Tiles, Pottery, and a Lotta Bull

Note from Pat: This is not about a fascinating subject.  It is about buying kitchen tile. But lots of folks ask me about home ownership, and living in Costa Rica.  This just shows how something mundane and routine, can become complicated and sometimes an adventure!

“We need a new kitchen”  Yes, I know.  This has been my wife’s mantra for a couple of years.  It comes up every time we talk about Monteverde, where we own a small vacation home.  I love my wife, and she is definitely not a nag.  But if Monteverde comes up in the conversation, she mentions the kitchen.

We renovated our cute little Tico style home when we purchased it a few years ago.  A contractor friend and a couple of guys from his crew came down from New Orleans to get the ball rolling.  One of the projects was a kitchen counter top made from huge planks of beautiful local hardwood.

The only problem was that the wood had not been dried.  As it aged, it “cupped” or curved.  It got to the point that even a wine glass wouldn’t stand up straight.  The hot plate wobbled, and forget about mixing anything in a bowl.  Yes dear, we do need a new kitchen.

We had renovated our kitchen in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  Our special order three bay sink arrived blemished, and the manufacturer sent us another.  They did not want the other one back.  The blemish wasn’t really that bad, so we put in in the attic.  It sat there for five years.  We eventually decided to bring it to Costa Rica, and did so a year ago.  We brought it down as checked baggage, for a big fee.  It had sat in our “bodega” ever since.  It was time to get something done.

We had met with a local contractor, Manuel Mata during our last visit.  We have used Manuel in the past, mostly for electrical projects.  But he is also known locally as a very skilled “constructor”.   He is also just a very friendly and easy going guy.

We outlined our plan, and asked for his input.  We settled on a slightly larger L shaped ceramic tile countertop, with shelves below.  Simple and functional.  All we had to do was purchase the tile, and coordinate his schedule with our next visit.  We have learned from experience that we want to be around when big projects are being done.

We arrived in Liberia on a Wednesday afternoon.  We had left New Orleans early and were already toasty from lack of sleep.  We still had to shop for tile, and hit the “gringo” grocery store for supplies.  We mentioned the tile to the rental car guy.  He told us to go to Santa Cruz, about 45 minutes away.  We could buy handmade tiles from Guatil.

Guatil is a locally famous little town, and Melissa and I had always wanted to visit.  They have been making pottery for at least 200 years.  Literally everyone in town is involved in this local folk art.

Tile from Guatil sounded great.  But that would add an hour and a half of driving to an already long day.  We decided that we would just shop in Liberia, before making the 2½ hour drive to Monteverde.

The first stop wasn’t promising.  The “ceramica” was either way too plain, or way too gaudy, or just weird.  Plain primary colors or fake wood.  Overly detailed fake marble abounded.  There was one tile that had water splashes printed over fake marble.  I had seen this pattern in every public urinal in the country.  I wasn’t putting it on my countertop!

We tried a few more places, and quickly realized that everyone had the same tile.  We finally found the gringo ceramic store.  Lots of beige and rough stone.  It was all expensive, and what you would find in a suburban McMansion.  Our home is simple and we like the rustic feel.  This wasn’t working for us either.  We finally threw in the towel, and drove to the house.

We met with Manuel the next morning.  He agreed to come the next morning to start demolishing the old kitchen and roughing in the new one.  We also learned that we needed some plumbing parts that were not available in our little town.

So Melissa and I decided to take a day trip.  It would be fun day.  We would leave early on Friday, and buy the plumbing parts in Liberia, then go to Guatil for the tile.  Then we would finish the day with a stop at “Bob’s”, in the little beach town of Playa del Coco.

Bob’s place is actually named Papagayo Seafood.  Bob is the owner and chef, from Baton Rouge.  Local friends from the tourism business had taken us there years ago, and it is a favorite stop for us when we are in this part of the country.  Fresh fish and shrimp, done by a fellow Louisianan.  Well prepared and spicy.  Just our style.

This was shaping up to be fun excursion.  Plus if we got done early enough, we might even get an hour or two of beach time!  But I have been to Costa Rica enough to realize that maybe I was being a little optimistic.

We got a late start.  But the drive back down the mountain was very nice.  It was a beautiful clear day.  On the east side of the road, we saw one beautiful vista after another.  Rolling hills, huge green valleys, and an ever changing cloudscape playing over the mountains.  On the west side we could see all the way to the Golf of Nicoya.  Even after twenty years of visiting, I still marvel at these views.

