It’s not often that roadside restaurants with kitschy statues turn out good food as well as good fun. But Tres Hermanas Bar-B-Q in Abangares, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, wins on all counts: great food and excellent service, along with kitsch on a monumental scale.
You can’t miss the place: the King Kongsized howler monkey and the larger-thanlife model of a Brahman bull out front are eye-catchers, right at the intersection of theInter-American Highway north
to Liberia and Route 18, the road heading west to the NicoyaPeninsula across the TempisqueRiver bridge.
After passing this place a few times, I finally ventured in. The crowded parking lot at lunchtime on a Sunday was a good sign that something was making this restaurant – which has been in business for almost three years – very popular.
While kids played in and around the nether regions of the great white bull and whole families posed for portraits under its studly equipment, I walked up to the reception counter and encountered the real thing –well, what’s left of it, anyway – the preserved and tastefully (!?!) displayed scrotum of the prize Brahman bull memorialized in this restaurant.
The restaurant’s slogan is “Where the bull is!” and they aren’t kidding. Mounted on a wall are his taxidermy-ed torso and magnificent head and horns, alongside framed photos and awards. If you have to wait for a table, you can sit on a bench covered with cowhide, complete with branding mark and resting on four legs made of hooves.
If you can get past all these reminders of the granddaddy of one of the animals you may be about to eat, take a seat and look over the leather-bound menu. Vegetarians, be warned: There are some fish and salad choices, but let’s face it, with the smell of sizzling, grilling and smokin’ meat permeating the air, you are either going to lose your appetite completely or convert to carnivorism on the spot.
Barbecue is the name of the game here, slow-cooked 16 to 18 hours over a wood fire in huge ovens and smokers working around the clock. I chose boneless lechón, suckling pig (¢8,979/$16, including tax and service), because I don’t like gnawing on bones. My lunch arrived promptly on a rolling aluminum cart: four big chunks of blackened pig, sizzling on a cast-iron pan in the shape of a cow. The restaurant supplies a good, sharp knife with a serrated edge, but the meat was so tender, I could have used a butter knife.
Of course, what makes or breaks barbecue is the sauce, and Tres Hermana’s suits me to a B – bold and spicy with just the right amount of sweetness. There’s no secret to why this sauce and barbecue technique are such standouts: Owner Alejandro Acosta cut his barbecue teeth as a pit master in the U.S. state of Texas. (The “Tres Hermanas” are his daughters.)
The accompanying sides were interesting and tasty: separate bowls of julienned carrots in a sweet-and-sour escabeche, lentils stewed with bacon and onions, and homemade flat bread, warm and crusty. Looking around at my fellow diners, the most popular extra side order was the big platter of fries (¢1,599/$2.90).
The other barbecue choices are beef or pork ribs (¢9,225/$16), the restaurant’s homemade salami sausage and boneless beef brisket, which they call pastrami (both ¢8,487/$15). If you want just a sample, you can order an appetizer of pork ribs with barbecue sauce (¢2,583/$4.60). If you are hungrier than the proverbial ox, go whole hog with the Tres Hermanas Bar-B-Q special: salami sausage with your choice of beef or pork ribs (¢10,455/$19).
The menu also offers grilled steaks, ranging from a 250-gram “light” tenderloin (¢8,856/$16) to a 16-ounce T-bone steak (¢11,193/$20), all served with salad. Rounding out the beef menu are a couple of lighter, less expensive choices: tenderloin kebabs with green sauce and beef fajitas with beans and tortillas (both ¢7,380/$13).
There are some less expensive chicken and fish dishes, casados and sandwiches, but meat is the main event here. Even the one pasta dish is spaghetti with barbecue sauce and pork (¢4,920/$8.80).
You can wash it all down with domestic or imported beer or wines by the glass (¢2,100/$3.75). My papaya natural was refreshing, not too sweet and made from scratch. Bottles of imported San Pellegrino mineral water are also on offer. Other sophisticated touches on the tables are the Alessi black pepper grinders; a canister of salt from Colombia, specially ground to complement grilled meats; and bottles of both red and green Tabasco sauces.
Wooden tables and chairs are spread around three dining areas under a high rancho roof, kept cool by ceiling fans. One of the areas is dedicated to families, with easy access to a small playground, and even easier access to a Pops ice cream franchise. A kids’ menu features chicken nuggets and spaghetti with cheese for tender young teeth not yet ready for prime beef.
Dessert is cheesecake, lemon pie, rice pudding or Pops ice cream. But I couldn’t even finish my huge portion of meat. As my friendly waiter, who spoke excellent English, was taking my plate away to wrap it “para llevar,” I heard a deafening roar from a howler monkey, followed by loud snorts and grunts from a huge bull, very close – sound effects to go with the supersized models!
What wasn’t a gimmick, though, were the squawks of six pairs of scarlet macaws that flew over the restaurant and landed in the trees on the other side of the highway. From the ridiculous to the sublime – just another day in paradise.
Tres Hermanas Bar-B-Q
The restaurant is on theInter-American Highway north
, in Abangares, at the intersection with Route 18 to the Puente de la Amistad bridge. Prices on the menu show both net price and price with tax and service (as legally required and rarely adhered to, especially in heavily touristed places). Hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, phone 2662-8583.
Comfort-Station Alert: No roadside conveniences anywhere in the country can compare with the restrooms here: soft lighting and flattering mirrors, fresh flowers, chic vessel sinks and spacious cubicles with European-style toilets that give you the choice of a small or large flush of water. There is even pleasant-smelling soap in the soap dispensers. An easy-access, separate restroom caters to wheelchair users and to diaper-changing moms and dads.
If you don’t make it this far north, watch for a branch of the restaurant opening in San José, off the General Cañas Highway, next to Immigration, and perhaps another branch along the new San José-Caldera highway in Orotina.