If you think rice and beans is the same as a casado, you haven’t experienced rondón or your favorite restaurant is in a San José suburb, you obviously haven’t been to the southern Caribbean coast.
Some of the country’s best food waits to be tasted in this southeast corner of the country. Here, life moves to the rhythm of omnipresent reggae beats, people still spend evenings sitting on their porches and turquoise waters aren’t overshadowed by highrise condos.
To experience it all, a trip to the beachtown hubs of Cahuita and Puerto Viejo should be complemented with a bike ride down the road leading south from Puerto Viejo to Manzanillo, with stops at the pristine beaches of Playa Cocles, Playa Chiquita and Punta Uva.
Though chefs from around the world have successfully set up shop in these areas, the region’s trademark is its own Caribbean fare, the heart of which is coconut milk, root vegetables, seafood and spice.
The epitome of this combination is rondón, or “rundown” – as in “whatever the cook can run down” – a stew of seafood or meat and starchy vegetables such as cassava, green plantains and potatoes cooked in coconut milk and infused with spices.
Stout, radiant Edith Brown, the face behind Miss Edith’s restaurant in Cahuita (755-0248), serves up a popular vegetarian rondón.
A bite of yuca (cassava) and coconut broth wakes up the taste buds with the complex mix of sweet and salty, and the warmth of the stew intensifies its flavor. Rondón is a rich meal in itself, especially when it has fish or meat.
Perhaps the best seafood rondón around can be found at Restaurante Maxi’s (759-9033), a two-story wooden affair way down south in Manzanillo. The open-air structure lets in the lull of waves behind reggae music.
Sitting and enjoying a bowl of rondón with a cold Imperial makes for a true Caribbean experience.
Fish in Caribbean sauce with rice and beans cooked in coconut milk is another can’t-miss. Maxi’s does it up right, as does Miss Sam’s in Puerto Viejo (see sidebar).
Miss Edith serves hers whole with dried shrimp on a bed of bobo rice, a yellow grain she cooks with bits of cassava and carrot.
Good Eats in Puerto Viejo
Restaurateurs from around the world have made Puerto Viejo a food lover’s playground. A nice way to start the day is breakfasting at Bread and Chocolate (750-0723). The menu includes creative versions of waffles, oatmeal and egg-and-cheese sandwiches with breakfast potatoes and fruit, along with excellent coffee brought to you in your own French press.
But the chocolate truffles are the real novelty here. Available spiked with orange, ginger, raspberry, coconut or espresso, they make chocolate lovers close their eyes to prolong every bite.
Muffins, bagels and prescription-strength brownies are other sweets owner Tom Franklin and his crew bake daily.
Around the block in Puerto Viejo, Pan Pay (750-0081) is another breakfast pleaser. A heavy Spanish influence comes through in tortilla española, croquetas, manchego cheese and serrano ham. Bocadillos (baguette sandwiches) with veggies, ham or tortilla española make a great breakfast or lunch to throw in a bike basket and enjoy on the beach.
Loco Natural (750-0263), a popular Puerto Viejo dinner spot, is headed up by Stash Golas, who grew up in Guyana and Trinidad. He describes his menu as “world fusion” based on sauces such as Jamaican jerk, Caribbean curry, Thai peanut and smoked chipotle with coconut milk. Veggies, chicken, fish and shrimp can go underneath the sauces, and it’s all so good that choosing the right combination can be tough.
Loco Natural was set to move to a new spot about 200 meters south of Stanford’s Restaurant, as of Nov. 15.
Coffee lovers should check out Caribeans (836-8930), a new organic, free-trade coffee shop where patrons can buy and roast their own shade-grown beans from nearby certified ecofriendly farms. Growing the plants above 1,500 meters gives the coffee more aroma and less acidity than other Costa Rican coffees, according to owner Paul Johnson.
Sweets and Other Treats
Not to be missed on a Caribbean trip are the region’s desserts. Once again, coconut plays a leading role. Ginger also gives a bite to pan bon, a sweet bread sold by vendors around the area.
