My step-cousin Carrie owns a condo in Jaco and she was kind enough to let Regina and me stay there while we were vacationing in Costa Rica. Jaco is a bit touristy, populated partly by a boisterous population of American expats and frequently flooded with tourists from all over Central, South, and North America. It’s pretty noisy at night down the main drag with all manner of cars and people and stray dogs and cars pumping music — much like any other tourist-centric beach town in any corner of the world. Regina and I were happy that the condo lay on the northern end of town, away from the clamor and drunken revelers. It was quiet where we were, conducive to relaxation and a restful type of vacationing.
When we travel Regina and I try to hunt down the local grub; it’s generally more honest, more affordable, and more representative of the locale and the people who live there. You’ll see I posted a few other recommendations for restaurants in Jaco, if you find yourself in Costa Rica some day. Those are places Regina and I ferreted out on our own.
Mario’s is a wonderful local restaurant that Carrie recommended. It’s a five minutes stroll from the condo, down a darkish street where the vibrant glow of TVs can be seen through the open doors and barred windows of local dwellings. The attractive outdoor dining area of Mario’s is a like a beacon in the darkness, beckoning to us — eat here, drink here, sit here. And so we did. Twice.
There’s easily seating for forty or fifty people, but the two times we went the place was virtually empty. That being said, we went mid-week and have no idea how busy Mario’s might be on a weekend night. The servers spoke only a smattering of English, but that didn’t hinder our having a lovely couple of meals. They were pleasant and efficient and quite patient with our stumbling Spanish. Pricewise Mario’s isn’t exactly cheap, but it’s far more affordable than the tourist traps a mile south in the middle of town. We spent about $50 for each meal, and that included two drinks apiece.
Our first dinner was excellent and absolutely exceeded expectations. We started with a lovely and super-fresh hearts of palm salad with some sliced tomato, cucumber, bell pepper, onion, carrots. The only dressing was a wedge of the ubiquitous Costa Rican limon, green-skinned and orange-fleshed. The hearts of palm were excellent — fresh, gently boiled until tender, and served cool. The tomatoes were also perfect. This is the kind of salad that needs no fuss; the vegetables were so tasty nothing else was necessary.
For main courses we had the grilled split langostino (spiny, clawless Pacific lobsters) topped with loads of toasted garlic and doused with melted butter. They were perhaps a trifle overcooked, but the flesh was sweet and the crunchy garlic absolutely delicious. Seafood is king here and should not be passed up!
Likewise the corvina, a type of Pacific seabass, served here with shrimp and clams in a cream sauce, was supremely fresh. The fish was tender and sweet, the cream sauce was elegant and not remotely cloying, and the vegetables on the side were perfectly cooked. Both main courses came with some very good mashed potatoes and some absolutely delicious broccoli, squash, and carrots, still firm and fresh.
Our second dinner there was also very good, if perhaps not as revelatory.
A shrimp cocktail starter was simple, the abundant shrimp poised on a glass rim with a simple “louie-style” mayo-based dip were sweet and tender. Again, as always, limon finished the plate. A side of saltines was served on the side.
Regina ordered spaghetti con mariscos and it was excellent. The tomato sauce was fresh, as was the generous supply of mixed seafood — clams, shrimp, fish, and squid. The seafood was very yummy, and if the pasta was nowhere near al dente the sauce was winning. Regina scarfed the whole thing with only a little assistance from me.
I ordered the pork chops and honestly they were a bit dry and the plate a bit stark — no sauce to moisten up my chops! The flavor of the pork was good, and I don’t mind a fully-cooked thin pork chop if they are crispy at the edges. These were not, sadly, and I needed to douse them liberally with Lizano Salsa (the national condiment, served at virtually every table) to get some flavor happening.
Again, the main courses came with mashed potatoes and a perfectly-cooked veggie medley.
A note on drinks. When you’re in Costa Rica you can’t in good conscience skip the very fresh and very ripe fruit. We drank lots of fresh juices there, and Regina never passed up an opportunity to drink fruit smoothies and shakes. At Mario’s she had a wonderful pineapple milkshake on evening and then a stunning passion fruit shake the next. I stuck to cheap Central American beer, because that’s the way I roll.
If you find yourself in Jaco, you’re better off skipping the strip and trekking north to the quiet end of town. At Mario’s you’ll find a meal worth savoring, worth talking about, perhaps even worth blogging about.