Just finished a week in San Jose on business – and despite its reputation for blah food, there are some gems to be found in and around the city. Here are three of my recommendations.
I had plenty of meals where I did not get to choose the restaurant – and my ‘no meat, only vegetables and seafood’ seemed to baffle my hosts a bit. This led to some meals where the city’s blah food reputation was more than lived up to: Fridays, for example, which I was repeatedly told was not part of the US-based chain, but a Costa Rican copycat. Well, they got the indifferent food part right :)
But I did discover some decent/great places. First up, was Papa Pez, a seafood place located in the El Pueblo complex that sits on a hill in Barrio Tournón, right above Barrio Amon. This complex is hopping at night as it has all kinds of bars. For lunch, Papa Pez had some great dishes and reasonable prices from a US perspective. My host and I both chose to have corvina, the omnipresent local sea bass. He chose to have it in a garlic heavy preparation – my taste of his included flaky and moist fish with a major undertone of garlic. Simple flavors and fish perfectly cooked. I chose a corvina dish with a lemon-based sauce and some grilled shrimp atop. The lemon flavor was strong – I guess this dish would be too much for someone who didn’t like intense lemon flavors, but it had a hint of orange to it as well that cut the sourness. Maybe the kitchen used the limon mandarina (which seem to be a lemon/orange cross) that one sees all over town??? Whatever, this was a wonderful meal with a relaxed atmosphere. For dinner during good weather, I’d think this place might get a bit raucous and loud, so maybe lunch is the better bet.
Next up, was Restaurante Bakea, in Barrio Amon. It sits on the corner of Calle 7 and Avenida 11. One word of warning: this place has prices that can rival meals in the US, although I’d expect to pay 50% more for a meal of similar quality. Still, I did spend about $35 each time I went there and I had no alcohol. I went twice for dinner, as it was near my hotel and was quite lovely. It tries to blend numerous influences, including French and Italian, with local ‘comida tipica.’
The first night – a Wednesday – Bakea had live music, a violinist who accompanied some pre-recorded tracks and also just solo violin. Pleasant, if not memorable. He was not in evidence on the second night. On to the food. On night #1, I started out with an appetizer of Panini alle Pere, which turned out to be a full sandwich that could have acted as a light lunch! It contained a spread of goat ricotta, grilled pears and caramelized onions. It was delicious, but far too big as an appetizer for one person. I wish the wait staff had been more communicative, but I guess my stumbling and limited Spanish would have gotten in the way. The entrée that night was even more interesting/challenging: it was a ‘medallon de atun,’ or a tuna medallion, served over a soy and vanilla sauce. OK, this dish was extremely surprising looking when it came out. I wish I had brought my camera because this was the most meat-like presentation of fish I have ever seen. The plate looked like it contained a thick cut of steak atop some steak sauce. Instead, it was a seared thick hunk of very fresh tuna with a sauce that had very clear and striking flavors of vanilla. That vanilla threw me at first – it took some getting used to, but by the end, I was trying to sop up the sauce with the somewhat anemic bread they served. So, clearly it grew on me, and in fact it was probably the oddity/inventiveness of that sauce that caused me to return for another meal. For dessert, I had the house specialty called Cahuita y Caramelo. This was a molten chocolate tart that includes a layer of caramelized banana mush, served with a caramel ice cream and some macadamia nut brittle. If that sounds good to you, you will love this dish. More than one person should eat though.
The second night at Bakea, I decided to try at least something on the menu that could be found in comida tipica, so I started off with sopa negra, the black bean soup easy to find in sodas around the city. Bakea dressed their version up with truffle oil, which while producing a pleasant aroma, seemed like overkill. It was a decent black bean soup and not much more. For my entrée, I ordered the dish named with a bit too much cuteness Thailapia. It is a tilapia filet served over black pasta in a coconut milk curry with mango and some vegetable chunks. This took no getting used to: wonderful from the first bite to the last. I was too full for dessert this time, but Bakea serves an amuse at the start of the meal (both were forgettable) and one at the end. I skipped the sweet amuse the first night, but on the second night, it was a rich bit of a chocolate cake topped with enough cocoa powder to have me coughing. It was a rich and sweet bite to end the meal.
My third recommendation is out in the suburb of Santa Barbara and is called El Banco de los Mariscos. This seafood place is very popular and I hear that weekends during the main meal times, the place has lines out the door. We had a very late lunch (3:20 or so) on a Saturday and the place was still 50% full – and it is a very large restaurant. The atmosphere is friendly and family friendly, but it still has charm by virtue of being surrounded by dense greenery. This was especially nice when the daily deluge started – watching the rain through the palm fronds was pretty. So the food: everyone in my party of three started off with a different type of ceviche. I had the mixtos, which included both fish and shrimp. I could have made a meal out of a few orders of this – again, I was trying to sop all the sauce by the end. Companion number 1 had an oyster ceviche which I didn’t try, but which was proclaimed as a great example of the genre, and that praise comes from a Costa Rican who loves to cook and loves to cook ceviche. Companion number 2, a foreigner who has been in Costa Rica for 8 months, ordered a ceviche of shrimp and avocado. I thought it was brilliant and my companion said it was the best ceviche she has had anywhere in the country so far. High praise. The entrees were also very good, but not as brilliant as the ceviche. I had a dish of corvina in a white sauce topped with avocado and gratineed cheese. It was as rich as I had hoped, but that richness somewhat overpowered the fish. I tried one of my companion’s dishes, which was a whole fried corvina (deboned) and this was perfectly cooked and was excellent with a squeeze of the limon mandarina. That dish was served with french fries, so a bit of an oil-fest. Although this place is out in the suburbs (12km or so from town), it is well known and locals can help direct you.
I also had a meal at another place in the El Pueblo complex called La Cocina de Lena. Since this place is famous for its beef and I had fish, I don’t feel my review would be fair. But suffice it to say, this isn’t the best place to go for fish. If that is your desire, walk to the other side of the complex and hit Papa Pez.
Finally, while I didn't eat at this place myself, I heard praise from several people about the pan-asian place called Tin Jo.
In the El Pueblo complex, amongst a lot of bars and shops
Open, I believe, until midnight every day of the week
Calle 7, Avenida 11
El Banco de los Mariscos
Del parque, 500 metros oeste
(Santa Bárbara de Heredia)