What you see above is a lentil burger. There’s tomato, avocado, a multigrain roll, and a patty made of puréed lentils. The dressing is made of chili pepper. The burger is called the “Hamburguesa Mandala,” named after the establishment, Mandala Restaurante, in San Rafael de Escazú. And it is delicious.
I live in a vegetarian household, and while I indulge the occasional steak or arroz con pollo, my wife Kylan does not. She’s not a strict vegetarian – she eats fish sometimes – but our refrigerator hasn’t stored a single terrestrial animal since we moved into the apartment.
Being a vegetarian in Costa Rica is challenging. I can’t tell you how many times I have stifled a laugh while hearing this recurring conversation:
KYLAN: Do you have any vegetarian options?
KYLAN: Yes. No meat.
WAITER: Oh, yes! We have chicken.
KYLAN: (Pause). Chicken is meat.
WAITER: Oh. Really? Then no, we don’t. Maybe you would like a plateful of white rice?
Such servers mean well, and we have met plenty of Tico vegetarians (even vegans), but for thousands of Costa Rican households, a complete meal means some kind of animal fillet, preferably mammalian.
Yet I am delighted to report that Kylan and I stumbled into two spectacular vegetarian meals in San José – in the same week.
For months, friends have recommended Ravi Gastropub & Café in Barrio Escalante. Tried-and-true carnivores have told me, “It’s vegetarian, but it’s amazing.” I am wary of anyplace that voluntarily calls itself a “gastropub,” the most disagreeable culinary term since “spotted dick.” But once you’ve heard several dozen ringing endorsements, you really have to try a place.
We sat outside and feasted on veggie burgers. They were so scrumptious that I second-guessed ever needing beef again. We weren’t in a boozy mood, but the homemade ginger ale was a taste-bud-awakening flavor. It seemed absurd to want to come back just for the soda (or pop, or what have you), but I felt a strong temptation to do so. Although next time I visit Ravi, I’ll probably want to sample one of their myriad craft beers as well.
On Valentine’s Day, we headed to Mandala, a place I had passed many times on my jogs around the neighborhood. It is one of those places that never seems open, just because I am never nearby during its hours of operation. When we arrived, the lights were on, the door was open, and a string of Christmas lights hung over the entrance. The place is colorful and quaint, decorated on one wall with little wooden crates full of knickknacks. The place is an improbable cross between deli and wine bar, and the service is impeccable. Despite all our veggie-centric experiments, we had never tried avocado hummus before – but let me tell you, we’ve been missing out.
“I think this chai is the best drink I’ve ever tasted,” Kylan confided. “Can we just have this all the time?”
(Note to Costa Rica: Well brewed chai tea could be a big seller.)
Costa Rica has a burgeoning vegetarian scene, but it is rare for a vegetarian couple to feel so gluttonous – so pampered by meatlessness – in such short a time. We were glad to have waited until Valentine’s Day to try it out, because Mandala was love at first sight.