FLAMINGO, Guanacaste — I had already chosen the Hibiscus as my favorite restaurant on the Flamingo Coast when I learned of a horrible tragedy that befell this mom-and-pop French bistro in Potrero. Allan Vargas, 37, the Costa Rican husband and co-owner who bought all the food and provided cheerful and attentive service in the dining room, died suddenly on Nov. 30 of heart failure.
He is survived by his delightful wife, Marion Ceccarini, the Hibiscus chef, and a very sweet 8-year-old daughter named Lila. My heart is broken for them.
Just six days earlier, Allan served my friend Guiselle and me a delicious steak dinner — during a hurricane, no less, and on Thanksgiving. It was the second time I ate there, and both times he propped a chalkboard in front of me and explained everything on the menu in elaborate detail.
He was not just a waiter, he was a chef in his own right (but he was also a great waiter). Best of all, he was a warm, cheerful and winning personality, positive and full of life and happiness.
Costa Rica’s Greatest Places
In this series, The Tico Times Travel section takes an in-depth look at some of Costa Rica’s greatest destinations, with multiple articles exploring the attractions of each. Throughout the month of December, we’ve visited the sumptuous Flamingo Coast — Playa Grande, Conchal, Brasilito, Flamingo, Potrero and Las Catalinas.
After spending over a month on the Flamingo Coast, here are my picks for five great restaurants in a range of prices that I would recommend. Please understand that these are not the five “best” — there are many great restaurants on this coast, including those at hotels reviewed here earlier. This is a very short list based on where I spent most of my time, which ended up being Flamingo and Potrero.
It’s unclear whether the Hibiscus will reopen, but it remains No. 1 on my list. Here is the review I wrote before I learned of Allan’s shocking death.
The Hibiscus is a rare find — a genuine French bistro in a little Tico town run by a woman whose parents are from France and Italy and her Tico husband, both of whom are passionate foodies.
“So you’re the chef?” I asked Marion Ceccarini, who spends all her time in the kitchen while Allan Vargas provides the excellent service in the dining room.
“No, I’m an architect,” she said with a smile. Allan said, “Marion is an architect, but her passion is cuisine.” The two ran the Lazy Wave in Tamarindo for 10 years, and now they operate out of the Hotel Isolina in Potrero, though they’re planning to open a stand-alone restaurant next door.
My first time here, I had the succulent ribeye, bathed in a butter sauce with garlic and parsley and accompanied by fried potatoes sliced as thin as potato chips. The second time, I shared a big cut of beef called a Tomahawk, an entrecôte from between the ribs, with potatoes and an arugula salad.
For an appetizer, we split a luscious puff pastry filled with béchamel mushrooms and zucchini. And because you only live once, we had the crème brûlée for dessert.
Marion described the latter well: “It needs a texture that’s not as hard as flan, not as soft as cake frosting, and it has to be served cold but with the caramel fine and hot.” It was perfect.
Allan buys all the food, traveling to Puntarenas twice a week for fish, and driving as far as Cartago to buy cheese. He’s a perfectionist, and he always tries to find products that other restaurants don’t have.
There’s no printed menu, just a blackboard, but the offerings are constantly changing. “It’s our passion — we spend all day in the kitchen, so a menu on paper would be a bit boring,” Allan said.
Marion said, “I think that’s why people eat here, they know that if they come here three times in a week, they’re going to find four kinds of different fish. Every time there’s something new to eat, so they don’t get tired of it.”
“We aren’t a machine,” Allan said, “we’re more like a home.”
En paz descanse, Allan.
This is a place in Surfside/Potrero to come as much for the experience as for the food, though the food is good too. Perlas is also known by the Pilsen sign outside as Bar La Perla, in the fine Costa Rican tradition of businesses being unsure what to call themselves. Both names come from an 86-year-old Canadian woman named Pearl who started the restaurant and ran it for years, and can still be spotted here at night having a beer or two.
I ate here three times and was never disappointed, either by the tuna or the tacos, but I was especially impressed by the chicken fajitas, which were served boiling hot in a stone “lava bowl” from Mexico, which looks like an ancient metate, grinding stone. (The salsa tasted suspiciously familiar, like it came from the U.S., but at least it was a good brand.) Pair that with a Malacrianza craft beer, and you have a great meal.