We rattled down the bumpy road to Las Juntas, where we joined the Pan American highway.  This is THE major traffic artery in Costa Rica.  They had been repairing a bridge when we came in from the airport.  But we hit it right, and the delay had not been bad.  The bridge repairs were continuing this day too, but now they were also paving the road.  Again, we hit it right.  But we saw a two mile long delay in the oncoming lane.  We dreaded the return.

We had to knock around Liberia for over an hour before we found the plumbing parts, then it was on to Santa Cruz.   It was getting late in the day, but we figured that there might be a store that stocked Guatil tile.  So we asked around.  “Ceramica Senor?  Si, here is some that looks like wood.   No?   Here is one that looks like water splashes.  Perfect for your kitchen!”  We headed for Guatil.

Guatil was extremely fun and interesting.  The pottery from there is widely sold in Costa Rica.  So we were already familiar with this beautiful folk art.  We have a couple of pieces in our home, and have purchased some as gifts for friends.  But we knew little about the town.

We had heard that many years before, the community had gotten together to build a kiln for all to share.  But these days, it seemed that most folks had their own.  Just about every house had a wood pile, and a little igloo shaped stone kiln.  We stopped at one little “tiende” that had a group of guys working on pottery in back.

We asked for ceramica.  We were met with a blank stare.  The guy spoke passable English.  When he realized what we were asking for, he just shook his head.  The material was not durable enough for a countertop.  Maybe for a backsplash.  But they didn’t make tiles.

We still enjoyed our visit and he took us though the whole process.  Local clay of different colors is collected from around the region.  The pots are made from a clay that dries white.  Then thin layers of the desired colors of clay are applied with a paintbrush.  We watched as one of the artisans “painted” a monkey on a pot with clay.  Then the clay dries for a few more days.  They go back with a stylus, and cut grooves down to the different colored layers to finish the design.  The pot is then finished with wax, and fired.

The result is a wonderfully detailed piece of pottery.  Most of these are nature themed.  Monkeys, butterflies, waves, birds, etc.  There are some artesians making more abstract patterns as well.  We purchased a couple of small pieces.  Including one for my ever diligent assistant, Jennifer.

One of the fun things, was the tools they were using.  Whenever you find folks without a lot of money, you will be amazed at how well they improvise or re-purpose an item.  It was no different here.  We noticed that all the potter’s wheels were actually the flywheels from an old motorcycle engine.  The bearings made it spin smoothly, and the weight of the flywheel kept it going for a long time.  Very ingenious

But we still needed tile, and it was getting late.  So we continued our trek, and ended up in Nicoya.  We stopped at one store with more of the same old stuff, and found another high end “salon” or showroom.  We were met by a pretty and stylish young woman.  They had exactly what we wanted, small glazed coffee colored tiles.  They were more expensive then we planned, but we were getting desperate.  We told her what we wanted.  She said we could pick them up in five days.

This wouldn’t do!  We needed these now.  She saw our anguish.

I wish I could remember the name of this store.  I would love to tell her boss how sweet and helpful this young woman was.  She called a large store in downtown Nicoya, and though it was getting late, she told them we were on our way.  She gave us directions, and we dashed off.

Did you know that there are no street addresses in Costa Rica?  It’s true.  Our directions were “From the INS (national insurance) office go 400 meters west, the go 200 meters north”.   Usually, (but not always) 100 meters translates to one block.  We forget to even get the name of the store.

We hit downtown Nicoya at rush hour.  The main drag was a parking lot.  It seemed that one cop was trying to direct traffic for the entire town.

We picked our way through the traffic, and stopped a couple of times to ask local folks for directions to the INS office.  We just couldn’t find it, and the traffic was defeating us.  It was almost 5:00 PM.  We were getting tired and stressed.  We had not eaten since breakfast, and now we were not going to get tile.  It wasn‘t going well.

I have always told me wife that one of my many attributes is my “impeccable sense of direction”.  She always gives me a loving smile.

I don’t know how I pulled this off.  But I figured that I would just head four blocks west, and wing it.  I just made the turn and went.  Melissa was unconvinced, and told me so.  I told her not to worry, as the street kind of ended at a residential section.  I turned north.  I said the store should be right….here.  And there it was.  We had pulled up to “Pisas de la Bajura”.  A tile warehouse.  A big one.  Only 15 minutes before closing.

