San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Feasting through the San Gerardo Valley

From the print edition

Birdwatchers stalking resplendent quetzals and hikers tackling steep forest trails can work up quite an appetite in the San Gerardo de Dota valley, just an hour and a half’s drive south of San José. The weather is often cool and wet here, too, on the upper slope of Cerro de la Muerte. So, where can you go when your body needs refueling?

Farmed rainbow trout, from pond to plate in minutes, has long been the dining staple here. But a couple of new restaurants are making this valley a dining destination in and of itself.

Here’s a guide to the best eating places along the winding San Gerardo road, which   starts at the 80-kilometer mark of the Inter-American Highway and drops almost 3,000 feet over nine kilometers into the Savegre River Valley. Menu prices include taxes.

Soda San Gerardo/El Jilguero – Named after the valley’s most common bird, the orange-billed sooty robin, this is a charmingly rustic soda right at the highway exit. It’s a bright, crafted-wood cottage with a pretty garden, a small shop of homespun artesania and a calico cat guarding the entrance. Stop here for an early, hearty breakfast – gallo pinto with eggs ({2,100/$4) or a simple egg cooked any way you like it ({300/$0.60) – and a cup of aguadulce, a traditional, warming drink made with brown sugar. The big surprise here is an excellent trout casado (only {3,000/$6), featuring a perfectly cooked, moist, whole trout stuffed with fresh garlic.

After one bite, my dining companion, somewhat of a trout aficionado, pronounced: “You’re not going to get better trout than this.” You can have it with french fries, unfortunately the frozen, undercooked variety, so stick to the rice and beans instead. If you arrive at the 80-km mark early and hungry, this is the only place along the road that is open at 6 a.m. There’s also a bar here to cool the thirst of hikers, and a pool table. Open 6 a.m.-7 p.m. daily. Cash only.

Las Cataratas – Just three kilometers off the Inter-American Highway, this is the classic, family-run trout operation. A very steep road winds down to a pretty pond, edged with flowering shrubs and abuzz with hummingbirds. Enormous trout dinners are served family-style by all the members of the Bernardo Serrano family, in a simple but cheerful wood cabin. Along with the just-caught trout, cooked whole or fileted, the feast includes salad, vegetable dishes, rice, beans, a pitcher of fruit juice and dessert, all for {6,000 ($12) per person.

What makes this place special, apart from the excellent value and friendly service, is the gorgeous hiking trail that leads from the restaurant to a hidden waterfall. It’s a fairly easy trail and it only takes about 20 minutes to get to the picturesque catarata, so you can work up an appetite before eating, or walk off your dinner. Bring binoculars – there are aguacatillo trees here, the quetzal’s favorites. When you don’t have the time or the courage to brave the rest of the steep road down into the valley, this is a convenient stop for food and a refreshing hike. Open weekends all day and on weekdays, if you call ahead: 2740-1064/1065.

San Gerardo de Dota Valley 3

Comidas Típicas’ Doña Miriam.

Dorothy MacKinnon

Comidas Típicas Miriam – Just another kilometer or so down the road lies this very unassuming, slightly ramshackle soda with a special attraction, heralded by the wooden sign depicting a huge quetzal. A scattering of wooden tables and an old woodstove inside may look a little shabby.

But sit down at one of those tables, face the back porch and get ready for the show. While you’re enjoying a typical breakfast of gallo pinto, eggs, fruit, pancakes, bread, juice and coffee ({2,500/$5); or a trout filet, beef or chicken casado lunch, complete with the usual trimmings plus mora (blackberry) juice, coffee and dessert ({4,000/$8), you will be entertained by a steady stream of exquisite highland birds pecking at a feeder baited with fruit. The prize sighting here is a quetzal, of course, but red, black and cream-colored acorn woodpeckers and flame-colored tanagers are just as beautiful.

Often, there’s a phalanx of photographers with tripods set up on the porch, paying for the privilege of scanning Doña Miriam’s garden. Why are there so many birds here? Partly because of the aquacatillo trees and fruit orchards that Miriam and her husband have planted over the years. But also because, as Doña Miriam says, “We look after the mountain and protect the birds.” You can also stop in just for a cafecito or a hot chocolate and homemade pan casera and enjoy the bird show. Open daily, 7 a.m.-7:30 pm; 2740-1049. Cash only.

Dantica Cloud Forest Lodge – An outpost of style and sophistication since its advent on the San Gerardo scene six years ago, this artisan gallery and upscale lodge sits four kilometeres from the Inter-American. It features an excellent chef, who serves up innovative lunches and dinners in a stunningly modern, glass-box restaurant with panoramic valley views. There’s a casual lunch menu of soups, crepes and tasty sandwiches made with fresh-baked ciabatta bread. But the gastronomic draw here is a new menu of truly haute cuisine at 8,000 feet, served without pretension at both lunch and dinner.

You could start with buttery cream of carrot soup ($4.50), with a center island of fried carrot slivers. Homemade tagliatelle comes in seven variations, including pesto, bacon-y carbonara, or salmon in a white wine sauce ($8.50-$12). I chose a white sauce with porcini mushrooms ($11), which turned out to be earthy and flavorful, and the portion was large enough to share as an appetizer.

