San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Food Service Slow, Variety Great in Puerto Viejo

PUERTO VIEJO, Limón – Food is one of the firstthings people who have spent time here will mention aboutthe southern Caribbean town of Puerto Viejo and the townsalong the road south to Manzanillo.Throughout the town and in unexpected notches carvedout of the jungle along the road there are an inexplicablenumber of innovative, quality restaurants. Not just rice,beans and chicken (though there is plenty of that, as well),these restaurants are specialized and authentically foreign.It’s as if every country with a distinguished cuisine sent outtheir restaurateur emissaries to Costa Rica’s Caribbeancoast. There are Italian restaurants, French, Japanese sushiand Thai, a Spanish bakery, a Peruvian restaurant (sansguinea pig), pizza, mounds of seafood and Caribbean specialtieslike ron don fish soup and rice and beans cooked incoconut milk, to name a few.“The diversity of food is amazing for a village on theborder of Panama,” said Claudio Ambroso, a resident ofPuerto Viejo. “I’m Italian – we’re snobs about food and Ilike it.”The service, however, does nothing to offset the stereotypeof slow-paced and carefree island living that city folkhave of the Caribbean communities. During a recent visit,the food was always far slower than I thought possible. Theold joke about the cook having to go kill the chicken or catchthe fish wore out by lunch on the first day. After that Iworked waiting into my schedule.Nearly every restaurant I ate at I enjoyed. There was noway to try them all, not even all of the most popular joints injust a few days there, so in turn, this review is a random sampleof what the town has to offer.NEAR the bridge into the northern edge of town on theroad from Limón, El Loco Natural café and restaurant featuresJamaican jerk chicken, marlin, tuna and shrimp, Thaisauces and curries, tacos, and live jazz and reggae.It is a second-floor venue above an arts and crafts shopwith a covered deck, all wood construction, good service anda friendly owner who goes by Stash. He said it evolved froma coffee shop and “it’s one of those places where you canrelax and you don’t have to deal with local things.”It bills itself as a Caribbean and Asian food restaurantand includes ingredients such as vegetable stir fry, Thai citruspeanut sauce with lemon grass andginger and fishes and meats flavoredwith Caribbean style. For the musicand the quality of the food, this is theplace to be weeknights. Plates costaround $7.50, dinner only is served andthere is no phone available.ACROSS the street, RestauranteGrant is another second-floor eatery,this one above a hotel and bike rental.The ambience is captivating – it is alarge, open-walled covered porch, really,with a kitchen attached. Woodyvines are strung along the ceiling andwalls, grass bird nests and mosses hangfrom the ceiling and clusters of differentsized paper globe lamps light theroom at night.The extensive menu ranges fromthe familiar gallo pinto and casado ($4)to chicken in wine and mushroomsauce ($5) and lobster flambé inwhisky ($10.50), among others. Forbreakfast it offers omelets, pancakes and gallo pinto withfruit, coffee and juice all for roughly $4. It is open for allthree meals. For more info, call 750-0293.JUST a few yards off the beach and a block south of thebus stop in a building shared with other restaurants and businesses,the Spanish bakery Pan Pay makes delicious chocolatecroissants ($0.50) and vegetable empanadas (pastries)($1.50). It also offers breakfast fruit bowls ($1.75) espresso($0.50) whole-wheat baguettes ($0.50) and other treats fromthe oven.The Hot Rocks Café stands out on a corner overlookinga bend in the bay because of its colossal outdoor moviescreen. It presents movies free to customers nightly, mostlyHollywood blockbusters recently released on DVD.The house specialties are pizza, (personal, $2.50 and large$9) and a local, recommendable microbrew ($1.50). It alsooffers ceviche ($3.25) and steak ($10) among other options.NEAR the southern edge of town is the Asian restaurantLotus Garden, which features all you can eat sushi ($14)served in canoes about as long as a table for two. The fish ismostly imported tuna and marlin from the Pacific andChilean pink salmon; the red snapper is local. Other specialtiesare Thai dishes, such as the recommended chicken satay– chicken in peanut curry with a touch of lemon grass andchile ($8.25). Herbs such as basil and rosemary and chilesare grown in an organic garden behind the restaurant.The ambience is classy with subdued lighting from coloredpaper lamps, an open-air wooden floor, a library nook with books in several languages and a small waterfallbehind a groomed lawn against the hillside.“As much as possible we try to use naturalingredients such as peanuts, chile, garlic, onions,sweet pepper and lemon grass,” Philippine ownerRoque Breboneria said. “I think most people comehere to splurge on sushi.”For more info, call 750-0232.BETWEEN the village Playa Cocles and thesouthern edge of Puerto Viejo, a 10-minute walkalong the only road out the south end of town,Cabinas El Tesoro serves up three meals a day andmovies and live music at night. On the breakfastmenu are such delicacies as the Hangover Especial– two aspirin and toast ($1.25) and plates of combinationsof mixed fruits, French toast (recommended)and eggs. For more info, call 750-0128.Along that same road near Playa Cocles thereis the Italian restaurant Totem, which came recommendedand is worth the trip from town. It is twostories, open-air, the upper deck with an oceanview and serves three meals a day. All the food ismade on the premises, including the breads, andthe pastas.An Italian staff prepares and serves such dishesas tagliolini al limone – pasta with lemon sauce($5.50), penne pasta with tomato, basil and chilesauce ($4.50), grilled tenderloin ($10), and, breakingfrom the Italian theme, tempura, grilled vegetables,salads, desserts, and a catch of the day,among others. Wine is notably absent from themenu. For info, see the Web site at or call 750-0758.

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