Puerto Jiménez Offers Quality Dining at the Edge of Corcovado’s Wilderness
The last stop before you drop off the grid, the Southern Zone’s Puerto Jiménez is the gateway to the OsaPeninsula’s eco-lodges and deserted beaches, and the staging stop for hikers heading into CorcovadoNational Park.
Hot and dusty, with iguanas basking on the broken sidewalks and scarlet macaws perched in almond trees, this rough-andready frontier town is not the first place you’d expect to find decent, let alone excellent, food. Surprise! You can eat remarkably well here.
The newest kids on the Puerto Jiménez culinary block offer an almost cosmopolitan range of good eats, from down-home barbecue pork ribs to real Italian pizza and fresh local seafood, as well as tasty treats from homemade ice cream to brownies, bagels and espresso.
Barbs-B-Q Is Smokin’
Puerto Jiménez’s most accomplished chef, Barbara Burckhardt, is back – this time in front of a barbecue grill instead of a sixburner stove.
After taking Southern Zone cuisine to new heights, Burckhardt had to close down her critically acclaimed Jade Luna Restaurant last year. There just weren’t enough fine-dining customers in this market, which consists largely of backpackers heading to Corcovado, fishermen cooking their own catch and upscale vacationers staying at allinclusive lodges.
At her new, eponymous Barbs-B-Q in downtown Puerto Jiménez, Burckhardt is keeping it down-home and simple this time around. It’s a bare-bones open kitchen, with five inside tables and one table on the front porch beside the stainless steel barbecue.
The decor is simple, too: mounted photos of Burckhardt’s travels to faraway places. The menu is short and sweet: barbecued chicken, pork ribs, grilled fish and shrimp, all served with cornbread and a choice of two sides from a list of six.
Burckhardt puts the same amount of care into everything she cooks here as she did at Jade Luna. Nothing is ordinary. The moist cornbread is baked daily in her home oven. The sweet and peppery baked beans are made from scratch, soaked overnight and then slow-cooked in a sauce made with Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, tomato paste, onion and garlic and sweetened with molasses and tapa dulce. The chunky potato salad is flecked and flavored with fresh dill. Louisiana-style dirty rice is made with local calamari instead of chicken livers.
The most popular side, Burckhardt says, is the classic garden salad – not so easily come by down in the Osa, where perishable salad greens often wilt on the long journey south. Her salad ($4 on its own) has crispy greens, crunchy radishes and cucumbers, carrots, avocado, tomatoes and hearts of palm, all dressed in the creamiest of honey Dijons (or try the blue cheese, Italian, ranch or Russian dressings).
Burckhardt knows her way around fish and shrimp, and the grilled fresh catch is always excellent ($9 to $11). The stars of the barbecue show are the pork ribs, so tender they fall off the bone. A side bowl of spicy, homemade barbecue sauce adds to the succulence.
The seven-ounce serving costs $7, including sides, but these ribs are so good, everyone at your table will want a taste, so it’s wise to order the 14-ounce portion at $11. The restaurant has no liquor license, but the naturales are thick and smooth ($1.50).
For dessert, you have your choice of Burckhardt’s homemade ice creams, her first claim to fame in Puerto Jiménez. Choose from umpteen flavors, including coconut, coffee, chocolate, rum raisin, Oreo, Oreo mint and dulce de leche ($3 per eight-ounce cup).
Open Monday to Saturday, noon to 9 p.m., Barbs-B-Q is 25 meters west ofMain Street
and Super 96. (No phone.)
Last Call for Drinks Spells
First Choice for Fish
The newest full-service restaurant in town is Sarpes, Tico slang for “last call,” as in “the bar is closing.” The name is a holdover from the three years owners Evelyn Leal and Kyle Badgley ran the popular Iguana Iguana bar on the west side of Puerto Jiménez. Other reminders of their bar days at their new restaurant include a chummy fishermen’s bar festooned with photos of guys with their catches, and a list of complex tropical cocktails – the Carate mixes raspberry and vanilla vodkas with pineapples and passion fruit juice.
The main attraction here, though, is the food. In the 12 years Badgley has been working in bars and restaurants around Costa Rica since leaving his native Seattle, he has been hankering to get into the kitchen. Now, with wife Leal managing the front of the restaurant with a smile and a lot of personality, he has his wish.
