When I first started visiting Costa Rica eight years ago, my luggage was always packed with buy-four-get-one-free bags of Café Britt coffee I would bring back to the United States as gifts for friends and family. Since I moved here, however, I’ve started bringing coffee from the States back to Costa Rica.
A friend of mine was dumbfounded by that idea as we stood in line together at my favorite coffee shop in St. Louis. “Isn’t the coffee supposed to be amazing there?” he asked as I shucked out $15 for a pound of Bolivian coffee.
The fact is the coffee — the raw product, the green bean — is great in Costa Rica. The problem is that it’s hard to find the other two parts of the equation for great coffee: roasters who know how to treat the delicate floral, fruit and chocolate notes that make Central American coffee so coveted, and a barista who knows how to prepare it well.
Despite its long history as a leader in growing specialty coffee, Costa Rica has little in the way of café culture. Thankfully, Viva Café is working to buck this trend of watery Americanos and over-extracted espresso, and serving some tasty treats along the way.
Owner Leda Sánchez spent years working in marketing for household brands like Café Rey and Sánchez before she went out on her own to start Viva Café three months ago, a cozy coffee and lunch spot in the La California neighborhood of San José, opposite Cine Magaly.
“I wanted to create a café where the coffee was the main attraction and not just an afterthought,” she said wearing a black apron with her hair pulled back into a pony tail.
When I walked into the sleek café this week with some friends, my eyes went straight to the collection of Chemex coffeemakers behind the bar. The hourglass-shaped glass vessels have come into vogue as one of the best ways to prepare coffee by the cup. What sets coffee prepared with a Chemex apart from a café Americano is the barista’s ability to control the grounds’ exposure to the water, evenly extracting the coffee’s oils.
“People like the ritual of it,” Sánchez said, referring to the careful act of weighing the beans and slowly blooming the coffee by pouring the hot water over the grounds in tight circles spiraling outward to the vessel’s edge, releasing the beans’ telltale aroma.
After placing our order at the bar, we took a seat facing the windows to enjoy the afternoon sun and people-watch as our orders came up. The café, which could squeeze in around 12 people max, is a relaxed spot to catch up with an old friend or get into a good book. WiFi was available with a password.
My coffee arrived in an individual serving Chemex ($2.40). Sánchez said the coffee was a naturally processed caturra variety from the La Amada farm in Valle Occidental, Grecia, just under 4,000 feet above sea level. The cup was bright and clean, with a hint of dark chocolate, a good everyday cup of coffee.
Cappuccinos, mochas, hot chocolate and smoothies are also available for those looking for something besides black coffee. The strawberry-pineapple-maracuya smoothie ($2.20) had a nice balance of sweet and tart, complete with some texture from the little black maracuya seeds. The foam was wet (my personal preference) on the mochaccino ($2.50) we ordered, complete with latte art, and the chocolate didn’t overpower the coffee flavor underneath.
Viva Café’s food isn’t strictly speaking organic, but there is an effort to source high quality ingredients and sneak something healthy in there, too.
“I’m not extreme in anything,” Sánchez said, “but I do try to add some healthy things into the food where I can, like quinoa and chia seeds.”
The Viva la Vida Panini ($5.20) cut a nice balance between salty and sweet with prosciutto, arugula, goat cheese and figs, and the Gourmet Panini ($5) was a classic turkey and cheese on a multigrain baguette dressed up with raclette and cremini mushrooms.
We agreed the bread was great, but both sandwiches were a little light on their ingredients. I was also a little baffled when they came out room temperature and not hot pressed.
But when a place focuses on coffee, dessert is where its food should shine, right? The generous portion of carrot cake ($2.20) was light and moist, topped with a rich cream cheese icing. Keeping with her desire to offer healthy and good tasting fare, Sánchez’s banana chocolate cupcake ($2.30) was sweet and not too dense, dispelling any prejudices I had about vegan baking. The “lady’s kiss” (beso de dama) ($1.30) was made up of two airy almond-flour cookies sandwiching chocolate cream and begging to be dunked in coffee, but instead we ate it quickly.
Viva Café is also the first restaurant in Costa Rica to participate in Café Pendiente, a pay-it-forward movement where customers can buy a cup of coffee (or lemonade, in this case) for someone else who doesn’t have the means to enjoy even that small a luxury.
As I paid the bill, I noticed that Viva also sells the coffee they serve whole bean. After asking Sánchez for her recommendation, I bought a bag of catuai variety coffee from the Santa Rosa farm in Tarrazú ($6). With more places like Viva Café in San José, I don’t think I’ll need to bring any more coffee back from the U.S.