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Alajuela’s first vegetarian restaurant missing key ingredients

Here’s the good news: The city of Alajuela has its first vegetarian restaurant. El Chante Vegano is a charming little bistro, the perfect venue to have lunch with your yoga instructor. What’s more, the dishes are delicious and the prices are reasonable. You can find local favorites (sopa Azteca), vegan imitations (portabella burger), and some surprises (“oriental” rice).

Even the atmosphere is pleasant, with its hand-painted murals and low-key décor. The interior is cool and relaxed, and the front patio is shaded and breezy. The staff is upbeat and friendly, even by Alajuelan standards, and health-conscious diners should instantly feel at home. They even participate in “café pendiente,” the practice of donating coffee to less fortunate people. It’s obvious, from the moment you arrive, that the folks at El Chante are nice, thoughtful, well-meaning people.

The bad news is that my recent visit was a disaster from beginning to end, and I couldn’t believe that El Chante Vegano had been open for several weeks.

el chante 2

Alajuela’s first vegetarian restaurant.

Robert Isenberg

My wife and I met with another couple for a late lunch, a little after 1 p.m. We sat down, ordered our platters, and waited. After 45 minutes, the chef came out with a plate of tortilla chips and greens. The salsa was mild and refreshing, and it blended nicely with the pitcher of flavored water. But the message was clear: We had waited awhile, and we might have to wait awhile longer. Well, it’s a new restaurant, we silently agreed. They’re figuring out their rhythm.

After an hour, the chef returned to inform my wife that the kitchen had no cheese for her pizza. “I can give you some guacamole on the side,” he said. The gesture was appreciated, but by this point we were uncomfortably hungry, and we wondered how a vegetarian kitchen could operate – on a weekend – without cheese. And how are guacamole and cheese interchangeable? And how does it take a full hour to realize you’re missing a key ingredient?

The first entrée arrived at 2:15 p.m. Our friend had ordered nachos, and he waited politely for another 10 minutes until the second plate came. One by one we received our orders, until, at long last, I collected my vegetable burrito, at around 2:35. By that point, I had already encouraged the others to eat, since we were apparently waiting for the vegetables to be harvested. It seems petty, in light of such complaints, to suggest that the “burrito” was technically a wrap, but there’s a fair distance between Mexico and Greece.

The food was sumptuous and expertly prepared, even my wife’s cheese-less pizza, but it hardly counterbalanced the cons: There was no running water in the restroom sinks, the server forgot our drinks and looked miffed when we asked for them, and we had to chase her again for the check. They couldn’t accept credit cards, they said, so we were glad to have cash (waiting to use the ATM in Alajuela is a full-contact sport). One of the staff admitted that he had no idea what we’d ordered, and by then the server had disappeared. He took us into his office and itemized our lunch, and our happy reunion became an exercise in business accounting.

By the time we left, at 3:30 p.m., the sun was low, and our late lunch had turned into an early dinner. Someone apologized for the inconvenience, explaining that the day had been difficult, and then he made awkward small talk. He sent us slices of cake, as if to bury the hatchet. Suddenly we felt pity for them; we had been annoyed, and now we were depressed –two unwelcome emotions on a bright Saturday.

The moral is this: El Chante Vegano has a long way to go. In pickier climates, such a restaurant would never be allowed to open, and our meal would at least have been comped. The place has great potential, especially in a meat-and-gallo-pinto town like Alajuela, where a vegetarian joint ought to thrive. The problem is that El Chante is already open, and they’ll have to think on their feet. Documenting orders is an easy fix; getting a plumber for the bathroom is not.

My fingers are crossed that they work out these significant kinks, because I want to go back. I assume the cheese, when available, is delicious.

El Chante Vegano is located 25 meters west of the Post Office, Alajuela. Phone: 8911-4787.

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