"If the divine creator has taken pains to give us delicious and exquisite things to eat, the least we can do is prepare them well and serve them with ceremony".
(Fernand Point – (1897 – 1955) was a French restaurateur and is considered to be the father of modern French cuisine).
I have mentioned my favorite restaurant in all the world, on other websites. Years ago, like at least five, maybe more, I remember posting a report on the guest list for Pura Vida Hotel, in Alajuela, about this restaurant. (Which, by the way, is another very special place; check it out: http://www.puravidahotel.com/info.html ). To better set this up, however, let me provide just a small geographical note (maybe a map would help, but not really; unless you really know how to read a map, that can’t give you a real feeling for the ‘ups ‘n downs’ of driving up to the village where I want to take you).
You should, however, know a couple of things, first. Ticos have told me for years that the best cooks in Costa Rica are Columbians. I do believe this, based solely on our experience over the years at this place. The owner, chef, headwaiter, and all-around very nice guy is Don Alfonso Restrepo, who has been at the same location for as long as I’ve been coming to Costa Rica. And, he is from Columbia.
Now as to where, what, why, etc., read on……..
We live between the village of Aguacate de Tilaran, Guanacaste, and the small town of Nuevo Arenal, on the highway (highway is a very overblown term for this little road, but it is designated as such – actually, Ruta 142 – by the highway department of Costa Rica) that runs around the north side of Lake Arenal, between Tilaran, county seat of the Canton by that same name, and La Fortuna, Alajuela, county seat of another Canton, in that other province. Off this highway is a side road, that goes right up the mountains, over them, and down again, to the town of San Antonio de Guatuso, Alajuela. After the first 50 meters of cement, this road is mostly rocks - big ones - and at certain times of the year, a lot of mud, as well.
About 8 or 9 kilometers up this road is the village of Cabanga, a really interesting place. At one time Cabanga was noted for leather work, with at least two different families operating little store fronts, with saddles, belts, hats, just about anything you could ask for made of leather. It also had some renown for wood work, and one of the best native cabinet makers around is still there (Danila, the guy who did our kitchen cabinets and all of our doors, plus my bread making table, and Blanca’s sewing desk). There is, of course,
--------oops, excuse me! Had to go pick up and dispose of what Blanca called a giant cockroach! That sucker was at least three inches long, and shaped like a cucaracha, but it appeared to have wings. He was in the sink, where she was trying to wash dishes, and scared the podwaddin’ out of her. I had to put on gloves, mask, boots, and get a big stick just to coax him into stepping outside with me, where I promptly cold-cocked the SOB. It was a serious struggle, touch and go for a while there, but I easily outweighed him, and he went down (under my shoe, actually), and after that, I negotiated a removal fee with the local salvage company (little scavenger ants), and he’s on his way to a better place, as I write these words------------
--------where was I?.......oh, yeah:
a small pulperia, and one bar, Napos, a real rustic, less than sanitary place, that rarely has more than one or two beers in the whole place, and maybe one general gaseosa (soda pop), besides mostly the local guaro (cheap cane sugar liquor, refined much less than rum).
There is a town salon (like a ball room/meeting place), a soccer field, a small school, and a few houses scattered about. And, of course, there is Las Orquideas, a restaurant bar that is on the main road, and reached by walking through the car port of the owner’s home, around to the back. The restaurant features two levels, open on the west side, and the north, to a truly panoramic view, that, on a clear day, allows you to glimpse Lago Nicaragua, way off in the distance to the north. The north wall of the upper, entrance, level is screened, with a large variety of orchids placed all over the screen. The lower level is overflowing with potted plants, now featuring a wide variety of African Violets. The bar features a beautiful wood bas relief depicting a typical Costa Rican scene, and a pretty surprising selection of booze.
Don Alfonso also has one of the most unique karaoke setups you will ever encounter in any part of the world. This started out some years ago due mostly to his love of music, and he now has a truly remarkable selection of music, all on his computer, which is set up at the bar. He can put karaoke video up on the large TV screen that is behind the bar, and I have personally seen him, in his cups, as it were, singing his little heart out to Galy Galiano, one of Columbia’s leading Ranchera type singers.
As to the menu at Las Orquideas, usually there isn’t one. I think the only times I have ever been offered a menu have been those rare occasions when he is not there. But, since he usually is there, the routine we have followed for some years is this: As we enter, we greet any and all who might be present. This being Costa Rica, that does not usually mean very many people. If there are customers present, we usually seat ourselves. If not, then we go straight to the kitchen door, and greet Don Alfonso, his wife, Yadira, and her mother, whose name I don’t remember. If he is busy, then, as soon as he gets the chance, he comes to our table, and we exchange abrazos, and expressions of good will, bonhomie, and generally nice things. If he has run out of my favorite beer, he immediately begins to apologize, and lets me know what is available that day.
Once we have our beers, he comes back to our table, where we visit for a bit, before we get down to business. This means, it is time for him to tell us what he has available that day. Generally, he can offer beef (best would always be the Filet Mignon, with a mushroom sauce guaranteed to go right to the walls of your arteries), pollo (chicken), usually grilled, but he does one of the world’s best Cordon Bleu’s, with another sauce that makes my mouth water, just thinking about it, and usually either Tilapia or Corvina that he can bread and fry, or grill, or prepare with a garlic sauce. He almost always will suggest a preparation method, or an entré that is just a bit different from the normal, and his suggestions are usually well worth listening to, and even heeding. He also makes a great ceviche, usually with tilapia, but shrimp is also available.
Beyond the simple fact that his food is always exquisite, Don Alfonso’s old world manner, and his charm are guaranteed to impress you. He always makes our dining experience special, with his welcome, and his concern for our pleasure. We make it a point to take all of our visitors up there, which means, he sees a lot of us, because we try to get up there more than once a month, whether we have visitors or not. Also, I have seen him handle a group of 14 people, with total aplomb, not allowing the sheer numbers to upset him in the least, and he timed the preparation of all those different requests, so that he delivered everything at the same time, with universal acclaim. That’s not to mention that every single plate was thoroughly cleaned by all and sundry.
The reality of eating out in Costa Rica is that most places are comparable in price to eating establishments in the states, so it should be no surprise that a meal for two, with at least two beers does run about $25-30. However, what we get for that with Don Alfonso is the pleasure of his company, the opportunity to watch a master chef at work, a spectacular view, and some of the best food anywhere. More important, Alfonso and his wife, Yadira have become our friends. I’ll tell you about our first ‘date’ sometime later.