San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Doña Lela Offers Rustic Charm, Typical Food

THE epitomeof typical CostaRican food is theforte at La Casa deDoña Lela’s fourlocations aroundSan José.On a Sundayafternoon, three ofus visited thenewest of this popularfamily restaurantchain in thewestern suburb ofEscazú. It wasbuzzing with activity and animated conversation.A large, attractive, gray-stonewaterfall divided the huge split-level diningarea and could be seen but not heard,along with the televisions strategicallyplaced around the room.It was a chilly, windy day, and thewooden shutters on the windows surroundingthe restaurant, resembling a casona – alarge old farmhouse – were closed.However, inside it felt comfortable andairy, thanks to the high ceilings and bigfans. The rustic wood decor and varnishedpine picnic tables, although placed tooclosely together to accommodate a multitudeof diners, give the place a pleasant,countrified and casual atmosphere.Main courses were served on woodenplatters covered with banana leaves.Troops of waiters were serving portions offood of all shapes and sizes to large familygatherings, most consisting of three generations.High chairs are provided for thetots, and a special kiddies’ menu is available.Everybody was tucking in and havinga great time; obviously, for Tico familyoutings, La Casa de Doña Lela is a greatfavorite.As soon as we sat down, our waiter wasthere with pencil poised to take our orderand make a quick dash to the large, openkitchen, where the cooks were dexterouslyslapping meat and chicken on the open grill.We had to beg for time to read the hugemenu offering a mind-boggling choice oftypical dishes: everything from pozole(corn soup with pork) to an endless array ofmeat and chicken cooked in different waysand served with a variety of trimmings.However, there was no fish on the menuexcept for ceviche, made from marinatedraw sea bass and served as an appetizer.All main courses come with rice,“smashed beans” (the English translationon the menu), tortillas, sweet fried plantain,corn and picadillo, a staple in everyTico household, made from cubed potatoes,vegetables or a mixture of both.Among the three salad choices, DoñaLela’s sounded the most interesting, withhearts of palm, cheese and avocado, inaddition to the usual ingredients.The restaurant is not licensed to servealcohol but offers a large selection of nonalcoholicbeverages: horchata, cinnamon-flavoredrice milk; agua dulce, boiledwater with brown cane sugar added; and anarray of refrescos, fresh fruit drinks madewith water, or batidos made with milk.Typical desserts included mazamora, acornstarch pudding, queque de tres leches,a three-milk cake covered with softmeringue, and the inevitable rice pudding.To be quite honest, we didn’t reallyenjoy our meal, but I must emphasize thishad nothing to do with the quality of thefood served. It all derived from our tastebuds, as we found everything consistentlytoo bland, except for my grilled breast ofchicken, which was moist and tasty.The cheese in the melted cheese potwas tasteless, as were the “smashedbeans” – a dash of Lizano sauce wouldhave certainly helped. The guacamole –another amusing translation, “smashedavocado” – was freshly made and a verdantgreen, but a touch of salt was the onlyadded ingredient.The cubed potatoes had a little moreflavor, but the mound of white rice andguiso de elote, a mixture of fresh, tendersweet corn and chayote, a squash-like vegetable,were again dull. The barbecuedspare ribs – one of the most expensiveitems on the menu – were extremely fattyand came with a humdrum dipping sauce.All in all, it was a disappointing mealfor us, but we admitted that in general wefind Costa Rican cuisine uninspiring. Thespicy foods we prefer are not the norm inmost Tico kitchens. This does, however,depend on the cook, and I’ve had somevery tasty meals, particularly in homes andsodas – small, family-run eateries – exactlythe way La Casa de Doña Lela startedmany years ago.Prices are not cheap compared to yoursmall sodas, but for a restaurant of thiscaliber the menu is not overpriced.Portions are generous and include all theaccompaniments; those with meat orchicken range from ¢2,300-4,000 ($5-8.70). The casados (typical mixed platters)are reasonably priced at ¢1,900($4.15), as is the kiddies’ menu selectionat ¢1,000 ($2.20).Our lunch bill, comprising two appetizers,a casado, spare ribs and three beverages,amounted to ¢10,650 ($23.20),including tax and tip.The restaurant is open Saturday andSunday mornings for typical breakfasts.Gallo pinto, a mixture of rice and blackbeans served with eggs and tortillas, plusan addition of ham or bacon and maybe adollop of sour cream, is quite a way to startthe day for ¢1,000-1,300 ($2.20-2.80).La Casa de Doña Lela’s four locationsare: in Escazú (288-5333) on the old roadto Santa Ana, 400 meters west of CentroComercial Paco, open Monday-Friday, 11a.m.-10 p.m., and Saturday-Sunday, 9a.m.-10 p.m.; on the Guápiles highway(241-3849), 2.5 kilometers north of theSaprissa football stadium; in the easternsuburb of Curridabat (271-4707); andBetania (224-3131), which also offershome delivery (255-5555).

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