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! 

Finally finding my way to Santa Teresa

Although I have been to Montezuma several times, I had never made the short trip up the road to the Mal Pais / Santa Teresa area. Shame on me, because there has been a buzz going on about Mal Pais for a while. I was late getting here.

The beach was unbelievable. It just went on forever. We love to take long walks on the beach at sunset (sorry if this sounds like a personal ad!). This was perfect for that. The surfers love this beach, though you have to be aware where the big rocks are. Swimmers have to mind the current as well. But it is also a great place to just hang out with an adult beverage.

During my recent visit to the Mal Pais / Santa Teresa area I made several hotel inspections.  We stayed at Hotel Tropico Latino, and I profile this hotel in my post “Italian Sophistication on a Costa Rica Beach”.    The following is a quick review of some of the other hotels we toured.

The first place I wanted to see, was The Moana Lodge in Mal Pais.  It has always gotten pretty favorable reviews, and this was before they built the new Suites and Jr. Suites. I have a feeling that the reviews are going to get even better. 

These accommodations are the newest part of the hotel. They had only been open for a week when I did the inspection. The only negative I can give is that there are so many steps. I mean lots and lots of steps. But they do carry your luggage.  I promise that once you are up in the rooms, you forget about the climb. The views are magnificent, and the whole front of the Suites and Jr. Suites is plate glass. There is a balcony if you feel the need to sit outside, but you can see the ocean just fine from the living room or bedroom. There are teak floors throughout. The bathroom in the Suite features two sinks, bidet, and a two person jacuzzi tub. It’s perfect for honeymooners. 

moanalodgeThe almost 1000 square foot Suite goes for under $300 per night in high season, including tax. This is really a great value for a suite at this level. I know I am going to be sending some honeymooners, for sure. The new Jr. Suites are $225.00 per night at high season, also including tax. They are smaller than the big Suite, and the bathroom is not as over the top. But again, they are extremely well appointed and not a lot of money for an accommodation at this level. 

All of the rooms at the Moana Lodge are done in an African theme. The older existing rooms have also been redone to reflect the theme. While they are not as spectacular as the suites, they are attractive and a good value. The only other small negative to mention here is that the hotel is located across the street from the beach and up a bit of a hill. So you have to walk a little back and forth from the beach. Between the steps and this walk, I don’t think I am sending anyone elderly or with mobility problems. But for the young and fit looking for a romantic spot, this is a great choice. I can’t wait to return to Mal Pais, and actually stay here. 

Even more over the top was Flor Blanca. But with high season rates that start at $475 per night, and climb to over $850 I guess you expect to be amazed. I know I was. Each of the deluxe secluded individual villas feature tastefully decorated huge open air living rooms, complete with hammocks. The garden bath is also open air. But the bedrooms are air conditioned for comfort. Very private. If you have the budget, this is the perfect romantic spot. I glanced at the restaurant menu and the spa. Both appeared to be first rate. 

There are a couple places that I missed, and would have liked to inspect. Most notable was Hotel Casa Marbella. I have heard very good reviews about this hotel, but I just ran out of time. 

The former owner of the Flor Blanca is also constructing a new hotel up the road on the beach. I knew these folks before Flor Blanca, when they operated a hotel in the Tamarindo area. We sent them guests on a regular basis, and once used them for a lovely destination wedding. This new project will be their third hotel, and the last two were very interesting. So I am eager to see what they have come up with. There was no one at the construction site but some local workers. So I didn’t get the tour. It was hard to see what was going on, but I know there will be some open air showers. I guess I will have to go back!