My favorite restaurant in the entire world is a tiny soda in Heredia, north of San José. The lunch counter’s inconspicuous location beside a busy road perhaps belies the delicious food its cooks serve up. Although there is no sign or written menu, and the facilities are little more than a counter lined with a dozen stools, Soda Gimbel is one of the city’s most popular eateries.
Red taxis, always a good sign of a proper pedestrian restaurant, crowd for space out front. Passersby stop in so often that sometimes you have to wait to get a seat. The food is that good – especially the casados.
The casado is Costa Rica’s signature dish, and includes rice, beans, salad, ripe plantains and meat, chicken or fish. Soda Gimbel takes this dish to a new level.
Having eaten Costa Rican food all over the country for years, I consider myself a bit of a casado connoisseur, and Gimbel’s are simply the best I’ve had anywhere. Each meal consists of dazzlingly seasoned beans that sit next to perfectly cooked rice. A small salad adorns a corner, and home-fried potato chips and a fried plantain sit alongside.
But the part that gets me, every time, is the meat. I personally enjoy the beef fajitas, grilled on the spot with onions, tomatoes and bell peppers. The cooks, taking their cue from founder Gilberto Monge’s exquisitely simple recipes, season everything to perfection.
Chicken fajitas, pollo en salsa (chicken in sauce), fish fillets (a toss-up with the beef, if you ask me) and pork chops make up the daily staples.
I’ve taken dozens of visitors to Soda Gimbel, and invariably the end-of-the-meal reaction is the same: With a satisfied grin, they say, “This is the best food I’ve had in Costa Rica.”
Soda Gimbel also offers daily specials. You might arrive to find ribs slow-cooked all morning in a white wine sauce. Or perhaps a special seafood soup, spaghetti with lengua en salsa (beef tongue in sauce), homemade chicken soup, or one of many other delicious dishes. These meals, like the casados, are perhaps the best bargain around. Everything is fresh, cooked on the spot, with natural ingredients. For ¢1,400 ($2.70), you get the main dish with a fresh fruit drink. Try the papaya with passion fruit, or the blackberry with guanábana. I think it’s the best deal around.
And then there’s the hot sauce. Habanero and Panamanian peppers fresh from Monge’s garden rest on bottles on the counter, offering varying degrees of spice for your food.
They range from tasty, mild additions to your meal to the kind that will make you sweat just by smelling them. You should probably ask before trying, which Monge himself suggested to me once, after I doused my beans in an inferno-level sauce, provoking me to order a steady stream of cas juice.
Monge, the fixture at Soda Gimbel, died this past July 19. He was 56. His presence around the kitchen, and in conversation with his faithful customers, will be sorely missed. But Soda Gimbel lives on, and Monge’s children will keep the place open and continue to offer their father’s recipes to those of us lucky enough to have stumbled onto this treasure.
Location: Downtown Heredia, 425 meters north of the Central Park’s church, in front of the Vocational High School.
Hours: Weekdays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; weekends, noon to 10 p.m.