Even if the food weren’t all that, it would still be tempting to come here, as this seems to be the center of the social universe here on most nights, with karaoke, live music and a house packed full of Canadians, Americans, Ticos and Europeans, usually in that order.
Especially exciting is Friday night at 8:30, when people who have bought a $2 raffle ticket listen breathlessly for their number to be called. Of these sales, 40 percent go to a local charity, 30 percent to the raffle winner, and 30 percent back into the pot for the “Chase the Ace” game.
On the Friday I visited, some guy won ₡45,000, roughly $80, and then proprietor Mel Gertz laid out 37 cards face-down and asked him to pick one. He picked the 2 of diamonds, which rolled 30 percent of the proceeds back into the pot.
Had he picked the ace of spades, he would have won $1,000. Next week the 2 of diamonds would be subtracted from the deck, leaving only 36 cards, and the jackpot would be enlarged by all the sales in the week between.
Canadians Ray and Mel (that’s a woman) Gertz bought and beautifully remodeled this restaurant/bar a year ago, and they imported this game from their native country. It’s a genius idea, a win-win-win for nonprofits, for lucky players and of course for the packed bar.
The winning number on Nov. 18 was 253715. My number was 253745. So close, so close and yet so far.
I come from Arkansas, so you can’t pull my leg when it comes to Southern barbecue. And the Smokin’ Pig gets it right — above all with the smoky, sweet ribs that slide off the bone almost before your fork touches them. You could literally eat this pork with no teeth. On a scale of 1 to 10, these ribs are a 12.
My first time here, I had a sampler platter that in addition to ribs had beef brisket (savory and tender), pulled pork (good but a bit more sauce needed) and chicken (OK but nothing special). The second time, all I wanted was the ribs.
The sides are reliably all-American, including the crunchy cole slaw, barbecue beans and potato salad. And the desserts — we had the excellent pecan pie and the brownie with ice cream and chocolate syrup — were pure decadence.
Pretty much any way you go here, you’ll be steppin’ in high cotton. And the delightfully shabby atmosphere of this little roadhouse in Potrero — the walls decorated with old concert posters of the Rolling Stones, B.B. King and Janis Joplin — will make you feel like you don’t have to put on your Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes.
The Smokin’ Pig was acquired just last August by a woman from Michigan and New Mexico named Jill Webster, along with her daughter Amy and Amy’s husband John, of Texas and New Nexico. John, who mans the smoke pit where all the meat is cooked, says he’s been smoking meat for 27 years. He favors the Memphis style, in which a dry rub is applied to the meat before cooking and the sauce is slathered on afterward.
There’s often live music here, with Jill’s husband Mike on bass guitar, giving rise to the slogan “Blues, Brews and Barbecue.” Mike is planning to start something called the Whole Hog House Band, and with a name like that, how bad could it be?
Y’all come back now, y’hear?
Costa Rica Sailing Center
The restaurant here is called Latitude 10, but the place is best known as the Costa Rica Sailing Center, and it has become a true center for this community — a sailing club with 50 member families where anyone can eat, drink, swim, socialize and take in the sunset. And by the way, you can also go sailing.
Jeff and Justin (who were much amused by a recent Tico Times story that made them look like gay pals from San Francisco), sailed to Costa Rica 22 years ago, when they were in their 20s. Eventually they decided to start a sailing center, offering sailboat cruises, lessons, rentals, yoga and more.
“I’m not really much of a drinker, but you guys go ahead,” said Justin when he joined Jeff and me at the table. I told him that wasn’t what I heard. “It’s my standard line,” he said.
Jeff, with the squarish glasses and cropped beard, looked like the more serious partner in this venture, if there is one.
“We’re a sailing school, we’re a rental facility, now we’re restaurateurs, begrudgingly,” Jeff said. “Drunken sailors first, restaurateurs second.”
These guys used to lease a small space on a property it shared with a restaurant called Coconutz. (“I told them they spelled it wrong,” Jeff said.) Coconutz went out of business, and then the whole lease was in doubt. So Jeff and Justin bought the entire property and reopened the restaurant.
