The gastronomy of Costa Rica does not differ radically from other countries’ in Central America, with rice, beans, corn, pork and seafood always playing major parts. But the internationalism of its capital, San José, means you’ll find both typical and refined versions of favorite dishes, along with upscale restaurantes and places committed to the most ancient culinary traditions of the indigenous people, whose numbers continue to dwindle. Here is a range of places I ate at with pleasure on a recent trip. (And if you’re dying for Chinese food, there’s a four-block Chinatown in the city.)
Between Calle 8 y Avenida 1 Entrada Noroeste
The best way to get a crash course in Costa Rican food culture is to visit the vast Central Market, where you’ll find every kind of fruit, vegetable, seafood, meat and condiment for very little money. There are tiny stalls where women are making fresh tortillas, but the principal eateries —called sodas, dating back to when soda was the principal item sold—are just inside the entrance where scores of people jockey for a table, ordering their favorite dishes and watching the cooks do their magic from compact kitchens. The menus at these sodas are all pretty much the same and very traditional. At Soda Cristal I stuffed myself at lunch with a rich soup of mixed meats and vegetables with a huge platter of rice; tender boiled chicken with French fries; and lengua (tongue) tortillas. I then walked over to the bustling La Sorbetera de Lolo Mora, the city’s oldest ice cream shop (1901), for some wonderful vanilla-cinnamon ice cream—the only flavor they sell.
A meal will cost about $10-$15, plus drinks.
only flavor they sell.
LA POSADA DE LA BRUJAS
400 Este de la Municipal de Escazu
This open air “place of the witch” is packed every day of the year, largely with locals who might happily wait an hour outside, sipping Pilsen beer and getting hungrier by the minute. The night I ate there a table of 20 Chinese tourists were trying to make sense of a menu in Spanish with 79 small bites and soups and 29 main courses. My local friend ordered patacones (fried green plantains) stuffed with black beans, shredded beef, cheese and mayo (Costa Ricans use a lot of mayo); a platter of huge barbecued ribs with cassava; very tender oxtail with tomato sauce; and a delicious tripe soup. Nobody rushes you, but tables turn fast.
A meal will costs about $20-$25, plus drinks.
Avenida 1 Calle 33, 100 Norte del Antiguo Bagelmens
Located in the East Side’s Barrio Escalante, one of the city’s nightlife neighborhoods with bocastapas bars and restaurantes on every corner, Sikwa would be unique anywhere in Central America for its fervid commitment by owners Diego Hernandez and Pablo Bonilla to serve the food of the indigenous people of Costa Roca (the menu changes every three months), based on the sacred traditions of four strains of corn. It is a small, rustic place with a counter up front, wooden tables and a brighter room to the rear.
My meal was truly like an expedition through an ancient food culture, beginning with an infusion of orange, lemon, wild cinnamon and guava intended to “balance mind, body and spirit.” Then came a wide swathe of fascinating dishes: a chica infusion of corn, ginger and sugar cane fermented for three days; a corn husk with garlic, cilantro and cheese; a posole with smoked pork, radish and tomato sauce (I noted that hogs were brought by the Spanish to the Americas); sweet corn tamale with pork and onions in vinegar, and an ice cream of smoked plantain with cacao truffles.
Sikwa deserves the attention it has received from the media and is a terrific way to get a sense of the very old done in a very novel way.
A big meal will cost about $15-$29.
Calle 4 y Avenida 2
Ciudad Colon, Costa Rica
506 8836 7074
I can’t imagine there are many places like Tony’s House in San José. The Tony in question is Antonio Aguillar Solis, who, along with his sister Melissa, operates this tiny eatery in the backyard of their house, where Tony also fashions extraordinary folk mannequins for parades and social events.
The Solises are very sweet hosts, and Melissa makes everything from scratch right in front of you, measuring the ingredients by experienced eye, building textures and flavors and serving them straight from the stove. There was a picadillo of beef broth to which she added bananas, then onions, cilantro and bell peppers, and annatto paste. Then she cooked a perfect omelet using eggs from their own hens, with cilantro and onions, together with steaming rice and beans, homemade tortillas with queso blanco and a rich sour cream-like mayonnaise. Tony’s is BYOB, but they offer a delicious sour guava drink that goes perfectly with this food.
You may telephone at the number above, or better, have hotel concierge arrange a reservation, for two to 20 people.
A meal will cost about $20.
RESTAURANTE GRANO DE ORO
Calle 30 Avenid
Though 33 years old, a re-opening in 2013 of the Hotel Grano de Oro has made it one of the top places to stay in San José, very contemporary in its amenities but also with public and private rooms—some very grand indeed; mine had a little patio—done with a carefully refined traditional look. The pretty, leafy outdoor patio, where guests have breakfast under umbrellas, is as peaceful an oasis as any in this fast-paced city. The handsome, hacienda-like restaurante that surrounds the patio is elegantly set with white tablecloths, signature china and soft lighting, and the menu incorporates Costa Rican dishes with modern culinary techniques and presentations. The international wine list is the most extensive in the city.
We began with the house cocktail, a tico sour of white rum and lime, and a first course of sweet palm fruit soup ($6.50) and an extensive plate of housemade charcuterie with rabbit rillettes, sausages, head cheese and smoked ham ($15.50). There are four pasta dishes, including delicious tender ravioli filled with mozzarella and ricotta, accompanied by ratatouille and verdant herb oil ($13). Costa Rican roasted pork tenderloin ($18.25) came with a yucca croquette, mango chutney and a sweet-sour tamarind sauce. Sample an array of seafood on a plate that includes sautéed sea bass, jumbo prawn, wilted spinach and an aromatic cardomon essence ($22). Desserts include a luscious signature pie of coffee cream and chocolate cookie crust ($6.69).
By the way, a portion of the restaurant’s profits goes to support Casa Luz, a home for poor or abused adolescent women and their children.
Ave. 11 Calle 3A – 955
506 2221 2465
Sylvestre, now two years old, purports to serve “cocina sotarecense contemporane,” and in its artful look and use of global ingredients along with traditional spices delivers on that idea, based on Chef Fernandez Benedetto’s experience cooking in Dubai, Australia and Spain.
Downstairs is a cantina that plays movies against the wall; upstairs is a lovely, formal room with red brocade wallpaper, and a more casual one with some folkloric furniture and low lighting.
To get a good sense of Benedetto’s range, go with the ambitious tasting menus (three courses $36, six courses $50), available with individual wine pairings (though the pours are stingy). I began with an amuse of pejibaye palm chips with mayonnaise, then two starters: an empanada of goat’s cheese and spinach with an egg yolk relish, daikon, grilled asparagus and watercress salad; and house-smoked bacon with noodles. The fish course was a fillet of snook baked in hoja santo leaves, with a hearts of palm puree, roasted green peppers, mussel blanquettes and cassava crisp. The meat course was a fine, slow-roasted shoulder of lamb scented with fennel and served with a mint salad, new potatoes and light mustard sauce.
For dessert there was a superb osa tart made from “primitivo” chocolate beans from Talamanca, guava, caramelized corn and cashew nut butter. With this I thought the only thing to do was a 25-year-old Costa Rican Centenario rum.
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