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! 

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!

Taking a group to Amsterdam

 

I love Costa Rica.  I love to travel there, and it is my business.  But my wife and I are now “empty nesters”, and are finally getting the chance to travel to some other destinations.   I thought it would be fun to share some of our experiences to other places. 

Every year, I arrange a large group trip to somewhere fun for the gang in my Mardi Gras krewe. The groups have at times exceeded 40 people, but most of the time we have 12 to 20 people. Since we now had a little experience in Amsterdam, we thought that this would be a fun place to take the gang.  On this trip, eighteen of us traveled to Europe. 

We worked it out so that most of the group would spend a full week in Amsterdam. Everyone then went in different directions. Some went to Paris, others to Rome, and some to Germany. We went to Prague after Amsterdam with three other couples. My Prague experiences are detailed elsewhere in this blog. 

We flew overnight from the US.  We arrived at the Amsterdam airport at 7:00 AM.  We then took the local train to the Central Station in downtown Amsterdam. This was pretty easy, except that it seems that the ticket vending machines were experiencing problems with credit cards. We learned later that this was indeed the case. But at the time, we figured it was just “operator trouble” brought on by jet lag. We finally were able to get some euro change and purchased our tickets. After a short train ride we arrived at the Central Station. From there we walked the short distance to our group’s lodging, “Amsterdam Escape”. 

We had stayed in Amsterdam Escape (http://www.amsterdamescape.com/) the previous year, and had a very positive experience. This year was no different. We rented the “Chillout”, “Nest”, “Home” and “Suite”. The apartments are a little pricey, but this is such a great way to go. Especially with a group. The apartments are fully furnished, and include computers with Internet access, stereos, full kitchens, cable, DVD players with movies, game system, etc. Two of the units even had full laundry facilities. Everyone quickly made themselves at home. These apartments are located in the Nieumarkt area, right next to the red light district. This was a group that likes to have a good time, and the close proximity to bars and restaurants was just the ticket for them. 

This is a fun group, and we had some good house parties. We would also meet at different apartments in the mornings for coffee to compare experiences, and to plan our days. Our first night, we had an amazing throw down dinner at Restaurant Gusto (http://ristorantegusto.com). This is right next door to the Chillout. We have eaten here on previous visits, and highly recommend it. The house specialty is pasta, that is finished by placing it into a huge hollowed out parmesan cheese wheel. The hot pasta melts the cheese, and it is all scraped together on the plate. They have lots of delicious Italian specialties and appetizers. We ate until we couldn’t eat anymore, and washed it down with copious amounts of red wine. It didn’t really cure our jet lag, but it sure was fun! 

Within a day or two, the members of our group started to do their own thing. My wife and I spent a day in Haarlem, only a 15 minute train ride away. We had visited Haarlem last year, and had been unable to get inside the ancient church that dominates the town square and skyline. We were luckier this time. They were getting the massive 300 year old pipe organ ready for a concert, and we were lucky enough to hear the “sound check”.  Some of the pipes are 30 feet tall, and the rumbling sound was nothing short of amazing. 

Some of us also took a day trip to Zandvoort aan Zee, a beach resort. It was freezing cold and rainy in early October. But we were just there for the mussels. It cleared a little, and we had an opportunity to walk on the beach. 

We also took an afternoon to go to Zaandam. There are some authentic old windmills here, and scattered nearby there is the Dutch equivalent of a colonial Williamsburg. The little village has a pewter shop, with ongoing demonstrations, and cheese factory, a wooden shoe factory, several old buildings, and of course a gift shop. We got the chance to crawl around inside an old windmill that was grinding chalk for paint. It was fascinating to see how these actually worked.  My wife is an amateur artist, and this windmill had actually produced pigments for paint used by Rembrandt.  She was thrilled for the opportunity to buy some pigments here.  I am waiting for her masterpiece! 

Our own apartment at the Amsterdam Escape actually fell through. The apartments are scattered over several buildings, and our building failed the annual fire inspection. So we were forced to scramble a little at the last minute. But it all worked out. My wife and I were able to obtain lodging at a very small B&B, called “Sunhead of 1617″ on the Herengracht (http://www.sunhead.com/). This is only about a block from the Anne Frank house, and considered one of the better neighborhoods in Amsterdam. 

This really wasn’t a bad thing.  I love my friends like family.  But escorting any group is a little stressful.  This B&B was located about a mile from our group.  The separation was good for all.  They learned that they did not need us for every little thing, and we were able to enjoy some private time in what has become our favorite European city. 

The rooms at the Sunhead are small, but well appointed and decorated. I had to keep in touch with my office.  I had my laptop, and found the free WiFi a huge plus. Of course, the stairs are a killer. But that is typical of 400 year old houses in Holland! The B&B is owned by a gay couple.  One of the guys is Dutch, and his partner is Filipino.  We enjoyed our mornings chatting with Carlos (from the Philippines) and savoring his fabulous breakfasts. We enjoyed the other guests as well. Over the course of a week, we shared meals with Russians, French Canadians, and Brits. It was a wonderful way to start each day. 

After breakfast, we had to walk a bit to meet up with our friends.  We found that we enjoyed our morning strolls across Dam Square and through the neighborhoods to Nieumarkt.  Because this was our second visit to Amsterdam, we had done much of the major “tourist” things. So we were able to slow down and enjoy Amsterdam. We enjoyed eating in the neighborhood restaurants, and actually started to establish a relationship with the staff at a local pub.  We would stop by for a last drink every evening on our way back home. After a few nights, they would have our favorite drinks ready within a couple minutes of us hitting the door.  We had arrived! 

All in all, we always found our Dutch hosts to be friendly, and they always seemed to approach everything with a sense of humor.  They were usually very willing to have a conversation, and were happy to share history and insider tips about their city.  I can’t share all of our memories here, but suffice to say that Amsterdam is the perfect introduction to Europe.  Easy and forgiving.  We found that almost everyone we encountered spoke some English, and most were quite fluent.  Even a rookie traveler can feel comfortable here. 

We have so many places to see, and we have been to Amsterdam twice now. So I guess we will have to put it on the back burner for awhile. That is hard to do. It is a wonderful place, full of history and interesting people. I do not know when I will return. Actually by the third or fourth day, everyone in our group was musing about living there and scheming about how to make it happen. No solutions yet! 

From Amsterdam, we flew to Prague for a week.  Look for that trip report on this blog!