They must have thought that these two giddy gringos were on drugs.  They had lots of choices, and we were happy to say the least.  They had exactly what we were looking for.  We settled on a simple 6 inch terracotta tile, with a rustic edge for the countertop.  We chose an understated pattern with leaves and flowers for the backsplash.  Not a water splash patterned tile in the place.  And the prices were the best we had seen all day.  We left as happy campers.

Melissa was navigating, and had the map in her lap.  She pointed out that we were so far south that it didn’t make sense to go back through Liberia.  We should just drive twenty miles, and cross the Tempisque river bridge back to the mainland.  We would end up hitting the Pan American highway near Las Juntas.  At first, I resisted a little.  I wanted to go to Bob’s!

But I guess my impeccable sense of direction has rubbed off on her.  She pointed out that on a normal day, this was at least an hour shorter, maybe even quicker than that.  We would also miss most of the traffic jams due to the roadwork.  She had me there.

So instead of Bob’s, we got to eat at our favorite BBQ restaurant, Tres Hermanos.  This is at the corner of the bridge road and the Pan Am highway.  Ya know, nothing’ says good eatin’ like a twenty foot tall statue of an anatomically correct brahma bull.  Nothing says Happy Holidays, like putting a giant freakin Santa hat on it.

The construction traffic on the Pan Am highway was backed up way past the restaurant, but we slipped in from the side road.  We ordered up some drinks.  Melissa had the pork ribs, and I had a very good 16 ounce rib eye.  They cook over a real wood fire here, and really know what they are doing.  The owners are from Texas, and they even host an annual BBQ competition.   They even make thier own Texas style sausage.

While we ate and drank, we relaxed and watched the traffic.  It seemed that the stoppage alternated directions every thirty minutes.  We started to time the delays, and had another drink.  We did this to kill some time.  Plus after the day we had,  we really wanted another drink.

When we edged onto the road again, we were close to the actual bridge construction.  Less than a minute later, the traffic started to flow.  We breezed through, and turned off at Las Juntas for the ride back up the mountain.

We were tired, and felt every bump on the unpaved road.  But ya know, it had been a pretty awesome day!

The New Kitchen!

 

Taking our own Culinary Tour of Mal Pais / Santa Teresa

When you hear about this area, it is always about the great surfing.  The problem is that we are not surfers.  But we do have big fun eating!  We hit the mother lode here. 
 
There is a huge International community in this area, mostly European.  Every restaurant we ate in just rocked.  We found great value too.  All the meals described here were under $30.00 per person, and that often included a glass of wine.
 
In another post from last year, I raved about the food at Tropico Latino.  Is it possible that it could have gotten even better?  We had two meals here, and they were amazing.  Emiliano, the talented young chef from Florence, is still there.  We stuffed ourselves on antipasto with cheese and sausage imported from Italy, scratch made pasta, amazing beef carpaccio, fresh tuna, and more.  We ate our first two dinners here, and could have eaten here every night.  We really had to force ourselves to venture out to some of the other restaurants. Though we did return to enjoy some hand thrown pizzas and brochetta while we hung out at the pool a couple of afternoons.
 
Our server here one evening was Emiliano’s very lovely wife Luz.  She is a Tica (Costa Rican) with a diverse background.  She has traveled extensively in Europe and lived for a time in Italy with her husband.  She picked up several languages along the way.  We really enjoyed getting to know her a little bit, and having a Lemoncello with her at the end of our meal.  Anyway, we asked Luz where THEY go out to eat.  She directed us to a restaurant further down the road, owned by a Chilean chef.   We decided to go there the next night. 
 santa teresa sunset
The next night, we went to Las Brisas del Mar for drinks at sunset.  The climb up here was a little difficult for our little underpowered van.  Steep, rutted, and pot holed, the “road” here is really suited for a 4WD vehicle.  But there was a payoff at the end.  Las Brisas was an interesting place.  It features a huge deck, perched high up on a hillside.  This makes for a spectacular view of the sunset.  They also had a very creative drink menu.  The menus are hand printed on a chalk board that they move from table to table, and set up on some chairs (like an easel).  Some of the gang took the exotic drink route, I stuck with Bavaria Gold (my favorite local beer).  The hostess / server was very friendly, and took our drink order. 
 
