Costa Rica Casado

At the moment I’m traveling in Costa Rica with Regina on our belated honeymoon. The day is nearly spent and the Pacific surf rushes and sighs outside the window of our rental condo in Jaco. I can nearly taste the sea it’s so close, and as I post this I take a final few sips of five-year aged rum. Sweet, deep, delicious.

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This place, although touristy, has a real magic to it, and I’m dearly glad to have some time off and to be far away from work, from my real life, from Los Angeles. Two days in and my tan is developing nicely. I’m relaxed, my mind is clear (except for the happy fuzz imparted by the rum), and Regina lies next to me, slumbering happily. Still, being a techie geek as well as a chef means that even in a foreign land I have the means to share with you, loyal readers, my meals and my musings. iPad, wifi, and WordPress app. Huzzah!

Wherever we travel Regina and I query the locals and ask for food recommendations. No gringo food, no pizza, no bullshit sushi, and lord-help-me-now no fucking Kentucky Fried Chicken! The blender-wielding bartender at a tacky resort down the beach that apparently caters to a less-inquisitive clientele gave us a quizzical look when we reiterated the “no-gringo food” part of our travel-food creed, as if sussing us for intestinal fortitude. After a bit of prodding he gave up the name of El Rustico, a locals joint known for their Casado, which is like a cheap-and-easy working man’s buffet lunch. It’s down the main drag, maybe nine or ten blocks, turn right at the Pancho Villa restaurant, he says, you’ll see it.

En route we stopped and bought a pretty amazing agua fresca of sandilla (fresh watermelon juice) which we quaffed as we strolled the dusty main street of Jaco, dodging necklace hawkers, grown men on kids’ bikes, and mongrel dogs lazing on the sidewalk. It was still early, the street wasn’t yet crowded, the heat hadn’t yet peaked. We’d only flown in the previous night, arriving too late to explore and frankly too exhausted to do anything but shower and flop. This would be our first meal in Costa Rica. We were starving.

We found El Rustico adjacent to a desultory surfer-and-expat camping area, virtually empty but for two friendly dogs begging through the chainlink fence for scraps. The place was as casual as can be, but immaculate and inviting. The open-air dining room was almost filled with some thirty customers, not an obvious tourist or gringo among them. We waited but briefly before getting to the buffet. Rice, beans, chicken wings, fried fish, some sort of pork ribs, beef stew of some kind, shrimp, several salads, fried ripe plantains — a small but representative array of Costa Rican casual fare. A couple of colorful agua frescas in those self-circulating lemonade dispensers. A cooler case of sodas and bottled water.

We ordered a huge plate to share, plus two ice-cold bottles of water. The fried fish (probably snapper) was absolutely dynamite — crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside, very fresh and mild, excellent. We doused it with a little Lizano Salsa (the national all-purpose condiment like a slightly sweet A-1 sauce) and squeezed over it a bit of limon, an orange-fleshed and green-skinned sour lemon. Just delish. The chicken wings were also excellent, great crust, super-tender and moist. Miraculously neither the fish nor the wings were remotely greasy. And the rice and beans were perfect, the macaroni salad fair but tasty. By far our favorite dish was the picadillo, stewed minced zucchini with a bit of onion and garlic. So sweet and delicious, it was absolutely superb and positively addictive.

The one monstrous plate of food and our bottled water: nine bucks. Deal!

As we were leaving El Rustico a line of twenty or more people was queued up for this delicious buffet; a good sign of quality if ever I saw one. This was our first meal in Costa Rica. And it was a winner! More to come, lovely reader.

As they say here, “Pura Vida!”

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