The new location in the center of town has casual tables around the bar area and a quieter, pleasant garden with six round concrete tables, each painted with vivid tropical flora and fauna. The open kitchen’s long serving counter is decorated with a mural of huge octopuses and other denizens of the deep. Lots of bamboo and plants complete the tropical look, while soft Latin beats and candlelight create a casual but mellow mood in the garden.
Dinners start with a colorful salad of lettuce, tomato, red onions, cucumber, carrot wheels and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. You dress your own with tabletop olive oil and balsamic vinegar. After studying the interesting menu, ranging from grilled tuna with roasted pineapple (¢4,500/$8.20) to tenderloin with shrimp (¢10,000/$18), I opted for the tasty teriyaki chicken (¢4,500), plump and salty with soy, accompanied by a mound of nutty coconut rice and a buttery mélange of julienned vegetables.
My companion won the menu sweepstakes, though, with his grilled mahimahi and papaya and mango chutney (¢4,500). The plate held a giant portion of perfectly cooked, moist fish, buried under a not-toosweet tropical fruit chutney and accompanied by julienned vegetables and bluecheese and garlic mashed potatoes, a meal in themselves.
We washed it down with a generous glass of house Chilean wine for a reasonable ¢1,200 ($2.20). Ever the dessert lover, I saved the best part of my meal for last: a chewy, chocolatey brownie boat, made with local cacao, topped with billowy vanilla ice-cream sails and sprinkled with toasted coconut (¢1,500/$2.70).
The food here is not haute cuisine, but the cooking is good, the raw ingredients fresh and first-rate. You can’t go wrong with the fish. Pasta dishes also feature seafood: angel hair with clams in red wine sauce or fettuccini with chicken and prawns (both ¢4,500). Add in the casual and lively atmosphere, and Sarpes is a welcome addition to the Puerto Jiménez food scene.
The kitchen is also open occasionally for lunch, depending on tourist demand. If you’re looking for something light and affordable, some lunch menu items are also available in the evenings, including various versions of rice with seafood, burgers with chicken, beef or fish and a tuna melt or fish tacos with salad and chips (all ¢2,500 to ¢3,000/$4.50 to $5.40).
Sarpes, next door to Bosque del Mar Hotel, is open 4 to 11 p.m. and sometimes for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; closed Tuesdays. For information, call 2735-5373.
Only one caveat: Menu prices do not include tax or service.
A Touch of Trieste
A slice of northern Italy arrived in town with the Colovatti family. Fabio and Nadia brought family recipes and cooking skills from their native Trieste and opened up this natty blue-and-white patio pizzeria across from the soccer field and right beside the post office – thus the site-specific name, Pizza Mail.it. You can’t miss this terrace restaurant as you enter town. Look for white arches accented with blue tiles and tablecloths, reminiscent of the owners’ hometown on the Adriatic Sea.
The pizza here is definitely a cut above pizza típica. Fabio, a force field of Italian energy and enthusiasm, starts with homemade tomato sauce, made fresh every day.
The hand-punched yeasty dough goes into a perfectly regulated electric oven, with even heat.
“It’s the next best to a wood oven,” says Fabio, who disparages gas-fired ovens, often used in pizza places here, which he considers vastly inferior. The pizza – barely in the oven before Fabio whisks it out – emerges with a crisp but still chewy crust, toasty around the edges.
Good-quality toppings are essential, and Fabio layers on generous chunks of the usual popular toppings, plus authentically Italian artichokes, eggplant, black olives, capers and anchovies. Then he layers slices of mozzarella on top and drizzles the pie with olive oil to blend the flavors.
You can order a four-slice personal size (¢3,500 to ¢4,500/$6.40 to $8.20) or an eight-slice family size (¢7,000 to ¢9,000/$13 to $16). My choice was the Pizza Golfo Dulce, a classic with tomato sauce, mozzarella, olive oil, black olives, capers and oregano. Pizza Tica is an eclectic, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink pie, with tomato sauce, mozzarella, ground beef, pepperoni, onion, red peppers, mushrooms and olive oil. The Pizza Marinara has anchovies, tuna, garlic, capers and black olives. More delicate taste buds might prefer the creamy Delicada, with tomato, mozzarella, cream cheese, ham, Parmesan, oregano and olive oil. Kids who can’t decide between fast food and pizza will love the nontraditional Pizza Patatas, topped with French fries. You can customize your pizza for ¢500 ($0.90) per extra ingredient.