You can have trout here, too, fileted and elegantly served with fine herbs, all grown in the lodge’s organic herb garden ($8.50); with olives and capers ($10.50); or in a white wine and palmito sauce ($9.50). Since I had already eaten trout for breakfast and lunch, I opted for the beef tenderloin served with coffee sauce ($18.50). The meat was indeed tender, grilled to medium-rare perfection, and the sauce was dark and spicy, with hints of chocolate.

Next time I will have difficulty choosing between the grilled pork filet in honey-mustard and thyme sauce ($10.50) and the chicken breast Normandy, in a brandy-and-apple sauce ($12.50). Main courses include interesting vegetables attractively presented and a choice of rice, mashed potatoes or a potato gratin. The tenderloin came with a tasty tower of fried plantain wrapped in crisp bacon. For dessert, the coffee flan ($3.50) and fried ice cream with caramelized sugar and chocolate sauce ($5.90) were tempting. But I was delighted with a passion fruit panna cotta, garnished with strawberries and sprigs of fresh mint ($4.50).

The food here is not cheap, but it is of excellent value. At dinner, flickering firelight and twinkling fairy lights replace the daytime mountain views, making dining here quite romantic. There are only four tables in the main dining room and four sittings, which lodge guests have first dibs on. So if you are coming for dinner, call ahead. Open daily for lunch, noon-5 p.m.; restaurant customers can hike the lodge’s steep trails down to the river. Dinner is by reservation only, from 5:30-9 p.m. 2740-1067;

Los Lagos – Another three kilometers down into the valley, this popular restaurant is trout central, with six ponds surrounded by lush gardens and a splashing fountain. You can fish for your own trout and pay {3,500 ($7) a kilo for your catch. Take it home, or have it prepared here for an extra {2,000 ($4) per person. The high-ceilinged, bright restaurant has a picture window looking out onto mountains and a busy bird feeder. Your feast begins with a huge mixed salad, studded with sweet, crunchy batons of locally grown apples, and topped with creamy salad dressing.

Whole trout is seasoned, lightly breaded and then deep-fried. On the plate, it looks like it exploded, commented Steve Toth from Troy, Michigan, tasting his first trout in Costa Rica. “But inside it’s soft and tender and the skin is crunchy enough that you can munch the smaller bones along with the skin.” 

Both the whole trout and the tasty trout filet, seasoned and sautéed just until tender ({4,500/$9), are accompanied by a mound of irresistible, real french fries, made with locally grown potatoes. Friendly Doña Paulina or one of the pleasant young servers will offer you a complementary bowl of the local dessert specialty, papaya chilena – sweet glacé papaya – served with a scoop of ice cream.To wash it all down, there’s cold Imperial, or fresh mora juice, made with mountain blackberries. On your way out, you can add your business card to the hundreds of tarjetas that happy customers have already tacked to the wall. Open 7 a.m.-8 p.m. daily; 2740-1009.

San Gerardo de Dota Valley 2

Kahawa view.

Dorothy MacKinnon

Kahawa – This newest restaurant in the valley has an idyllic highland setting, perched on the rock-strewn bank of the rushing Savegre River. Horses come down to the river’s edge to rehydrate and fly-fishers cast their lines. You can drink it all in, sitting ringside at a tall table in this spacious, blonde-wood-and-stone rancho built around four trees with a row of eye-level fish tanks holding, you guessed it, fingerling trout, starting their long journey from tank to pond to plate. The menu is, again, focused on trout, but with some innovative, sophisticated twists. 

For a light snack, try the Kahawa signature sandwich: smoked trout with cream cheese and capers, tomato and lettuce on a European-style bun. Or try the Samaki version: a fresh trout filet with cheese, mustard and tartar sauce (both $9). Cole slaw or french fries – ask for the fresh-cut, crisp ones – accompany the sandwiches. There’s also a large Caesar salad ($8) with tomato, parmesan cheese, hard-boiled egg, croutons and trout chunks mixed with salad greens and fresh herbs, grown in a large hydroponic greenhouse right next door.

If you’re really hungry after an energetic hike, refuel with one of the fusilli pasta dishes: smoked trout, fresh tomato, walnuts and capers; or a spicier, fresh tomato sauce loaded with trout chunks (both $10). The most elegant dish on the menu is the trout with coconut sauce, a large filet atop a light and buttery coconut sauce, served with rice and a sesame oil-flavored stir-fry of green beans and cauliflower ($10). This was a hit with my companion who was very impressed with the vegetables as well as the trout.

I opted for the most popular item on the menu: a basket of trout chicharrón – breaded and fried, succulent trout chunks – with heavenly fries and three little dipping cups of mayonnaise, ketchup and tartar sauce ($8).

There’s no beer here, but there is refreshing mora juice and coffee made the old-fashioned way, cup by cup in a chorreador. My inquiry about something sweet for dessert netted me a piece of corn tamal, fresh from the oven.  

Kahawa, which means coffee in Swahili, is an outpost of nearby Trogon Lodge, owned by the Mawamba Group. Their hospitality expertise makes this a very pleasant addition to dining in the Dota. Open daily 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; 2740-1081. Cash only. 

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