Looking at our table of eight, she told us that we were really missing out if we didn’t eat there.  The food menu was also displayed on a chalk board, and it looked very ambitious.  But we were committed to our reservation at the restaurant that Luz recommended, so we had to decline.  But I will note this place for a future visit, and report back.  The menu was very promising, and the comfy laid back atmosphere was just our style.
 
The rain came during our first drink, and we had to desert the deck.  So we headed over to Restaurante Alma a little early.  It was a little deceiving.  It is a smallish place, and did not immediately give the appearance of somewhere you would expect amazing food.  But once we were seated at the sushi bar, I could look back to a very bustling kitchen.
Our host was Rodrigo, a very friendly guy with an air of sophistication.  We let him know that we had been referred by the folks at Tropico Latino’s restaurant, and he just beamed.  He knew our new friends well. 
We began by ordering drinks, and I noticed Pisco Sours on the menu.  I started to tell my gang about the friendly rivalry between Peru and Chili about the liquor, Pisco.  Both claim to have invented it, and both consider it their national drink.  Each thinks their Pisco is best. 
 
Well, I guess I was telling the Peruvian version of the story.  Rodrigo stepped in, and good naturedly filled in the blanks of my history of Pisco.  He also explained that Chilean Pisco was the best, and that to him, there was no dispute about the origin at all!  Now, I am not going to wade into those murky waters.  But his Pisco sour was one of the best I have ever had.
 
Dinner here was fabulous.  A very eclectic menu.  Sushi, Veal, Thai, and Seafood.  We had more great carpaccio.  I had a Thai Chicken Curry that had just the right level of spice.  My wife told me that her sushi was some of the best she had ever eaten.  I have never been a fan of veal, but I did sample from the other diners plates.  The marinated veal was very tender and flavorful.  I regret that I forgot to order the Peruvian ceviche that I spotted on the menu. This is a little different than the Costa Rica version.  I guess I have to go back.  This place was a home run.
 
moana lodge restOur other big meal, was at the restaurant at the Moana Lodge.  This is another place perched high up, and I have to give a caveat about the stairs.  You have to park in the parking lot, and take (literally) about 100 steps to get to the restaurant.  So be aware of this if climbing steps is an issue.  But the payoff is the fantastic view.  The open air setting, gives almost a 360 degree vista.  I would guess this would be another spectacular place for a sunset, and the restaurant has an elegant and modern feel.  We were there after dark, and watched the lightning play over the ocean.
 
We had a funny moment when ordering.  They serve a limited menu here.  The salad description said something about tumbleweeds.  We quizzed the waiter about this.  He told us that tumbleweeds were a plant from the US.  All but one skipped the salad course!  A tumbleweed salad did not sound very appetizing at all.  But when that lone salad arrived, we saw that the “tumbleweeds” were actually crispy little fried potato strings arranged in gorgonzola cheese.  Several of these accompanied a beautiful green salad.  More plates of this excellent starter were then ordered.  I loved mine.
 
I mentioned that the menu was limited, but everything on it was extremely good.  I had a simple, but well prepared skewer of huge jumbo shrimp and fresh veggies.  They were fresh, lightly seasoned, and perfectly cooked.  One of the offerings were two mini “slider” hamburgers.  Sounds weird, I know.  But I was happy to help my wife finish hers, and they were some tasty little morsels.  One of the other woman at the table had a small Angus steak.  North American style beef is a true rarity in Costa Rica.  I had a taste of hers, and it was very good.  Some members of our group ordered calamari.  I have never cared much for squid.  But those that had it were very pleased.  They said that it was not rubbery, but crisp and well seasoned.  Again, a restaurant I would return to.
 
Here are a couple quick hits on our smaller meals.
 
The Board Cafe.  Small little place on the main drag.  The proprietor was a friendly German woman.  The World Cup was on, and a couple of German expats had gathered there for breakfast and the game.  Fun little place.  Costa Ricans are dog friendly, and you often find them in restaurants.  The dog here was a beautiful and friendly Bull Mastif.  A gentle giant.
 
I had the French Toast, and was surprised to find very thick slices of bread rolled up tight and more savory than sweet.  Very different than I am used to, almost like a savory bread pudding.  But it was delicious, and the light touch of sweet syrup was perfect.  My wife had a huge breakfast burrito loaded with cheese and potatoes.  Exactly her style, and she was quite pleased.  It was so big, she had the other half for breakfast the next day. 
 
