For most of us, eating means more than just filling our stomachs. We look for flavor, variety and a pleasant and calm place to enjoy our food or to share time with friends. Eating is a social event.
In Alajuela, northwest of San José, a delightful option combines the above with a touch of genuine history and rural freshness, only a short distance from the center of town.
The restaurant is simple and rustic, reflecting life in rural Costa Rica in 1860, when the house was built. This place was not designed to look like a típico restaurant – it really is one.
The adobe walls are half a meter thick and the double doors are solid. A passageway from the tiny bar to the kitchen in back is low enough to have to duck, but that’s the way things were 140 years ago.
Huge mango trees shade the yard and parking area at the side of the restaurant, lending credence to Alajuela’s fame as the “City of Mangoes.” In the dining area, a few wooden kitchen implements provide the simple decor. If we want to see the structure of the time period, plain walls do it best. I am glad to report, however, that the restrooms are very up to date with all the modern appurtenances. A children’s play area with plastic swings and slides kind of spoils the scene, but a board and rope swing would probably not meet today’s safety standards.
Food and beverages are what make a restaurant, and Casa Vieja’s menu comes in Spanish and English with enough variety for all appetites, including some non-meat selections. But, read carefully; there are some puzzles in the list. The Spanish menu uses campesino-style titles such as Pa’ Llenarse (“for filling yourself ”) for main courses, and Pa’ Chiquitines (“for children”).
In our confusion, we vegetarians inadvertently chose chicken burritos because we thought the “mixed” referred to vegetables.
But the selection is big and includes meat, chicken, pasta and rice dishes, plus light choices such as nachos and burritos and traditional desserts: flan, ice cream and threemilk cake. Beverages include beer, wine, mixed drinks, fruit drinks and soda, all at reasonable prices.
Although there is an indoor dining room, we sat out on the porch, which most diners seem to prefer.Here a refreshing breeze from the nearby CiruelasRiver touched us without blowing the napkins off the table, and smokers can indulge their habit without disturbing others. We chose the burrito plate (¢2,800/$5.40), campesino rice with French fries (¢1,500/$2.90), guacamole and chips (¢850/$1.65), a beer (¢600/$1.15) and a screwdriver (¢1,000/$1.95). With tax, our whole bill came to ¢7,425 ($14.40), and everything was tasty and adequate.
Arriving around four in the afternoon when it wasn’t too crowded, we enjoyed good service and could eat at our leisure. Following dinner, we strolled over to the bridge by the river.
Casa Vieja’s slogan is “An Encounter With Our Roots.” You will find it by following the road behind Mall Internacional and turning left 300 meters south at the Tres Ositos store. Follow that road 500 meters to the end. Casa Vieja is open every day from noon to 11 p.m., a little later on weekends. The restaurant is on the same road as the Polideportivo sport complex for those who crave a bit of exercise before or after a hearty meal. For information, call 440-8525.
Casa Vieja: A History
Casa Vieja restaurant’s owner, Abel Sandí, looked up the house in the National Registry and found the following history.
The original owners were Rafael Alpízar, a farmer, and his wife Josefa Rojas. The farm included a trapiche, or sugar mill for making tapa dulce (brown-sugar loaves). The house is described as being 10 varas wide and five varas deep (about 10 by five yards), and the land included half of what is now JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport. The property was valued at “one hundred pesos.”
In 1885, doña Chepa, as Josefa was known, by now a widow, was killed by thieves who were looking for money she supposedly hid on the property. Her two children inherited the house. The son, Manuel Alpízar, sold it in 1926 for ¢90 (about $22.50 at the time).
The new owner, Eduardo Soto, sold it to his brother Alberto in 1933, who sold it to Victor Manuel Hidalgo in 1934. Years later, his widow found 11 pieces of gold when a piece of adobe fell off the house. This is probably the fortune the thieves were looking for in 1885. The widow had it made into a bracelet that is still in the family.
The house changed hands several times until 1947, when Corina Cruz bought it for ¢3,000 ($530 at the time), and it remained in that family until 1997, when it was sold to the Molina family, the present owners. It is now a delightful bar and restaurant for the public to enjoy.