Eat List: San José, Costa Rica : New Worlder

Costa Rica’s capital city of San José is suddenly alive with new culinary ideas. Building on the country’s vast array of fruits, easy access to two coasts, and an unimaginable network of farmers markets, young culinary entrepreneurs have returned home from abroad and creative expats are flocking there like parrots to open restaurants, cafés, speakeasies, and markets. There’s massive potential to create wonderful food here and this is just the beginning.

Al Mercat

Chef José González, who grew up on fruit plantations around Central America, returned home to Costa Rica in 2014 after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and working around France for many years, to open this creative restaurant in Barrio Escalante. He started out with tasting menus, but has transitioned to accessible food inspired by the biodiversity around him, resulting in healthy, ingredient driven dishes. He occasionally has tours and lunches at his family’s finca outside of the city. almercat.com. 

Apotecario

Called the “house of fermentation,” Apotecario is the home of the beer Cervecería Calle Cimarrona, which makes wild ales and lambics influenced by Costa Rican terroir, as well as their own line of kombucha. There’s a small menu of standfard pub grub too. Calle 31 and Av. 9.

Bebedero

Canadian born Liz Furlong, who has been living in Costa Rica for the past 6 years, has quietly become one of Central America’s most prominent mixologists (and sometimes contributes here), experimenting with local botanicals and fermented juices (chicha, etc). Aside of Maza Bistro, below, she opened this speakeasy hidden in the in the interior of the historic Steinvorth building downtown. There’s a light menu of seafood small plates for snacking. Facebook page.

Buchón

This stylish cantina with red and yellow checkered tile floors and cozy nooks to hide away with a cocktail and order from a menu of eclectic pub foods like mussels, oysters, and meatballs, as well as one of San Jose’s best burgers. Their wine selection is the city’s best. Instagram.

Coconut

There’s a lot of bad Chinese food in San José, everything from P.F. Chang’s to gimmicky Pan-Asian fusion. This no-frills spot a few blocks from the center of the city’s growing Barrio Chino serves authentic Cantonese dishes made to order, such as dumplings and BBQ pork. Dishes often sell out.

Franco

There are several good cafés in San José right now, but one of the better ones is this Barrio Escalante space serving some of the country’s best coffees. There’s a bakery counter and a full menu too. franco.cr.

Maza Bistro

Open only from 9am to 5pm, this tropical brunch café on a patio attached to a hostel beside the Parque Nacional has some of the most satisfying food in Costa Rica. The dishes are playful, like sweet arepas with cashew butter and ripe banana chutney or eggs benedict over fried yuca. The cocktails, from Bebedero’s Liz Furlong, include things like a Bacon Bloody Mary and Pink Grapefruit Gin & Tonics. Instagram.

Mercado Escalante

Food halls and markets are springing up all over San José, but the best is this one built out of recycled shipping containers and tents that are home to a dozen small stalls. There’s a coffee roaster, a few bars, wood-fired pizza, steaks, a raw bar, and several other concepts worth your time. Facebook page.

Park Café

British chef Richard Neat, who received the second Michelin star for his restaurant Pied-a-Terre at the age of 29 in 1996, moved to Costa Rica in 2006 to open Park Café. Set in an antique store in La Sabana Norte, the restaurant has moved away from long menus and towards laid back tapas where you can hang out with a glass of wine in the space’s beautiful gardens. parkcafecostarica.blogspot.com.

Silvestre

Set in a restored, 1930’s Barrio Amón house, contemporary Costa Rican restaurant Silvestre is exploring Costa Rican ingredients and culinary culture like few have done. Tables are segregated into a series elegant dining rooms and a covered interior patio with a vertical garden, while their basement bar and wine cellar, Cothnejo Fishy, is opening soon. restaurantesilvestre.com.

Tomillo

Chef and culinary researcher Pablo Bonillo actively explores Bribrí indigenous territories in the Talamanca mountains, seeking out new ingredients and ancestral culinary preparations. By day his small eatery serves street food, such as gallos, the Costa Rican verison of the taco, with toppings like smoked pork or grilled fish, though more impressive are his multi-course menus based on his research served on some evenings. Facebook page.

Vestigio Creativo

Chef Gilberto Briceño, who spent years working his way around some of the world’s top restarants, from D.O.M. in Sao Paulo to Fäviken in northern Sweden, has been holding monthly pop-ups in his family’s garden near Alajuela that are inspired by Costa Rican produce and culture. He brought home some of his friends that he met in his travels and they’re holding 10-course dinners with pairings under a few strings of lights connected to banana trees. vestigiocreativo.com.

Whapin

Even on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast, it’s hard to find well made Caribbean food. Whapin, with its wood panel walls and rasta colors, is by far the best option in San José and serves staple regional dishes like rondon (a seafood and root vegetable stew), jerk chicken, and fried red snapper. Facebook page.