August 23rd, 2012

The Magnolia Restaurant is Fabulous

For those who haven’t yet eaten at the Magnolia Restaurant, it may really be time to start.

The Magnolia has always served delicious food, but because of its recent renovations, it has just received a fine award from the Costa Rican Institute of Tourism (ICT). The restaurant-rating branch of the ICT has given the restaurant four out of five forks, in recognition of its fine dining atmosphere and delicious food.

Magnolia chef Adrián Vera says that the Magnolia specializes in mediterranean food, with French and Italian accents. Diners can enjoy “anything from carpaccio to lobster, shrimp and corvina.” The staff is wonderful and happy to make suggestions about the restaurant’s many different menu items.

The Magnolia is centrally located, in the heart of downtown San José, with a safe parking lot. The restaurant is open all day, every day; it serves an executive menu from Monday through Friday, between 11:00 AM and 2:00 PM.

On September 29, the Casino Club Colonial celebrates its 30th anniversary, and the Magnolia Restaurant will have a celebratory meal during the anniversary festivities.

But any meal is festive at the Magnolia!

Read more about the Magnolia Restaurant.

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March 16th, 2009

Eat a Casado

Costa Rica’s most typical meal—for lunch or dinner—is the casado. Generations of Costa Ricans have enjoyed this near-perfect conjunction of some of the country’s best flavors. Up until the mid-1960s, most Costa Rican businesses closed at lunchtime. Workers who lived near their jobs would go home to a hot meal. Others ate lunch at nearby pensiones, whose owners cooked lunch for office workers every day. Whether they ate at home or at a pensión, almost everyone ate a casado for lunch. Now, most Costa Rican businesspeople and office workers eat the same fast-food lunches that their American counterparts do. However, the casado is still the national dinner dish, and it remains dear to the hearts of all Costa Rican lunch-eaters.

Although casados vary from house to house and from restaurant to restaurant, all have the same key ingredients—rice, beans, salad, and some kind of protein. The rice is a true Costa Rican specialty; glistening slightly with oil, each grain is separate from the others, and all have just the right amount of firmness. The beans served with the casado are almost always whole black beans, although some people serve refried beans with their casados. The traditional casado salad is a vinegary cabbage salad that mixes well with either the rice or the beans and gives them a pleasant crunch. Recently, many restaurants have begun to serve lettuce and tomato salads with their casados, a slight departure from tradition. A piece of beef, chicken or fish rounds out the casado. This protein is grilled, pan-fried with garlic or breaded and fried. Many casado-makers also add fried plantains and tortillas to the dish. While not essential, these two additions make for an ideal casado.

There has recently been some controversy about the origin of the term “casado.” Many people believe that the word “casado” is derived from “casa,” the word for house. This theory makes sense because of the homey origins of the casado. When everyone made lunches or dinners at home, the casado was the food of the casa. However, a recent theory has emerged, which traces the meaning of the word, not to the place where the food is prepared, but to the person who once normally consumed it. Thus, the theory is that a casado takes its name from the other word “casado,” which means a married man. When most women worked only in the home, it was only married men—or casados—who ate these meals during their lunchtime breaks.

Whatever the origin of the word, the casado is a wonderful dish. The Magnolia Restaurant serves a first-class casado, complete with fried plantains, perfect rice and delicious, smoky black beans.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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March 9th, 2009

Don’t Let Pejibayes Pass You By

The pejibaye is one of Costa Rica’s most intriguing fruits. Readily available all across the country, pejibayes add an unexpected dimension to Costa Rican cuisine.

Pejibayes grow in clusters on the very same palm trees that produce hearts of palm. Costa Ricans hack the entire cluster from the tree once the fruits ripen. The shiny orange skin of the pejibaye might suggest a sweet, fleshy, mango-like interior. But pejibayes are dry and not at all juicy like their other orange tropical fruit counterparts.

The starchy pejibaye, potato-like in its dryness, makes for very interesting eating. Costa Ricans drop whole pejibayes into vats of boiling salted water and cook them for at least half an hour. Once the pejibayes soften, cooks slice them in half and remove the large central seed from each one, leaving a perfect hollow for a dollop of mayonnaise. Pejibayes and mayonnaise are as happy a combination as bread and butter, the smoothness of the mayonnaise pleasantly mitigating the dryness of the pejibaye, the tangy creaminess gently sharpening the pejibaye’s shy sweetness.

Some adventurous gourmet chefs forgo the mayonnaise treatment. They cook the pejibaye as though it were an exotic potato, lending a vibrant tropicality to more staid potato recipes.

One beach restaurant serves mayonnaise-filled pejibayes alongside spears of hearts of palm, a clever pairing of two fruits from the same palm tree. The orange pejibayes cluster charmingly on their side of the plate, their sister hearts of palm lying cool in their paleness. And the combination is wonderful—a moist vinegar tang with a tropical starchiness.

Roadside vendors sell boiled pejibayes at makeshift stands all across the country. Their stalls often feature hand-lettered signs with various idiosyncratic spellings of the fruit—“pejivalles,” or “pejivayes.”

