San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

San Pedro’s ‘Street of Bitterness’ Area Worth Another Look

San Pedro? Yeah, you know the place: eastbound traffic gluts, graffiti scrawled across every flat surface, some standby restaurants and, last but not least, the infamous Calle de la Amargura, or Street of Bitterness.
On that long strip of bars ending at the University of Costa Rica (UCR), anyone who can wade through the insanityinducing mix of 15 different reggaetón songs simultaneously emerging from the bars is rewarded by infinite gooey pizza slices and enough guaro to fuel the party through the early morning hours.
That about sums it up, right? Wrong – if you’re a San Pedro connoisseur.
At the risk of playing fast and loose with the word, I define such a connoisseur as one who has discovered the many small pleasures hidden in the eastern San José suburb, particularly in the immediate vicinity of UCR, during the day. When the sun shines, the area transforms itself into a sedate haven of small, excellent restaurants, specialty bookshops, local art displays and even a fantastic music shop.
This is no news at all to UCR students or professors, but it’s overlooked by many outsiders, even San Pedro residents such as yours truly. After indulging in a spate of San Pedro workday lunches, I discovered that if you’re weary of chain restaurants and sterile mall bookshops, this neighborhood can remind you that there’s more to life. It’s well worth a visit, even for west-siders with Escazú’s restaurants at their disposal.
First, the food. In a hundred-meter radius just one block west of “the Calle,” as that bitter street is generally known within San Pedro, are three good restaurants offering what has eluded so many purveyors of bland “international” cuisine: traditional Costa Rican fare with a twist, and on the cheap.
At Hoja de Aire (234-0427), a charming, family-owned restaurant on the block just east of the San Pedro Church, a rotating menu that changes daily features delectable offerings. The specials are served in a traditional casado, but Hoja de Aire takes the beans-and-rice staple to a new level.
The restaurant, housed in an old wooden house with pleasantly creaky floors, has few frills. Plain wooden tables and handwritten paper menus (photocopied that morning to include the day’s offerings) greet the visitor, and the whole place has the feel of a jumbly college coffeehouse, with an eclectic display of local art adorning the walls.
On a recent weekday, the day’s dishes were an array of local ingredients, such as bell pepper stuffed with pejibaye (peach palm) and cheese, and a casserole of yuca (cassava), chicken and vegetables with lemon and mint. However, I couldn’t resist the moussaka, which proved to be a delectable, creamy, spicy-sweet, melt-in-themouth creation.
Also excellent was the roast beef, perfectly cooked, with a balsamic vinegar reduction.
Small touches in the accompaniments were enough to wake up the palate after weeks of casados: a gardenful of vegetables included beets with a touch of orange, a salad with a sprinkling of sesame oil and fiery chili sauce to top the black beans. Among the homemade desserts was a chewy, frosted chocolate mint brownie that will bring me back. The bill: my meal, with dessert, ran me ¢2,800 ($5.60). A shop featuring jewelry and clothing rounds out the joint.
Next door to Hoja de Aire is El Candil (371-8486), a similar and also delectable spot. Like its neighbor, El Candil serves daily casados for ¢2,300 ($4.60), with an everchanging selection of entrées, though here you’ll find only a few options per day.
On any given day, you might sample fish in a creamy palmito (heart-of-palm) sauce, eggplant Parmesan or cannelloni, accompanied by steamed vegetables, salad, rice and beans, and preceded by a delicious and healthy soup. Desserts include mouth-watering almond cookies. Sit inside or in the covered backyard garden patio.
Yards away, just north of the San Pedro park, is another local staple missed by those who visit only after working hours: the vegetarian Comida para Sentir (224-1163).
Herbivores sick of ordering side dishes for lunch will be very happy here. The extensive and inexpensive menu runs the gamut from pita sandwiches to fresh juices to main dishes such as risotto with vegetables and pesto, curry with macadamia nuts or,my favorite, a delicious “enchilada casserole” with soy meat, a spicy sauce and thick, chewy tortillas.
I’m happy to report that the coffee is excellent as well.
The best deal of all is to be found at the various university sodas, lunchtime hangouts for students and professors. Giving directions here would be a bit ridiculous, as anyone familiar with the university’s lush, labyrinthine campus will understand. Just plunge in, follow the hungry students or your nose, and line up for delicious, cheap food. (The campus is also a great spot for a walk or reading a book under a tree. You might even spot a sloth in the trees.)
Once you’re full, there are plenty of reasons to take a leisurely stroll around the neighborhood. My favorite place to potter after lunch recently became Música Amadeus (253-3340) right on the Calle, in and of itself a good reason to make the trip east.
Again, there are no frills here, no posters or labeled sections or DVDs. There is, however, blues, jazz, big band, and an extensive classical music collection, including a choral recording I’ve fruitlessly searched for at huge U.S. stores. There’s everything from French jazz to boxed sets such as “Oktoberfest: Favorite German Beergarden Songs” and “Best of James Bond Themes.”
Basically, the small store is like the eclectic treasure trove of a knowledgeable, musicloving grandpa. To fit that theme, the amiable store manager, Jesús, rings up your purchase on a marble-and-metal cash register manufactured 80 years ago in Dayton, Ohio, by the U.S.National Cash Register Company, and specially fitted for Costa Rica with colón signs. Better still, the purchase he’s ringing up is cheap as can be. The CDs in the store range from ¢3,000 to 5,000 ($6-10). After years of thumbing through the standardized offerings at mall music stores, only to leave empty-handed because of the high prices, I almost hyperventilated with delight upon finding Música Amadeus.
Last stop, but not least: books. Libros Nueva Década (225-8540), just south of Comida para Sentir, is a great place, particularly for poetry. The prices are reasonable, and books are on sale in a street display every weekday; the shop is also open Saturday mornings.
On the Calle itself, you can find the UCR Bookstore (207-5859), another must-see filled with gems from the university press, often hard to find anywhere else. Across the street is Librería Clara Luna (281-0228), another excellent spot for books.
Come for lunch, stay to shop, and then read your new purchases over a leisurely cup of coffee at one of the countless cafés in the neighborhood. If you’re so inclined on a hot afternoon, trade the coffee for a nice cold beer and watch as classes end and the pace picks up. When the reggaetón cranks and the Calle gets itself tube-top ready, you can wander on home, confident that you’ve already sampled the best of this funky little neighborhood.
(Except for the gooey late-night pizza, of course. Nothing beats that.)

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