Playa Carmen Pizza.  Playa Carmen is the beach between Mal Pais and Santa Teresa.  We heard the pizza was good here, but that’s not what we came for.  We really just happened onto it when we were walking on the beach.  We were in our bathing suits, and had very little cash on us.  So we just ordered up some tuna carpaccio and guacamole and chips to go with a round of cold beers.  The tuna was a true disappointment.  Not very fresh at all.  In fact,  I was a little concerned about food safety.  The guacamole and chips were nothing special.  With all the great options around here, this is not a restaurant that I would recommend. 
 
Plus, this place has something weird going on.  They have huge stadium lights on poles for night surfing.  I am sure that the surfers like it.  But I can’t help thinking that thousands of watts of lights can’t be good for the local turtle population.  The coast in this area is home to lots of nesting turtles.  Most hotels make a point to keep the beachfront sides of their properties dark, in order to not disorient the turtles.  The restaurant here is locally owned, and their lack of concern surprised me.  The whole thing left me scratching my head.
 
Finally.  Let’s talk desert!  Two of the woman in our group walked to “town” for an afternoon of shopping.  They came across a bakery that they tell me was simply called “The Bakery” (I could use some help with this, I couldn’t find it in my Santa Teresa phone book). 
I don’t know where the owners are from, but I suspect that they have to be European.  The fare here was very much like I have found on our trips across the pond.  Our friends brought home a selection of beautiful pastries.  Fluffy eclairs, chocolate tarts, papaya cheesecake, a layered kinda chocolate mousse pie, and more.  All of us snacked on these for a couple of days both as deserts, and as a little treat with breakfast.
 
My wife and I are fortunate to live in New Orleans, a food paradise.  But we found it hard to leave Santa Teresa.  It is a rare treat to find an area with such a concentration of great eateries.  I realize that I have only scratched the surface here.  I can’t wait to go back for more research! 

Gallo Pinto, a great way to start the day.

Gallo PintoIt is a typical morning in Costa Rica, and my lovely bride is craving a “Tipical” breakfast.

Costa Rica has always been an agricultural economy.  Even though tourism is now the #1 industry, many folks still work close to the land.  This hearty meal is just the ticket to “fuel the furnace” for another active day.  Tipical breakfasts include eggs, delicious local cheese, plantains, tortillas and Gallo Pinto.   Of course, a cup or two of excellent local coffee completes the equation.

Gallo Pinto is the national dish of Costa Rica.  The main ingredients are black beans and rice.  Recipes vary, but most cooks add onions, bell pepper, and cilantro, all fried together in a little oil.  During the cooking process, the rice takes on the color of the beans.  This gives the dish a speckled appearance, hence the name, Gallo Pinto.  Or “Speckled Rooster” in Spanish.

Gallo Pinto is omnipresent and served in virtually every restaurant in the country, from the fanciest hotel to the Burger King at the airport.  If breakfast is served, you can bet that Gallo Pinto is on the menu.

There are slight variants around the country, where local ingredients find their way into the dish.  In Guanacaste, it is not unusual to find hot peppers.  On the Caribbean side, we were surprised to find some shredded coconut.  There is always another local favorite on the table too.  No dining table in Costa Rica is complete without a bottle of Salsa Lizano.  This mildly spicy condiment adds extra zip to Gallo Pinto, and almost everything else consumed here!

Get out if You Can! and other favorite Quepos restaurants

I had an office in Quepos / Manuel Antonio for almost two years.  I would visit at least once a month, usually for a week or so.  Sometimes with my missus, often without.  I ate everywhere.  The worst meal I ever had was at the “Mexican” restaurant downtown.  The most reasonable was excellent ceviche at the bus station / market for under three bucks.  This posting is devoted to three of my favorite restaurants, and the ones that I visit again and again. 

Michael&MarcelaSalsiOne of the most fun nights you can have here, is a visit to “Salsipuedes.”  This loosely translates as “get out if you can”.  I have to admit that there have been times when we were having so much fun that it was hard to get out!  