Chef Minor Medrano does a fancy version of pan bon at Lapalapa Restaurant inside Casa Camarona hotel (750-0151) in Playa Cocles. He also makes a tasty flan de coco, banana cake and patí, the Caribbean’s take on the empanada. This crescent-shaped pastry may be stuffed with spicy ground beef, chicken or sometimes sweet pineapple.
Nearby at La Costa de Papito hotel, Qué Rico Papito Restaurant (750-0704) is another spot for a nice dinner. Chef Walter Bustos is into creative “biodegradable” presentations, such as ceviche inside carved-out red peppers and oranges. He draws on international influences for dishes such as Thai chicken and Peruvian causa, mounds of tasty mashed potatoes he tops with fish or beef.
A sampling of the best food from these restaurants recently drew a crowd of tourism industry insiders to Hotel Suerre in Punta Uva for the third Southern Caribbean Food Festival, hosted by the area tourism chamber.
The goal was to highlight the variety of food and cultures that make the area unique, said chamber vice-president Eddie Ryan, owner of La Costa de Papito.
The chamber plans to make the event a yearly tradition and is considering opening the event to the public, he said.
To get to the southern Caribbean from San José, take theBraulio Carrillo Highway
to Limón and then follow the road south to Sixaola, turning off at Cahuita or Puerto Viejo.
Direct buses leave every day at 6 a.m., 10 a.m., 1.30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. from the Caribbean Bus Terminal at Calle Central, Avenida 11 (257-8129).
Soda Miss Sam’s: A Puerto Viejo Institution
Hazel Miller walks into her restaurant from her adjoining house in a flurry of baby powder and canaryyellow polyester. Even though we’ve never met, she hugs and kisses me as if we were old friends.
“What’s your name again?” she asks, perhaps jogging her memory through the scores of Gringa tourists who’ve come to Soda Miss Sam’s during its 16 years in Puerto Viejo.
We sit down at one of the wooden tables covered with a plastic-coated flowered tablecloth, and she tells me the story of how Miss Sam’s came to be.
Miller, who’s 74 “going on 75,” moved to Puerto Viejo from the Caribbean town of Bluefields, Nicaragua, in 1956. She worked for years as a baker at a local Chinese restaurant and eventually decided to open up her own place.
By that time her first husband Sam had passed away and she was remarried. But tourists and folks around town remembered Sam and asked her to name the place in his honor.
“The tourists make me to name it Miss Sam,” she says in the singsong English of the Caribbean, known locally as patuá.
Today, a few women scramble to keep food cooked, orders taken, plates run and customers happy at Miss Sam’s while Miller still oversees everything.
Big, cast-iron pots full of perhaps the Caribbean’s most popular delicacy, rice and beans, simmer on a gas stove in the simple kitchen. Cooking the beans in coconut milk is the key, she explains. A little sugar, butter, black pepper, onion and garlic round off the flavor.
Rice and beans is served up for lunch and dinner along with Caribbean-style chicken or fish in a sauce made of curry, garlic, pepper and a little vanilla, Miller said, apparently not hesitant to give away her recipes.
With most plates ranging from ¢1,600 to ¢2,000 (about $3 to $4), Miss Sam’s is one of the best deals in town.
“I don’t kill no one with the price,” she explains. “Everyone have to work to make their money to come here.”
Breakfast is mostly the traditional Costa Rican gallo pinto (basically rice and beans without the coconut milk), egg or meat sandwiches, fresh fruit juice and strong coffee.
All this home-style Caribbean flavor is served in an extension of Miller’s simple yet charming house. A small inside dining area enveloped by lime-green wooden walls stays dark and cool. Outside, the porch can get hot when the sun bakes its tin roof. Neighbors walk in and out and a TV is always on. Service is nofrills and can be slow.
It’s all part of the experience – an experience that’s kept locals and tourists coming back to Miss Sam’s for all these years.
Miss Sam’s is two blocks inland from Hot Rocks on the main road. For information, call 750-0108.