Now that these guys are in charge, daily activities here include family game night, NFL football, live music, sailboat races, and bonfires and guitars.
“We both play guitar,” Jeff said.
“Yeah, we’re awful,” Justin said.
Jeff asked if I remembered “Cool Runnings,” the movie about the Olympic bobsled team from Jamaica. I said of course, and he said they were thinking of starting an Olympic sailing team from Costa Rica. No, seriously. “Even if we came in last, wouldn’t it be great?” he said.
The food here could be well described as “beach food” — hamburgers, hot dogs, tacos, paninis, nachos, chifrijo. We had the BBQ pulled pork panini (₡5,500) and the shredded chicken tacos (₡3,500), and they were great.
I also liked the cucumber gimlet, with Bombay Sapphire gin, lime, cucumber and cane syrup. (“Strongest drink in the house,” Jeff said.)
“Justin and I have our shtick that people enjoy,” Jeff said. “Well, it’s not a shtick, we really are drunken sailors.”
“We live it,” Justin said.
The Coco Loco in Flamingo is practically the perfect beach restaurant. There’s a huge ocean right in front of the shaded tables in the sand, and if it rains, there’s an indoors. The food is varied and imaginative — a French base with a tropical flair — and the cocktails of course tend to have lots of coconut and pineapple.
My friend Guiselle, looking at the drinks menu, started laughing in the middle of a very serious interview with Jean-Luc Taulere, the 36-year-old proprietor, who says his French-Spanish-Catalonian ancestors have been chefs since the 1700s.
“What are you laughing at?” I asked her.
“Why is this beer called the Tumbacalzones?” she asked (i.e., the “Knock Your Panties Off”).
“Because they say the girls like it a lot,” Jean-Luc said with a smile, eyes twinkling.
“It must be like the ‘Baja Panties’ in Panama,” she said.
Jean-Luc said the restaurant was named after its signature drink, the Coco Loco, and he asked a waiter to bring us two of them.
Jean-Luc, who previously ran the Mar y Sol in Potrero and helped run Pangas in Tamarindo, said of the Coco Loco: “It’s focused a lot on the ingredents of Guanacaste. That was the theme, to focus on what is fresh and special in Guanacaste and Costa Rica. So all the base of my food is French, but when I came here, the food has to be different because of the climate, the environment — you don’t want to make heavy sauces on the beach….
“We have some new dishes, and up to now, we have very good feedback. This ‘torti-pizza’ is a pizza, but made with a tortilla that we make here, handmade, we don’t buy it. It comes with the option of grilled octopus or duck confit.”
I have to admit that the next pizza I eat with duck confit will be my first.
“We have the Tico-Thai soup, it’s new,” he said. “I was in Thailand for three weeks, I have family in Macao, and then we traveled to Japan and Thailand, so I was really amazed by the Thai cuisine. Actually Thailand and Costa Rica are on the same latitude, so there’s a lot of similarities.”
He talked about the new empanada de chicharrón, and then the coffee-rubbed tenderloin, with a chipotle aioli and crispy tiquisque. (I don’t even know what that is, but I want one.)
“The churrasco [strip loin] is served in a volcanic rock from Arenal, heated to 500 degrees,” he said. “It’s sliced and the customer cooks it at the table.”
Our Coco Loco drinks arrived in actual coconuts, and Guiselle took a couple of sips from the straw and started laughing again.
“Please, it heated up my ears,” she said. “It has a lot of liquor! Es una bomba.”
Jean-Luc said it had tequila, rum and guaro (sugarcane firewater), in addition to coconut milk and coconut cream.
After Jean-Luc left, Guiselle asked the waiter to please take it away, saying she didn’t want to get drunk before 1 p.m. The thoughtful waiter said, “Are you sure you don’t want to drink it, sir?”
I said, “I can resist anything except temptation.”
Guiselle ordered the mixed ceviche, which she pronounced outstanding, and I agreed. I had the delicious ropa vieja (“old clothes”) sandwich, made of Cuban-style shredded beef.
But I couldn’t eat it all — I had to leave room for that second Coco Loco.