The people responsible for all these good times are the young couple who own and run the place.  Mike is Costa Rican, and from this area.  His dad had a commercial fishing concession in the area, and Mike grew up around fish.  This has served him well in his career as a restaurant owner.  His girlfriend and partner is a lovely Argentine gal named Marsala.  This is a happy and fun couple.  Their personalities and positive attitudes only adds to the welcoming atmosphere.  Their English is perfect (Mike went to school in the US), and they are hands on owners.  Mike runs the bar, and makes sure that everyone has a good time and meets the other patrons.  Marsala runs the dining room, and is usually the first person to greet you when you enter. 

The setting is unusual.  The building was Mike’s childhood home, and it commands a great view of the ocean sunsets.  To take full advantage of this fabulous view, Mike removed the entire front wall of the house.  The end result is a basically a huge covered deck.  This is the perfect setting to enjoy their “tapas”, or what we have been calling “small plates” in the US.  This place is a great value.  Nothing is over about three or four dollars, and three plates can usually more than satisfy a hungry adult. 

They make some terrific ceviche, and the tuna can’t be beat.  I usually over order, and get first four items on the menu.  These are the ceviche, the tuna sashimi with wasabi and ginger, the seared tuna, and the spicy tuna picante.  Can you tell I like tuna? 

Much more upscale and romantic is the restaurant at Hotel Makanda by the Sea, The Sunspot Grill.  This is where I go with my wife for a special meal.  It is a little pricey by local standards, but a very good value for tourists seeking great food in a beautiful setting.  The dining area is composed of colorful “tents” scattered around one end of the infinity pool.  These are actually metal forms stretched with brightly colored fabric.  

On a recent visit I feasted on a perfectly grilled tuna steak that was literally two inches thick.  It was complimented with prosciutto wrapped asparagus and a very interesting fresh salad.  Most items here are done on the grill.  Since we are on the coast, the menu is dominated by fresh seafood.  You will find fresh fish, lobster, huge shrimp, and of course my favorite, tuna!  There is also a respectable wine list, featuring a variety of Chiliean and Argentine wines that are popular in Costa Rica.  All is served up by a happy, professional staff.

Another favorite casual restaurant is at Hotel Plinio.  This is an old standard, and I have been coming here since my first visit to Costa Rica twenty years ago.  The original owner was a Tico.  This was before the big tourism boom.  This area was a little plantation backwater, and had a little bit of a wild west atmosphere.  The story goes that Plinio did not like tourists very much, and kept a gun behind the bar.  He would shoot it into the air when obvious tourists pulled up.  It usually did the trick.  He sold the bar and hotel to new owners, well before I ever even dreamed of visiting Costa Rica.

Hotel Plinio is much more welcoming now.  Like so many restaurants here, it is open air.  There is a very friendly bar with five or six seats.  There really isn’t much of a view.  So the owners have planted huge elephant ears, that reach all the way up to the second floor.  So the setting here is kind of like eating in a tree house.  They offer the most varied menu in the area.  Steaks, pasta, seafood, pizza, even Vietnamese dipping rolls!  The previous owner was German, as are the current ones.  So the kitchen staff can even turn out some pretty delicious German specialties.  All of the dishes are well prepared, and the prices are very reasonable.  They bake their own bread too. 

Because of the varied menu, I often recommend Plinio to families.  The kids can get a pizza fix, and mom and dad can get some more interesting food.  That is not saying that the pizza isn’t good, because it is!  There is something here for everyone, and I can honestly say that I have never been served a bad meal. 

I first visited Costa Rica almost two decades ago.  The food choices then seemed to be beans and rice with chicken, rice and beans with beef, or beans and rice with fish.  But the restaurant community has matured to the point, that even the most dedicated foodie will find something to love.  You will certainly find this to be true in the Quepos / Manuel Antonio area.  Buen Provecho!

Italian Sophistication on a Costa Rican beach

Our first impression of Hotel Tropico Latino was a little misleading.  We arrived after dark, and all we could see was a small parking lot and a small guard hut.  The guard directed me down a dimly lit gravel pathway.  I really did not know what to expect, and have to admit that I was wondering what I was getting into.  I needn’t have worried.  As my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized that this was actually a very nice tropical garden.  Along one side, there were small bungalows with porches and hammocks.  I came to a clearing and there was the open air bar and restaurant.  I could hear the pounding surf and soft Latin jazz.  Reception was closed, but they were expecting us.  The very personable young Argentine woman behind the bar had our room key, and checked us in with no fuss or ceremony.  We dumped our bags, and returned to the bar for drinks and dinner. 

