PUERTO VIEJO, Limón – When the late Brad Nowell sang (or rapped) in Spanish, “Yo fui a Costa Rica para comer y surfear” (I went to Costa Rica to eat and surf), on ’90s punk band Sublime’s self-titled album, he very well could have been talking about Puerto Viejo.
This southern Caribbean beach town has arguably the best cuisine offerings in the country and the best concentration of innovative eateries. Attempting to add to these exalted ranks, several new restaurants and cafés are trying to take their stake in the action, with varying degrees of success, and a couple of classics have moved to better position themselves.
Capitalizing on a Puerto Viejo nightlife focal point, Stanford’s has opened a patiostyle restaurant above its open-air dance floor on the beach. The menu is essentially two full menus combined, Caribbean and international, that, together, should be able to appease all tastes.
International highlights include pastas (¢3,000-6,500/$5.50-12), tenderloin dishes (¢6,000-8,000/$11-15) and a wide range of seafood, from snapper to marlin to squid.
On the Caribbean side, you can get things going with soup, salad or a beer and ceviche (¢2,000-3,000/$3.60-5.50). The range of spicy entrées (¢3,000-7,000/$5.50-13) includes all the necessary Tico and Caribbean dishes, but this menu’s feature is clearly the lobster, which starts at a modest 300 gram serving (¢7,000/$13) and goes all the way up to one full kilo of the succulent crustacean (¢20,000/$36). Don’t miss the Langosta Stanford, flavored with a signature sauce of onions, chilies, beer and a few other ingredients it would be improper to reveal.
Just make sure you wait at least 40 minutes after gorging yourself before jumping into the water – or onto the dance floor.
Also new and notable is the Sunrise Café, which is staking its claim in the breakfast and brunch market with a good selection of Western-style breakfasts, including eggs and pancakes (both ¢2,000/$3.60), French toast (¢2,500/$4.50) and other items, as well as a decent selection of teas.
Later in the day, try the pita, soups and salads, herbed chicken and pasta dishes or sandwiches on ciabatta bread or baguettes (¢2,500-5,000/$4.50-9).
If you came to Costa Rica for the coffee, in addition to the food and surf, a visit to Caribeans coffee shop is required. The coffee sold here is fully organic and fair-trade certified, and the business is locally run and supplied. The café, which also offers Internet access, roasts its own beans on-site. Sip on a freshly brewed cup of joe (¢400/$0.70, iced ¢700/$1.30), a latte (¢800/$1.50) or mocha (¢1,200/$2.20), or indulge in a Caribbean Cappuccino (frozen cappuccino with coconut milk, ¢500-¢1,500/$0.90-2.70) or a pure cocoa shot (hot dark chocolate served like an espresso, ¢1,000/$1.80).
Those with a hankering for fare from the relative north can check out the new Tex Mex restaurant, in the former Hot Rocks location. The menu options are straightforward, with traditional North American and Tico breakfasts, as well as tacos, burritos, nachos and fajitas (¢3,000-7,500/$5.50-14) served later in the day.
Tex Mex is continuing its predecessor’s tradition of free movie screenings, offering showings every day except Thursday, with a first film at 6 p.m. followed immediately by a second, usually subtitled or more visual film better suited to the increased noise levels as the night progresses.
Not to be outdone by the new kids on the block, a couple of longtime local favorites have new locations in the works: Chile Rojo plans to move up the street from its current location across the street from Stanford’s around December, while the Loco Natural has moved down the road to more spacious digs on the southern edge of town.
Both restaurants artfully combine Caribbean flavors with Asian and other styles at world-class levels.
At Chile Rojo, diners can whet their appetites with a Lebanese fattoush salad, vegetable samosas, chicken satays in peanut sauce or other appetizers, soups or salads (¢2,000-3,000/$3.60-5.50). Entrée highlights include the seared tuna fillet with a Thai ginger and black bean sauce and the Thai green curry with coconut milk, lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaf and mixed veggies (¢4,000-5,000/$7.30-9). Then, despite what your stomach may try to tell you, there is always room for the lemongrass and coconut flan for dessert. Keep an eye peeled for Chile Rojo’s sushi nights and seasonal offerings of shark and manta ray.
A short walk south from the center of town, the Loco Natural is now settled in a larger location to better accommodate its enduring popularity. Nibble on a variety of appetizers (¢1,400-3,200/$2.50-5.80), tacos (¢2,800-3,800/$5.10-6.90) or a heaping pile of inspired salad (¢4,200/$7.60) before heading for the mouthwatering main dishes: Indo-Caribbean Madras curry, Mexican smoked chipotle coconut sauce, Malaysian guava green curry and specials such as red curry ginger sauce, all served over your choice of meat, fish or vegetables and plated with an array of legumes, veggies and fruits (¢4,200-6,200/$7.60-11). (Tip: Mix bites of the sides with the main dish, especially the fruit with the fish.) And you just might have to take a second trip to the restaurant to dine on the dish that, per the menu, is “guaranteed to make you feel nice”: Jamaican Jerk à la Stash, Loco Natural’s head chef and co-owner, who, like Madonna, has enough personality to go by first name only. To top it all off, enjoy cheesecake with mango sauce or homemade coconut, passion fruit or coffee-flavored ice cream, while watching live entertainment on Thursday and Sunday evenings. Note: The restaurant will be closed for a month from Oct. 25 through Nov. 28.
Whether you make new culinary friends or keep the old in Puerto Viejo, it’s nearly impossible to go wrong.
Who, What, Where
Caribeans: Organic fair-trade coffee and wholesale shop, at the northern end of town, 50 meters west of the bus stop, across the road from the beach. Open Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Monday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Saturday from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; closed Tuesdays. Phone: 8836-8930. Web: www.caribeanscoffee.com
Chile Rojo: Southeast Asian-influenced restaurant, across the street from Stanford’s. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Phone: 2750-0319.
Loco Natural: Caribbean fusion cuisine, 200 meters south of Stanford’s on the west side of road. Open Thursday through Wednesday, 5 to 10 p.m., with live entertainment Thursdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Cash only. Phone: 2750-0530.
Stanford’s: International and Caribbean cuisine, on the southern end of town, white building right on the beach, above dance floor. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 12:30 to 11 p.m. Phone: 2750-0016.
Sunrise Café: Breakfast, soups, salads and sandwiches, in the Sunrise Hostel, 150 meters south of Banco de Costa Rica, west side of street. Open Friday through Wednesday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Phone: 2750-0028.
Tex Mex: Breakfast, Tex-Mex cuisine, on the corner across the street from Bar I and I, next to Las Brisas souvenir shop. Open Friday through Wednesday, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., bar open until 2 a.m. Movie showings every night except Thursday starting at 6 p.m. Phone: 2750-0525 or 2750-0510.