San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A taste of the Costa Brava on the Costa Ballena

You don’t need to knock three times and whisper low, but you will need a good sense of direction and a tough set of wheels to find Sabor Español, a culinary hideaway tucked behind Playa Bahía Ballena, south of Uvita.

Open just since the beginning of the year, this rustic restaurant is enveloped by jungle foliage at the edge of a muddy beach road. The décor is simple – a few potted plants, ginger flowers atop five wood tables with comfortable chairs, and a sleepy house dog curled up in a corner. At night, flickering candles cast a romantic glow. But what’s packing the locals in – even on an off-season Sunday night – is the authentic Spanish food.

Owner/chef Heriberto Jutglar is from Barcelona; his wife and restaurant manager Montserrat (Montse for short) Álvarez is from Ibiza – two places where people know a lot about seafood. Monteverde residents may remember the couple’s first restaurant, which ran for five years there.


Montserrat Álvarez serves up paella at Sabor Español. 

Dorothy MacKinnon

It’s no surprise that the star of the new Sabor Español menu is paella for two, either all seafood (₡6,500, or $13, per person); mixed with seafood, chicken, pork and vegetables (₡7,000, $14), or all vegetables (₡6,000, $12).

The secret to the success of these paellas is the genuine saffron-infused Spanish rice, nutty and flavorful with garlic, olive oil and all the juices of clams, shrimp, fish, octopus and crab. There’s also a seafood version made with Catalan-style fideua, thin noodles instead of rice (₡7,000, $14).

You’ll wait half an hour to 40 minutes for your paella to develop those flavors in the traditional cast-iron paella pan. But the time passes pleasantly, especially if you order a jar of cool sangria (1/2 liter ₡3,500/whole liter ₡6,500, $7/$13), full-bodied, with chunks of drunken tropical fruits adding just the right amount of sweetness. There’s also a respectable and affordable wine list heavy on Spanish and Chilean wines (₡10,000 to ₡16,000, $20-$32), plus a pleasant and rare option of a half-bottle, just right for two (₡5,500, $11).

If you have a really hearty appetite, start off with the cold Andalusian Gazpacho (₡3,000, $6), thick and spicy. If you’re with friends who like to share, there are some tempting, tapas-style appetizers: Spanish omelet (₡3,500, $7), spicy “Brave” potatoes slathered in garlicky aioli (₡3,000, $6); and clams in a beer sauce (₡3,000, $6).

If you can’t persuade anyone to share paella with you, other standout seafood choices are the whisky-flambéed shrimps with sweet cream (₡8,700, $17.40) and fish of the day with clams in a white wine sauce (₡6,500, $13).

Back on land, there’s lomito (sirloin) prepared with a reduction of grapes with red wine (₡9,500, $19) or bathed in a white wine sauce with green peppers, cream and mushrooms (₡9,300, $18.60). On the poultry side, the sauces are even more intriguing: mango flambéed with rum or an anise-flavored curry sauce. There’s also a skewer of chicken, banana and bacon served with the red wine and grapes reduction (₡7,800, $15.60).

For light appetites or lunches, try the stuffed avocados with tuna and whisky-flambéed shrimps (₡3,800, $7.60). The same soused shrimps show up in a salad along with cucumber, peppers and avocadoes (₡3,500, $7). As refreshing as it sounds, the typical salad has peppers, avocado, pineapple, papaya, grapes and mango (₡3,500, $7) dressed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and aromatic herbs.

Montse presents the dishes with panache and a dazzling smile, and a dash of personalized solicitude. At lunch, my friend Jill and I asked Montse for her dessert recommendation. We couldn’t decide between crepes with Nutella or crepes with mora (blackberries), so she suggested her favorite – a perfect combination of both (₡2,300, $4.60). Late one night, my partner Peter and I ordered the mixed paella, which prompted Heriberto to come out of the kitchen to advise us that might be a little heavy at nighttime, so we compromised on a customized, lighter version with more chicken and seafood than pork.

Be sure to make a reservation, especially for dinner. It would be a shame to plow through the jungle in the dark and not be rewarded with a table and a taste of Spain.

Going there: On the Costanera, drive about 1 kilometer south from Uvita and turn right at the sign for Playa Ballena; Cabinas Gato are on the corner. Drive toward the beach about 600 meters and turn left at the sign for Sabor Español. You’ll find the restaurant about 1 kilometer along a pot-holed dirt road, beside the Cabinas Esme. Sabor Español is open noon-4 p.m., 6:30-9:30 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday. 2743-8312/8768-9160; Prices include 13 percent tax; tipping optional.

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