Hotel Tropico Latino restaurantOver the next couple of days, we grew to love this place.  The hotel is Italian owned, and the  bar/restaurant staff are almost all either Italian or from Argentina. Fun group, and amazing food. The chef is from Florence, and really knows his stuff. He had owned a restaurant in the area, and the owner persuaded him to move it to this hotel. Sure, it was a little pricey by Tico standards.  But it was a very good value by US standards, and we felt as if we had been transported to Italy. Fresh seafood was the specialty, and all was prepared in a very imaginative fashion.

We ate here that first night.  It had been a long travel day, and we were ready for a little spoiling.  We were totally blown away.  This was my bride’s birthday trip.  Before we left on our trip, she told me that all she wanted was a lobster while we were at the beach.  As good as the food was, I noted that there was no lobster on the menu.  My plan was to find a restaurant that would be able to satisfy her request.  But the next day, my wife told me that she loved the restaurant.  She didn’t care about the lobster anymore.  She wanted to eat there again! 

So I made a point to find the chef when she wasn’t around, and ask him about surprising her with a lobster. He was a very nice younger guy and obviously passionate about food.  It was Sunday, and early afternoon before I found him. He was excited about a surprise, and promised to do what he could.

When we arrived for dinner, I was informed that they were not able to find a lobster on such short notice. But I was told by the bartender that the chef had spent the better part of the afternoon calling fisherman, and trying to locate the owner of the (closed on Sunday) fish market. I was very appreciative for the effort, and his kindness left an impression. Dinner still rocked, and we were quite happy.

We stayed in a Garden Bungalow. Not right on the beach, but less than a hundred feet away. They offer beach front bungalows too, for a little more. These have nice little ocean view porches. But the Garden Bungalows were bigger, and we liked the extra space. All rooms have a fridge and a microwave. Our room had two huge king beds, and the best A/C I have ever had in Costa Rica. It was needed too, this area is hot!

The hotel also offers a two bedroom beach house, and a huge house that sleeps a large group (12?). It is big enough that it can be split into separate units.

The only knock on this hotel is the very expensive breakfast. It seems like a different crew is in the kitchen during breakfast. It was more expensive than what I paid in Manhattan! I am not kidding. I know that hotel breakfasts are sometimes expensive in Europe. Maybe that is what the owner is thinking here. But another guest clued us in, and told us about a cheap breakfast spot across the street. That seems to be the way to go. All in all, I didn’t let this one little bump in the road change my opinion of the hotel. I thought everything else was a great value, and we are counting the days to our next visit.

Monteverde restaurants

On a recent visit to Monteverde, we spent our last evening in Monteverde at Johnny’s Pizza.  This is one of our favorite spots, though the name is a little misleading. Sure, I have had some good pizzas there, and my wife tells me that they have the best vegetarian pizza that she has ever eaten. But they make some other very interesting dishes as well.

For starters, we shared a huge stuffed tomato with red sauce for an appetizer. I know that doesn’t sound that interesting, but you will just have to trust me on this. They also do a baked mushroom au gratin appetizer that is really good too. My favorite entree is the baked penne pasta. They have a wood fired oven. The pasta and sauce is baked in a metal bowl, the top is smothered with cheese that melts into the dish. It is already good, but the secret here is that if you ask, they will let you add some pizza ingredients. So I usually add fresh tomatoes, olives, some kind of meat, etc. Beats the heck out of rice and beans! 

We also found something totally unexpected for this area. There is a new restaurant in downtown Santa Elena, the small town that is the home to most of the local businesses in the Monteverde area.  “Trio” shares the same building with the supermarket. You have to look a little to find it. It is at the end of the parking lot, and not where you would expect an upscale restaurant to be. It was my wife’s birthday, and Susanna (the owner of Arco Iris Lodge) had made a passing reference to a delicious passion fruit mojito. It intrigued us, so we thought we would check it out. 

We walked in and were a little confused. This place looked like something you would find in a modern European city. Very urban and hip. Gray walls and lots of metal or black accents. There were free form lamps, and hardwood floors. The wait staff was wearing the obligatory black, and fusion jazz played softly. Not at all what I thought I would find in our little Quaker / Tico / farm town! 

