The most difficult task for Pachanga diners, once they have sampled one of owner Shlomy Koren’s desserts – say, the luscious, perfectly sweet, whipped white chocolate mousse with ripe red strawberries, or the cheesecake lovingly crafted with homemade cheese – is to show up for another meal and not fill up on other distracting menu items, such as the mixed field-green salad with Parmesan and Gorgonzola cheese, tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette dressing, followed by the eight-ounce cut of filet mignon with choice of sharp red wine or creamy mustard sauce.
The food is just too well prepared and delicious to leave any behind. This quality dilemma is not restricted to repeat clientele; it extends to everyone, including first-timers enjoying the open-air eatery of Indo-Mediterranean design, dotted with white lights across the street from Hotel Pasatiempo in Tamarindo, on the northern Pacific coast.
The uneducated might surmise that the cuisine derives from the global culture of the town, but they’d be wrong. Rather, the flavors are drawn from Koren’s culinary journeys.
A native of Lapid, Israel, Koren started his cooking thing in Haifa.He says he liked mixing ingredients as a kid, first making pizza for his mom’s friends and then branching out from there.
“I spent two years in an Italian place as a pizziolo before I went to France, where I worked at a restaurant while I was in school at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris,” he says, looking like a 30-something kid, complete with surf shorts, T-shirt and skate kicks.
Yet, between sentences, Koren watches in amazement as his Costa Rican Pachanga staff preps dishes such as Mediterranean pasta tossed with eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, basil and Parmesan cheese for the evening’s rush.
Back in Israel, Koren had this same sense of awe as he ricocheted between restaurant cooking and high-end catering.
“It was interesting to feed 100 people expensive foie gras made with good materials,” he says. “It’s all a matter of what materials you start with. I kept going from catering to restaurants, cooking dinners. In catering, I’d say, ‘This is great.’ Then I’d go to a restaurant and say, ‘This is great.’ I couldn’t decide which I liked better.”
A few years ago, something did become clear for the Israeli chef, and that was that he wanted a change for his family, away from the Middle East. The move would include his wife Rily, whom he met when they served in the same Israeli army division, and his two small daughters, Mayan and Rony.
Koren started calling friends he knew in Tamarindo to see if it would be possible to make a living in the beach town as a hired chef. The hard lesson he learned from those conversations was that it wasn’t really going to be feasible to make the kind of life he had planned for his family.
“So, I thought, the only solution would be to make my own restaurant,” he recalls. The first task was to create a menu incorporating all of his influences, but suitable for the tropical climate and the tourist trade. He wanted to get a staff together that would absorb a unique blend of his influences, as he didn’t plan to actually cook himself, but rather set the bill of fare – and the tone – of the place for the public.
Pachanga opened in November 2003, with six appetizers and two appetizer specials, eight entrées and two entrée specials, four desserts and the occasional desert special.
What did Koren train his cooks to deliver?
“Israeli-Italian influences with French techniques, using light ingredients, not that many sauces – and the foods are worked with marinades,” he explains. “The climate in Israel is similar to Tamarindo in the summer, so the food has to be light. I mean, I’d like to make a stew, but it’s so damn hot.
Instead, we prepare a lot of seafood, and only some beef, chicken and lamb, and an occasional duck or rabbit.”
This is perfectly personified in the restaurant’s red snapper entrée. The filet is delicately pan-seared and served over a seasoned, charcoaled, somewhat sweet eggplant, balanced with the tang of a smooth yogurt sauce. Equally delicious is the seared tuna, a fresh Pacific yellowfin cooked to order and marinated in honey chili. It’s a special kitchen artist who can manipulate an explosion of sweet, salty and tart in one platter.
Koren says his fish comes from the Pacific port city of Puntarenas or nearby Playas del Coco or Brasilito.
“The closer, the better, and the fresher!” he says. “Sometimes I’ll get snapper right off the boat in Tamarindo.”
For those who enjoy their meat, Pachanga offers a regular selection of menu items and specials, such as the pork chop marsala with mushroom sauce that is so smoky rich, people keep asking Koren to add it to the specials board.
More than two years after the awning went up on Pachanga, the tables both near the covered area and outside in the foliage are filled with residents and tourists.
One wonders how Koren stays full night after night in Tamarindo, a growing pueblo that sees one new restaurant open after another.
Consistency is the key. After numerous visits over the life of Pachanga, this reviewer can attest that the meals have remained excellent and flavorsome.
Pachanga is open Monday to Saturday, 6-10 p.m. Prices range from $6-7 for appetizers, $11-14 for entrées and $5 for desserts. For information, call 368-6983.