For months, we had heard rumors of the only authentic Mexican restaurant in San José. Now the gaudy pinwheels and piñatas of Totopos beckoned us indoors. Mariachi figurines and vivacious peppers garnished the dining room. Even the second letter “o” in the word “Totopos” sported a sombrero and a black, burly mustache – as does the restaurant’s owner. (He forgoes the sombrero, however; a choice that would’ve seemed a tad too kitschy.)
But it’s easy to imitate Mexico’s lively atmosphere, knick-knacks of gold, green and red are a dime a dozen. The food also has to be the real deal.
Despite Mexico’s proximity to Costa Rica, Mexican food remains scarce. As I complained about in my previous review, even fake Mexican food, Tex-Mex, barely exists here. Here the bland and flavorless reigns. Rice and beans and salsa Lizano, por favor, or you best head to another country, amigo (or at least to a non-Latin restaurant).
However, Totopos’ husband-and-wife proprietors hoped to bring original Mexican cuisine to Costa Rica, all the while accounting for the country’s delicate tastes. The pair emigrated from Mexico to Pérez Zeledón in 1995. They relocated and reopened their eatery some two years ago in Guadalupe, in north San José.
The menu contains all the best Mexican comfort foods. Tacos can be ordered with cochinita pibil, a marinated pulled pork dish. The enchanting chile relleno is a spectacularly crafted sweet chili stuffed with tender meat. As are the chilaquiles, which are tasty corn tortillas lightly fried in chile and accompanied with chicken, cheese and a green salsa. In addition to the cochinita pibil, Totopos offers several other species of tacos including the crispy flautas and fish tacos. Quesadillas, chimichangas, burritos, huevos rancheros, enchiladas and sopa azteca are available as appetizers. Many of the dishes have salsa verde or poblano mole (a spicy sauce touched with chocolate and made famous in the Mexican state of Oaxaca) drizzled on to them. Que rico, güey.
Meals often come served with beans, rice, pico de gallo and totopos, the restaurant’s namesake and a type of tortilla chips. The hot salsas that come with every meal also attempt to please Ticos’ tamer tastes. The sauces are not fire-for-a-dry-mouth spicy, but even the medium options will leave sweat on your brow. (This Gringo reporter chose not to sample the “hottest” options because he prefers the meeker tastes, as he is a meek person in general and especially when it comes to hot sauce).
The tacos could use a few more garnishes. The fish tacos tasted superb but essentially were chunks of pescado mixed with lettuce and a little bit of seasoning. But overall, this was it – genuine Mexican food, and like any traditional meal from Mexico we were left satisfied, stuffed and awaiting dessert.
The buñuelo, a pancake-sized serving of crispy fried dough, was the postre del día on this particular afternoon, and it’s a treat for which room must be saved. Topped with powdered sugar and saccharine syrup, the buñuelo acts as the ideal chaser for main course’s piquancy, and is a rich meal in its own right.
The Mexican food at Totopos makes us wish these meals were readily available throughout the capital. Pues, at least there’s one place we can trust. Just remember, when in for a meal, there’s no shame in reaching for that mild sauce.