The menu also offers calzones and homemade pastas, but so far most customers are keeping the pizza oven busy. Pleasant young servers provide efficient, friendly service with a smile. Fruit drinks made with milk or water and soft drinks wash it all down.
There’s also excellent espresso coffee and, if you’re lucky, Nadia’s mother will have baked apple strudel, Trieste-style, a combination of Italian and Hapsburg Empire flavors.
As well as excellent pizza and ambience, Pizza Mail.it can also lay claim to the cleanest, prettiest washrooms in town.
Open 4 to 10 p.m. daily, Pizza Mail.it is across from the soccer field at the entrance to town, next to the post office. For information and take-out orders, call 2735-5483.
Also New in Town…
Café la Onda is the newest – and coolest – place to meet and greet. It’s not just the air-conditioning, easy chairs and book exchange that attract visitors and locals, it’s also the espresso machine, milkshakes and sandwiches on homemade bread, stuffed with such sophisticated ingredients as hummus, pesto and mozzarella, turkey and Gouda (¢2,300 to ¢2600/$4.20 to $4.70).
This is also the only place in town where you can get bagels (Bagelmen’s best), including the café’s signature Bagelwich, with ham, bacon, tomato and jalapeño peppers (¢2,000/$3.60). Breakfast options include granola and fruit (¢2,000) and mouthwatering waffles (¢1,800 to ¢2,200/$3.30 to $4).
Owner Michael Noriega says he’ll pack customized box lunches for hikers heading into the culinary deserts of Corcovado. Open weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturdays until 2 p.m. and closed Sundays, Café la Onda is 100 meters north and 100 west of Banco Nacional. (No phone.)
Bar y Restaurant Delfín Blanco is the new incarnation of the tried-and-true Restaurante Agua Luna, which served decent Chinese food here for years in a location between the town dock and the mangroves.
The new center-of-town digs are airy and elegant, big enough to accommodate large groups. Along with the classic Chinese dishes, the restaurant also serves pastas, ceviches and casados. Open 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, Delfín Blanco is across from Hotel Oro Verde, 25 meters east ofMain Street
. For information, call 2735-5998.
Where to Stay
When in Puerto Jiménez, the breeziest place to stay is right on the water: affordable, comfortable Cabinas Jiménez, at the west entrance to town. Owner John Podson has done a stellar job converting what used to be a dingy motel into a charming, resort-like boutique hotel overlooking the Golfo Dulce, with gorgeous gardens visited by scarlet macaws, a shaded hammock hut and a huge barbecue area. You can literally step off the hotel grounds onto the Puerto Jiménez beach, and, at high tide, the waves lap against the garden wall.
Rooms vary from a spacious bungalow with its own garden to small but comfortable doubles that have everything you need, including air-conditioning, screened windows, closets, coffeemakers, mini fridges and bright bathrooms with hot-water showers and wall-to-wall fantastical undersea murals.
There’s also free wireless Internet in the open-air lobby. Manager Chris Langos is a font of local information and can arrange any tour, including fishing or cruising on the hotel’s own boat.
Rates are $35 to $65 single occupancy, plus $15 for each extra person, with a maximum of four. For information, call 2735-5090 or visit www.cabinasjimenez.com.
Both Nature Air (2299-6000, www.natureair.com, $108 one way) and Sansa (2290-4100, www.flysansa.com, $95 one way) offer daily flights between San José and Puerto Jiménez. The flight takes about an hour.
By car, turn south off theInter-American Highway
at Chacarita, drive 40 km southwest to Rincón, then south about 35 km to Puerto Jiménez. Four-wheel drive is recommended. The trip takes about eight hours.
By bus, Transportes Blanco (2257-4121, 700 m north of Parque La Merced) leaves San José for Puerto Jiménez at 8 a.m. and noon daily. The trip takes about eight hours and costs ¢6,145 ($11).
You can also arrive by boat from Golfito. Lanchas leave the public dock daily, or you can hire a private boat to ferry you across the Golfo Dulce.
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