Special Edition: Forking Costa Rica

May 18, 2012

I (somewhat) recently spent a week in Costa Rica where I sampled food in three cities — Tamarindo, La Fortuna, and the country’s capital city, San Jose.  I found a few gems along the way but was generally unimpressed by the fare.  The country, however, is amazing in other ways.  This having been my first trip, I couldn’t help but marvel at its geography and the number of outdoor activities that it lends itself too.  There are volcanoes, rain forests, natural hot springs, beaches, and great surf.  It’s definitely a place that I’d love to return to some day. For now, read about my food adventure and how I narrowly escaped the country with my soul intact.

The Search For The Best Fish Tacos (Tamarindo)

Where else should I conduct this search but Tamarindo, one of Costa Rica’s most popular surf and beach towns.

While Nogui’s pan-fried version was solid, I preferred Gil’s fried fish variation, which ranks in my top three best fish tacos I’ve had.  The others were from eateries in Southern California and Cabo San Lucas Mexico. Read more about these two restaurants below.

Gil’s Mexican Restaurant — Off the beaten path, and a little bit of a hike up from the main Tamarindo strip, Gil’s Mexican Restaurant occupies a small space in a small shopping strip that doesn’t see a lot of foot traffic. I decided to make the trek one sweltering afternoon for lunch.  I arrived a sweaty mess only to be greeted by the very friendly owner — yes, you guessed it — Gil.  He suggested I sit at a table next to the massive fan blowing cool air.  I didn’t object.  The place was empty but I was there on the early side of lunch.  I decided to order only one fish taco in case I didn’t like it.  Plus, I felt a little odd at being the only customer so I thought I’d make it a quick affair.

As I start to hear the sizzle of my fish being fried, Gil plopped down on the seat across from me and we started chatting.  Gil was born and raised in the Bronx, is of Puerto Rican descent, and owns and operates a Mexican restaurant in Costa Rica.  (Say what?) He’s spent the last fifteen years cooking in Costa Rica and the fifteen years before that cooking in California.  Intrigued by this mix of experiences and choices, I asked why he decided to relocate to Costa Rica instead of, oh say, Puerto Rico.  Gil’s response: Too many Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico.

I can’t argue with that.

Battered and fried to crispy perfection, well-seasoned Mahi Mahi is topped with shredded cabbage, and served with a house-made salsa that packs enough heat that I felt it only as the bite moved down my throat.  I think what I like best about fried fish tacos are the varying textures: crispy fish, chewy tortilla, crunchy cabbage and that refreshing heat from the salsa.  After I finished eating my taco, Gil asked if I wanted another. I debated and then acquiesced.  By the time I left, more people started filing into the restaurant.  A good sign because I’d hate to see Gil go out of business!

Nogui — Nogui’s fish tacos are marinated and then pan-fried.  They also come with shredded cabbage and salsa — albeit a chunky version and not the traditional Mexican salsa Gil served.  The tacos were also served with traditional Costa Rican “casado,” which is simply rice and black beans.  The fish was plentiful but could have used more salt as it sort of blended in with the tortilla.  The salsa was ok but not very interesting.

Nogui has other things to offer though.  It’s an open-air restaurant located at the very south end of Tamarindo.  It sits right on the beach with great views of the surf.  The service was decent but nowhere near the personal attention I received from Gil.  I did, however, get some very personal attention from a creepy, stray cat that eyed me intently as I ate my fish tacos.  After I was done and had failed to share any fish with her, she sauntered off, but not before turning back and giving me one last glare.  I’m pretty sure she was trying to steal my soul as punishment for not feeding her.  Lucky for me, her plot failed and I left Costa Rica with my soul intact (I think).

The Copacabana (Tamarindo)

The Copacabana is a nice place to grab a drink, when you need one (is there ever a time you don’t?), as well as some shade.  Another open air restaurant perched on the beach, the restaurant’s best feature is its front section containing large, colorful, and oversized chairs, which are shielded from the heat by large palm trees.  Only beverage service is available in those chairs, but no one rushes you off.  Enjoy the breeze, the view and an Imperial (Costa Rican beer).

El Grano de Oro Restaurant (San Jose)

While I spent a limited amount of time in San Jose, I had the best meal of the trip at El Grano de Oro.  The restaurant is located within a hotel of the same name.  Its cuisine is Costa Rican-European fusion.  The look and ambience are similar to an American steakhouse — lots of dark wood and plush chairs upholstered in embroidered fabrics. I sat at the bar which had a casual feel despite the general decor.  The restaurant has a pretty decent wine list with many options available by the glass.  I started with the ceviche, with chunks of fish and avocado, which was good, but I wish they’d added a bit more fish to balance out the creamy richness of the avocado.  For my entrée, I ordered the corvina cardamom — or cardamom sea bass.  This choice did not immediately jump out at me since I’m not sure I’ve ever had a dish where cardamom was the highlighted spice.  However, when I learned it was the bartender’s favorite dish, I had to order it.  It was one of the best dishes I’ve had in recent memory.  The sea bass was sautéed and presented on top of a heap of wilted spinach along with a cardamom “essence” whose key ingredients were butter and cardamom.  It was delicious and so rich that I did not have room for dessert (a rarity).

La Fortuna

Sea bass (courtesy Los Tucanes)

La Fortuna is a small town dominated by active volcano, Mount Arenal.  I dined at a few places located on the Tabacon resort.  I was underwhelmed by most of the food especially in light of the prices they charged, although I’ll admit they serve an amazing pina colada.

The worst by far was Cana Brava, the informal bar/restaurant located in the lobby of the Tabacon hotel.  My beef tacos resembled taquitos of the type that you can find in your local grocery store’s freezer section.  And they were re-heated using a microwave.  For a place that is so upscale in many other ways, this was a poor excuse for edible food.

On the same property is Los Tucanes, which claims to be one of the top restaurants in Costa Rica.  It certainly has all the bells and whistles of a fine dining establishment.  It also has great ambience and views — open air, with a view of the pool, rainforest, and, on a clear day, a great view of Mt. Arenal. The cuisine is Costa Rican-European fusion.  I dined there twice – lunch and dinner. For dinner, I started with the lobster ravioli.  It was unbelievably good but it may have had more to do with the mussel-cream sauce it came with.  In fact, the mussel-cream sauce came with several of the dishes offered at Los Tucanes.  I think that’s cheating a little bit because the sauce overpowers all other components of a dish.  Back to the ravioli.  They were tender and contained enough lobster to make them worth the price.  For my entrée, I had the sea bass, which had that crispy, salty crust that comes with properly pan-searing fish.  The only problem was the fish was overcooked. However, the fish entrée I tried the next day for lunch was perfectly cooked and seasoned and came with that delectable mussel-cream sauce!

I tried the “Tandoori” menu at Ave del Paraiso, located in the hot springs area of the resort.  Why you ask? I was curious and intrigued by this bold choice of cuisine in the middle of the rainforest.  Verdict: The chicken and lentils were decent, all things considered, but overall it was a non-event.


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