But we figured we would take a shot. After all, there were passion fruit mojitos and we were not going to be denied! The food was actually very good, and they had some interesting twists on the usual fare. One was hamburgers with figs and sun dried tomatoes and some interesting toppings that escape me now. I love ceviche, and theirs was made with the usual sea bass, peppers, lime juice, and so on. But they included coconut milk, and some other surprises that really made it sing. They also offered a “tower” of tomato, avocado, and palmito. Everything was well presented. The prices were high by Costa Rica standards, but much cheaper than you would pay for similar fare in a similar setting in the US. 

While the appearance of this place was much hipper than I will ever be, in the end it was still a little slice of Costa Rica. Ticos and Ticas can’t hide behind a facade of sophistication for long. They will never be disinterested urbanites, no matter how trendy the setting. When the waitress heard that it was my bride’s birthday, she was excited and as sweet as could be. After dinner, she surprised us with a dessert and candles. The bartender was friendly and accommodating. He remembered us, and we were warmly welcomed when we stopped by a couple of days later for lunch. And yes, the mojitos were excellent!

Ceviche, the perfect snack!

Gaia CevicheCeviche (also spelled Cerviche) is almost as important to Costa Rica Cuisine as the ubiquitous Gallo Pinto.  It can be found all over the country.  From bus station counters to high end restaurants, you will almost always find this fish cocktail on the menu.

I live in New Orleans, and I am a gumbo junkie.  Working from essentially the same ingredients and spices, everyone here produces a different gumbo.  All local cooks have their own recipe, and all are (usually) delicious.  I almost always order a cup or bowl of gumbo when I see it on a menu.  I want to taste everyone’s individual creation.

Ceviche is the same way.  It is served throughout Latin America.  Every country, and every cook, has their own spin.  But the basic ingredients in Costa Rica are fresh fish, lime juice, minced onions, cilantro and minced peppers.  Some cooks add fresh pepper and salt as well.  There are some variations and secret ingredients, and it is always delicious.  The fish varies.  Most of the time it is either Tilapia or Corvina (Sea Bass).  I have also enjoyed excellent shrimp Ceviche.  I have even had “meatless” Ceviche, that is made with chayote (a Latin squashlike veggie) or mangos.   Ceviche is never actually cooked over heat.  The trick here is that the dish is marinated in the lime juice, and the citric acid “cooks” the fish.  It also adds a very nice astringent feeling on the palate.   This is the perfect refreshing and cool snack to enjoy at a beach side soda (small outdoor restaurant) with a cold brew. 

Some places serve it with soda crackers, and some with tortilla chips.  I prefer crackers.  I also usually prefer tilapia over corvina, because I sometimes detect a slight fishy flavor in the corvina.  But both are fine.  The spices are usually pretty mild.  So most of the time, I mix in a dash or two of hot sauce. 

I have “researched” this extensively.  In no particular order, here is a list of my favorite ceviche in Costa Rica.  So Far!

  • Orquideas Inn, Alajuela.  Served in a half a coconut shell, this tilapia ceviche gets high marks for presentation.  But presentation means nothing if the ceviche isn’t good.  This is very good.  We stay at the hotel frequently, and this is usually what I am looking for as soon as I clear customs.  I know that I have arrived in Costa Rica when I am sitting at the Marilyn Monroe bar with a Bavaria Gold and a “bowl” of this excellent ceviche.
  • Salsipuedas, Manuel Antonio.  All the fish at this tapas restaurant and friendly bar is good.  The owner’s father once held the commercial fishing concession in this area.  He grew up working with fish, and knows how to buy the freshest.  Reasonably priced and mildly spiced.  This is a great appetizer to enjoy before digging into the excellent fresh tuna (done several ways) and watching another beautiful sunset from their open terrace.
  • Hotel Gaia, also in the Manuel Antonio area.  A more upscale version, with some different ingredients.  But this restaurant serves some amazing food, and the ceviche is no different.  We like their Euro feeling and elegant open air restaurant, that feels more like seaside Italy than Costa Rica. 
  • Palenque Garabito.  Located on the Pan American highway, between Puntarenas and the turnoff to Monteverde.  This is a roadside soda, that is a slight cut above your typical soda.  Of course it is open air, casual, and inexpensive.  But the waiters wear ties, and seat you.  The ceviche here, is an always fresh corvina version.   This is a required stop for us whenever we pass by.  During football (soccer) season, all the waiters line up in the dining area to watch the game and kibbutz with the Tico clients.  True local color.

If you happen to come across really good ceviche during your travels, let me know.  I am always up for more research.  Buen Provecho!