three drummettes and three wings. I had the hot buffalo sauce. It was good. More carrot and celery sticks than most places serve came with standard ranch dressing. The amiable bar tender speaks English well. Service is efficient. Prices vary from C2500 to C3500, not bad at all for this high rent district. It fills a previously empty niche very nicely in this sea of other eateries. Hours: Noon to midnight except Mondays. 8729-5654
Wökàpi is also not a gastropub. It is a coffee and tea café. The name is the Bri Bri translation for coffee bean. It is a tiny space with miles of charm that should please all comers even though it is designed for lovers of organic healthy food. Daniel, his brother and cousin share ownership but he is the on-site chef, manager and jack-of-all-trades. Charming people. Carefully prepared organic tasty paninis, salads, gluten-free cakes, breakfasts and host of very nice hot and cold coffees, teas and fruit drinks. My favorites include the smoked trout panini, the prosciutto panini, the turkey panini, the ginger iced coffee or the iced coffee with chai spices (yum), the chocolate and coconut cake and the almond zucchini cake. Both cakes are gluten free, delicious and moist. Everything is made to order so it doesn’t qualify as a fast food experience. If you are looking for a sweet, relaxed, artsy place to linger and chat with a friend or two and enjoy yummy drinks and food, Wökàpi can’t be beat. The prices are quite affordable. Paninis are C3000, but for C4900 you can order a combo with two drinks and dessert. A little hard to spot, it is attached to the nursery (vivero) adjacent to Taco Bar and across the street from Andiamo La and Mas X Menos in Santa Ana. 2282-8745 Open every day from 8am to 7pm.
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My new updated book, Feasting in Costa Rica’s Central Valley, will soon be available in paperback or digitally at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Booklocker and Ingram.
As promised last month, here are more alphabetically four-star restaurants:
1) La Galeria (Restaurante Galeria Steakhouse) **** $$
2) La Maisa **** $$$$
3) La Tache **** $$$
4) La Terrasse **** $$$
5) Le Chandelier **** $$$-$$$$
6) Martin Fierro **** $$$$
7) Naans & Curries **** $$
8) 8ctavo **** $$$
9) Saga **** $$$
10) Tin Jo **** $$$
11) Xandari Resort & Spa restaurant **** $$$
This month the focus swings to Santa Ana for two newcomers and to Escazu for a third.
Al Tapas moved into the space vacated by Product C about four months ago and three brothers from Barcelona have replicated a modern, attractive Catalan restaurant and true tapas bar with seats encircling a central serving space adorned with displays of small dishes prepared daily. One of the brothers is the architect who crafted simple elegance from wood, glass and rebar. The pale blond wood, black and gray walls and pictures and vertical rebar cages for wine and liquor bottles meld beautifully. The other two brothers run the restaurant and are delighted to share concepts and ingredients with diners. They are charming. The cooks prepare classic recipes expertly and plate with artistic finesse. The flavors rock.
Tapas plates by definition are small. Imported ingredients are costly. So be prepared to pay C3000-6000 per plate. The regular menu covers all Iberian bases. A weekday executive lunch special is C6000. The one I tried was a winner. Cream of mushroom soup came steaming, dark, rich, and drizzled with a bit of olive oil. It contained no milk or cream, only puree of brown mushrooms, vegetable stock, onions and sherry reduced until it reached velvety texture and exploded with flavor. It was one of the best mushroom soups ever. The second course, a spherical mound of shredded ox tail meat in a sauce of reduced red wine came with buttery quenelles of mashed potatoes. Another winner. Finally I tasted two desserts, a crema Catalana brûlée and tiramisu. Both were very good. I also tasted very well seasoned pickled sardines, calamari, roasted potato cubes dressed in spicy tomato cream and tomato toast. The sangria was exceptional. For the two of us, all of the above plus an imported beer, came to C23,000. Well spent and thoroughly enjoyed. On the next visit, I had manitas de cerdo, a stew of pig foot meat and skin with garbanzo beans. Quite tasty. We sampled creamy slightly spicy Cordoba-style gazpacho and a tuna chunk and potato dish cooked in a seafood broth that tasted of clams. The very large pair of menus offer a nearly endless variety of seafood, pasta, rice dishes including paella, meats, cheeses and sausages. From what I witnessed at an adjacent table of ten, calamari rings, meatballs, morcilla blood sausage, imported manchego cheese, clams in green sauce and steamed mussels came and went along with pitchers of sangria to happy diners.
