The hard part is choosing: Maldita Vida or Japi Endin? Maja Dera or Mama Candela?
Stiefel Pub’s laminated menu is a colorful maze of names and pictures, like a Snakes & Ladders board redesigned by graffiti artists.
The first time you visit, the options will overwhelm you. The waitress will help with basic questions: Dark or light? Hoppy or smooth? Are you driving home, or hailing a cab? These considerations are important. But take heart: If you like beer, if you really appreciate beer, you will like almost anything that pours from Stiefel Pub’s taps.
Known popularly as “Stiefel’s,” the place is neither bar nor restaurant, but a pub, in the tradition of Dublin or Portland or Düsseldorf. The tabletops are scrapbook collages of beer labels and comic books. The place is low-lit and intimate, like a speakeasy, and the clientele is diverse, though largely scruffy and urban-casual. You could imagine sitting here, late at night, and plotting a revolution over a basket of French fries.
Stiefel’s mission is clear from the moment you arrive at its iron gate and trade friendly words with the bouncer, Roger. Everybody loves a bottle of Imperial — it’s refreshing anywhere, anytime — but as craft beer gains global attention, San José’s nightlife crowd desires more sophisticated brewing.
The Stiefel’s selection is impressive, and the servers know what they’re talking about. If you can’t pick, ask for a sample. The beer is artesanal and the sandwiches are gourmet. San José will broaden its palette if it’s the last thing Stiefel’s – and barkeep-owners Adolfo Marín and Selman “Grillo” Montes de Oca – do.
Adding to the joy of drinking this beer is learning their double entendres. There’s the obvious ones, like “Japi Endin” and “69,” but the more Spanish you speak, the more titillating their titles: “Malportada” means “bad girl,” “Pecadora” means “sinner woman,” and — to finish the night — “Tumba Calzones” translates as “underwear remover.” Pornography never tasted so good.
Meanwhile, a single tireless chef, Paulo Valerios, runs the entire kitchen, without so much as a dishwasher to help, creating up to 100 plates a night. Groomed in an Italian restaurant, Valerios combines all kinds of cuisines, drawing inspiration “from his childhood.” Want to know why the meat-packed sandwich with the red-tinted bread is called a “Chuck Norris?” You’ll have to wait for Valerios to have a free second to explain it.
The only true caveat is that the Stiefel menu doesn’t show prices, and rest assured that a mug of hearty IPA is not free. You won’t be pilloried for asking how much things cost, but the rule of thumb is to simply bring a robust wad of cash.
Like a French bistro, Stiefel Pub is designed for taste, not economy. Unlike a French bistro, everyday twenty-somethings can comfortably afford an evening here.
Another consideration is the “percentage” of each glass. If you have never chilled out at 3,800 feet above sea level, and you’re accustomed to Corona, and you ate only a salad for dinner, prepare thyself. Some of the Stiefel selection has the same alcohol content as a glass of Chianti. This is not an exaggeration. Beer is designed to be fun, but you should also be able to stand up without assistance. Pacing is key.
If you have frequented the high-end pubs of colder cities, you may be wary of the craft beer archetype — an insufferable snob who wears only ironic T-shirts and listens solely to vinyl. In the age of “Portlandia,” hipsterphobia is a reasonable condition, especially on the edge of Barrio Amón, Chepe’s fastest-evolving neighborhood. You may see the cluster of fashionable, chain-smoking youths with handlebar mustaches at Stiefel Pub’s entrance and think, What have I gotten myself into? I can only insist that Stiefel Pub’s vibe is upbeat and fun, eschewing the East Village nihilism that mainstreamers loathe.
The room is frenetic with banter and good will, and if you keep good company, you may have an arduous time leaving. During my own visits, I stay longer than expected, nibble at shared plates, order an extra round, and finish the night with a shot of chileguaro. When I finally leave, the crooked street across from the Parque España is misty and muted, like a midsummer night’s dream. Stiefel’s may be a new addition to the San José bar scene, but with any luck, it’s here to stay.
Check out Stiefel’s craft brews on their Facebook page. The pub, open daily except Sundays, is located in Barrio Amón (technically, it’s Barrio Otoya), next to the Mexican Embassy and across the street from CENAC.