But no variation in spelling can alter the allure of the pejibaye.

Click here to learn more about pejibayes.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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December 9th, 2008

Standing Around Outside, Eating

Costa Rica’s near-perfect weather is one of the country’s greatest charms. Visitors marvel at its breezy sunshine and tropical mildness. Locals spend much of their time outside, where it rarely gets cold enough for even a light jacket. Schools often have large outdoor courtyards, and children spend their free moments in the fresh air. Government buildings, like the immigration office and the driver’s license renewal office, usually have outdoor waiting areas.

Costa Rica’s mild, pleasant climate is, of course, as ideal for vegetation as it is for outdoor activity. Plants thrive everywhere, without fertilization, watering or any kind of human attention. Fruit trees sprout on the spot where someone tossed a few seeds, and many of these trees have edible stems and seeds as well.

The combination of constant outdoor activity and edible vegetation creates an interesting phenomenon in Costa Rica—a sort of opportunistic outdoor snacking.

Schoolchildren all know the bounty to be found around their schoolyards. The older children teach the younger ones which fruits and leaves are edible and how to go about eating them. One particularly common schoolyard fruit is the manzana de agua. Loosely translated, this fruit is a “water apple,” and the name is fairly accurate. The pale red fruit looks like an oval apple, and its flesh is like a watery version of the same. The fruit has only one seed, and it make for good between-class snacking. Another prevalent schoolyard fruit is the jocote. Shaped roughly like an olive, the jocote is greenish as it ripens and yellowish when fully ripe. Its flesh is thick and dense, and it clings to the fruit’s one large seed. Jocotes vary in flavor from sour to sweet and are ideal eating during down time in a game of tag. When jocotes are out of season, their leaves make fine snacks as well. Chewy and very sour, one small branch of jocote leaves can last an entire recess. Clover, too, is slightly sour and particularly good during games that require crawling near that ground or under bushes, as clover grows close to the ground.

Adults in the out-of-doors often find as many snacks as schoolchildren do. Mango trees grow wild all across the country, and their fruit is good both ripe and unripe. People in line at various government agencies often eat mangos as they wait. Guayaba trees are also fairly common, and people at bus stops can often reach the pink, aromatic fruits as they stand on the sidewalk. A variety of citrus fruits, ranging from the sweet to the very tart, grow wild in the city and also make pleasant on-the-spot eating.

Although Costa Rica has become very modern during the last few years, it still retains vestiges of its old rural self. Like farm-dwellers of previous decades, Costa Ricans can—and do—harvest the fruits around them, gathering treats as they go about their daily activities.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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November 4th, 2008

Guaro is Not Water

Guaro is a distilled liquor popular in several Central American countries, particularly Costa Rica. Made from sugar cane juice, guaro has a high alcohol content and a slightly sweet taste. Most people mix guaro with juice or soda, because its flavor can sometimes be harsh. In fact, guaro is often called “aguardiente,” a word that combines “agua” with “ardiente,” an adjective that means “burning.”

Like moonshine in the United States, guaro was once purely a product of homemade stills, a rural kitchen-sink alcohol. Guaro was a well-loved part of Costa Rican popular culture. One folksong warmly praises guaro as a wonderful by-product of Costa Rica’s beloved sugar cane. The song also alludes to guaro’s unpleasant side-effects, and it was these side-effects and the dangers of homemade distilleries that caused the Costa Rican government to take over guaro production.

Guaro is now bottled by Costa Rica’s National Liquor Factory (la Fábrica Nacional de Licores) under the name of Cacique. Homemade guaro production is severely frowned upon, and bottles of Cacique line the shelves of Costa Rican grocery stores and bars.

One odd fact about guaro is the similarity of pronunciation between “guaro” and “water.” Recently, a thirsty American tourist asked his waiter, in English, for a glass of water. The waiter, who did not speak English, thought that the tourist had asked for water. Pleased that a visitor would embrace his country’s own alcohol, the waiter returned from the kitchen with a glass of the clear alcoholic beverage. The tourist took a big gulp and had a hair-raising experience in thirst-quenching.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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October 17th, 2008

Fruit You Crack Open

Of all the new fruits Costa Rican travelers encounter, mamones and granadillas often tend to be the most exotic and unfamiliar. Although Asian and Latin American countries now routinely export these fruits all over the world, they are still lesser known and, perhaps, more inscrutable than other fruits. Mamones and granadillas are similar to one another, in that they have a semi-hard outer shell that breaks open to reveal a pulpy and very tasty fruit. There are two varieties of mamones—mamón chino and the ordinary mamón.

In Asia, the mamón chino is known as a “rambutan.” It is similar to the Asian lychee. Mamones chinos grow in clusters and are about the size of large grapes. Each fruit has bright red skin that is covered in long spines. Although the fruit looks prickly, the spines are soft. To eat a mamón chino, you crack the side of the fruit with your thumbnail and peel away the outer spiny shell. The shell usually comes away in two pieces, revealing the soft, white fruit inside. Most people just slurp the fruit out from one half of the shell. The fruit is sweet, tender and very refreshing. In its center is a large inedible seed. June is the season for mamón chino, and, in season, the streets of San José are often littered with the shells of mamones chinos.