Drink options include a nice selection of imported beers and wines and batidos, and stylish coffees.
They are located about 150 meters north of Cruz Roja between Bufalo Grill and Lo Spago. Hours: closed Monday. 6 PM to 2 AM Tuesday. Noon to 2 am, Wednesday thru Sunday. Phone: 2282-4871.
Tap House has rapidly become a Gringo watering hole and meeting place where staff and diners are already on a first name basis. The owner is originally from Fort Worth. A very large flag of Texas adorns the back wall. Beer and burgers rule. Several beers come on tap and many more in bottles. An interesting offering delivers six different sampler beer glasses in a wooden rack. The burgers range from $9 to $10, are fairly large and flavorful and come with fries, coleslaw or potato salad. The chipotle, blue cheese burger is my favorite. The pulled pork sandwich and barbecued brisket sandwiches are excellent. Four or five of us ex-pats often eat there together on Monday nights. Not a gourmet destination, but a comfortable place to kick back with friends and eat good bar food. The service is most pleasant. We usually come up with cures for all the world’s ills after a single beer, and forget them after a second. They are located 100 meters east of Bacchus on the left. As you head north from central Santa Ana from the old Escazú road where the one way and two way parts join, turn right at the cross street where Bacchus is around the corner to the left and Café Lago is straight ahead. It is just up the block in a small strip mall on the left. Mon - Sat: 11:00 am - 11:00 pm. Sun: 9:00 am - 10:00 pm Phone: 4702-1534.
Sicilia Delicatessen A smallish new Plaza Metro attached to the Aliss building in Escazú is a semicircle of eateries including this gem plus Pan y Vino, the new downsized Henry’s, a gelateria, a buffet restaurant, a yogurt shop and a cevicheria. From the Multiplaza circle, it is 200 meters south past and across from the Davivienda Tower. The primary attraction for me of Sicilia Delicatessen is its bright cheerful deli loaded with Sicilian imports, absolutely charming owners (Giovanni) and partner (Michelle), plus Aldo, a seasoned chef from Rome who knows and delivers fine Sicilian meals. Giovanni is a cook and unabashed lover of food whose obsession with fine eats defines our common DNA. Among the dozens of food and wine selections on their shelves is an absolutely divine jar of anchovies wrapped around pistachio nuts. If you adore good Sicilian food as I do, you are accustomed to discovering the delights of anchovies, pistachios, capers, tuna, veal, eggplant, fennel, sardines and the delicate adding of depth and flavor upon flavor in subtle layers to seemingly simple dishes. The menu changes daily. Two sample days listed Lasagna Siciliana, Corvina Mediterránea, Panini Siciliana, Penne Siciliana, osso buco and Vitello tonnato all for C4500-5000.
After fine complimentary bocas, we shared typical a typical Sicilian lasagna and a dish of veal in tuna sauce. WOW! Both were perfect. The lasagna was finely layered without stifling tomato sauce or oozing excessive olive oil. It was delicate, creamy and flavored expertly with an almost imperceptible hint of anchovy, properly rinsed capers, finely ground flavorful meat and creamy cheese.
The veal was perfectly cooked cold thin pink slices bathed in classic tuna sauce with anchovies delicately blended into the smooth sauce, dotted with capers and served aside fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, crisp Romaine lettuce and a swirl of marinated kale. The last time I had a dish of similar quality was in Agrigento on Sicily’s east coast, adjacent to Giovanni’s beachfront hometown.
Later in the day, Aldo can prepare an antipasto from the panoply of top notch Sicilian imported meats and cheeses on a wooden lazy Susan atop a cutting board. He offered and we tasted scrumptious bits from his platter.
In their first week they have made devotees out of Joan and me. On our second visit Joan had the Sicilian Panini and offered me a bite. It was as good as any sandwich in Costa Rica. The outstanding, beautifully crusty bread is baked by a local woman in her home. My penne pasta was al dente and tasty with capers, sweet red peppers, homemade sausage crumble and a nice light sauce. In only its second week of business, all five tables were full by the time we finished lunch. We shall return often. Unless you are a very special friend, I am not likely to share my stash of pistachios wrapped in anchovies.
Monday thru Thursday 10 am to 7 pm. Friday and Saturday 10 am to 10 pm.Phone 4030-6959
Now Closed: Bagelmen’s - Lindora, Product C - Santa Ana, Chapu Pizza - Ciruelas