An ordinary mamón grows in much the same way that the mamón chino does, although it is slightly smaller in size. Its skin is light green and completely smooth. Some people call the fruit a “Spanish lime,” because of its lime-like appearance. The skin of a mamón  is also slightly hard and must be cracked open in the way a mamón chino is. The fruit of the mamón is an orangish pink and somewhat tangier than the fruit of the mamón chino. It, too, has an inedible seed. Its season begins in June and lasts longer than the mamón chino season.

Granadillas are about the size and shape of pears, and they are usually a mottled greenish orange. Their skin is very similar to that of mamones, in that it is slightly hard and shell-like. A granadilla should be cracked open near the stem end. This stem end can be removed, leaving a sort of cup filled with a mass of pulpy seeds. Costa Rican schoolchildren laugh about the mucus-like consistency of the seeds before slurping down the entire mass in one gulp. Others delicately pull small bits of seeds from within the “cup.” Some even scoop out the pulp with a spoon. The seeds of the fruit are edible and make a crunchy counterpart to the soft sweetness of the surrounding pulp. Granadilla is also called “passion fruit,” and it is available year-round.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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October 3rd, 2008

Green Mangoes are Great

When most people think of tropical fruit, they imagine ripeness—bright orange papayas, yellow pineapples, and deeply colored mangoes. Visitors to the tropics usually want their fruit sweet and juicy, not rock-hard and green. However, there is one Costa Rican fruit—mango—that is delicious long before it ripens.

Costa Ricans young and old love unripened mango. Schoolchildren climb mango trees and toss the green fruit down to their friends. Businesspeople eat green mango as a snack between meals.

Unlike a fully ripened mango, a green mango is very hard and has a thick skin. Its flesh is pale green and only slightly juicy. That juice, though, is wonderfully tart—the kind of tartness that pleasantly puckers lips. The seed of a green mango is white and waxy and resembles a very large bean.

Costa Ricans usually eat green mango the way Americans eat apples, biting at the firm flesh and eating all the skin. They avoid the seed, which is bitter. Some people sprinkle the mango with salt as they eat, because the salt plays nicely off the sourness of the fruit. Mango eaters with a little more time cut up the flesh of the fruit, squeeze it with lemon juice and sprinkle it with salt.

Green mango is delicious in all ways and is definitely something all Costa Rican visitors should try.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 11th, 2008

The Case for Cás

Some of the best items on Costa Rican restaurant menus are not actually food at all. They’re drinks–the frescos naturales, or natural fruit drinks, that most restaurants serve. Frescos are different from pure juice, or jugo, because they contain sugar. When you order a fresco at a restaurant, you will need to specify whether you want the fruit blended with water–en agua–or with milk–en leche. Both contain sugar.

Frescos are appealing, because restaurants rarely make them from pre-packaged concentrates or mixes of any kind. Instead, these drinks usually contain huge amounts of the freshest tropical fruit. Although almost any flavor of fresco is delicious–and a wonderful opportunity to try delicious fruits–one of the most unusual and tasty fresco flavors is cás.

A small, yellowish tropical fruit that grows on a tree, cás is very sour. Costa Ricans never eat it off the tree. Instead, they extract the pulp for a terrific juice.

Fresco de cás en agua is like a tropical lemonade. Cás drinks are cool and pleasantly tart with enough pulp to make them slightly frothy. They are the ideal accompaniment to a plate of rice and beans or a nice ceviche. Cás is refreshing on a hot day and is definitely the best of Costa Rica’s wide array of tropical drinks.

The Magnolia Restaurant in the Casino Club Colonial serves a delicious selection of frescos naturales.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 5th, 2008

Black and White and Served All Over

Guests at the Sleep Inn San José Downtown receive a free continental breakfast in the hotel’s downstairs eating area. One of the best parts of this breakfast is gallo pinto, arguably Costa Rica’s most traditional dish. This tasty mixture of rice, beans, onions, cilantro and red peppers takes its name from its appearance. A gallo pinto is a colored rooster, whose speckled feathers look like the color-flecked rice and beans.

Although various Central American countries make their own similar rice-and-bean dishes, none contains the one ingredient that makes Costa Rican gallo pinto so special—Salsa Lizano. This liquid seasoning, produced and bottled in Costa Rica, contains vegetables and spices, cumin in particular. Restaurants all across the country provide bottles of Salsa Lizano at tableside, and Costa Rican cooks always add a healthy dash of Salsa Lizano to their gallo pinto. The Salsa Lizano provides a depth of flavor that no other spice can.

Costa Ricans eat gallo pinto at any meal, but it is most popular at breakfast time. Restaurants all across the country serve it in the morning. Gallo pinto is delicious with a side of tortillas and fried plantains—and sometimes with one additional drop of Salsa Lizano.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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