by Michael Miller
Enjoying Downtown San José‘s International Restaurants
We are often asked why we enjoy living in Downtown San José, Costa Rica. Some people are surprised when we tell them that one of the main reasons is the city’s restaurant scene.
Keep in mind that there are well over a million people living in the greater San José area. Downtown San José is both the political capital and the economic center of Costa Rica, and over the past two decades San José has been emerging from a sleepy tropical town to an important international city.
It is no surprise then, that you will find a wealth of restaurants, both local and international, in Downtown San José. With this article, we will highlight five Downtown restaurants featuring food from different parts of the world. We hope to give you a sampling of what you can find here. It should be just enough to whet your appetite.
At Sofia Mediterráneo you will find dishes from all over the Mediterranean, with an emphasis on Greek and Turkish. Here you can start with freshly made hummus, appetizers of tabbouleh or baba ganoush, and salads with eggplants and tomatoes, all accompanied by their own baked bread.
Entrees include red bell peppers stuffed with a spicy beef and rice mixture, different fresh seafood dishes, vegetarian offerings . . . . but the main attraction is the lamb. Sofia boasts that it has the biggest variety of lamb dishes in all of Costa Rica: Leg of lamb, lamb chops, lamb kababs, and more. And of course, you will want to try baklava and turkish coffee for desert.
One of the owners of Sofia is Mehmet Onurlap, a native of Istanbul. And like any good Mediterranean host, Mehmet is often seen making the rounds of the tables to make sure that his patrons are happy. He has also been known to suggest the perfect wine to go with your dinners.
To give you an idea of prices at Sofia, you can expect to pay 13,040 for leg of lamb, or 8,480 for chicken thigh with prunes and apricots. An appetizer of baba ganoush is 3,440 colones.
Sofia Mediterráneo is part of the trendy new restaurant row called Paseo Gastronomico La Luz, which now boasts 16 restaurants along 5 blocks of Calle 33. This part of Downtown has not yet been discovered by tourists or expats. Instead you will find Sofia, and other restaurants along this strip, packed with Costa Rica’s growing middle and upper-middle class. You might call them Tico-Yuppies.
Sofia has a full bar and a good selection of wines. The address is Calle 33 and Avenida 1, in the Barrio Escalante section of town. It is usually very busy on weekends, so reservations are recommended. Phone: 2224-5050.
La Esquina de Buenos Aires
There is a joke among North American visitors to Costa Rica that goes something like this: “Where is the best place to go to get a good steak? The answer . . . Argentina.”
That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but Argentina is known to produce some of the best beef in the world. And Costa Rica . . . . well not so much. La Esquina de Buenos Aires, has been a fixture in Downtown San José since 2004, and it offers excellent beef imported from Argentina.
La Esquina (in English: “the corner”) has the look and feel of a neighborhood tavern from the 1950’s or ’60’s, with its white table cloths and flowers on the tables, and its vintage posters and photos on the walls. It has a well stocked, and very popular, bar that adds to the ambiance.
As you would expect from an Argentinian restaurant, it has many cuts of beef: Tenderloin, rib-eye steak, skirt steak, and much more. What is surprising, is how diverse the menu is. You will also see chicken and pork selections, and fresh seafood specials of the day. And, in keeping with the Italian influence found in Buenos Aires, you will also find some excellent pasta dishes.
La Esquina is one of the more up-scale restaurants in San Jose. You can expect to pay 17,600 colones for the rib eye steak, and the same for the skirt steak. Pasta dishes range from 7,500 to 9,000 colones. They have a decent house wine, but most of the wines are sold by the bottle, and can be quite expensive.
Because of the prices, La Esquina is not for budget travelers, so you will not find young back-packers here. You will see some of the nation’s upper crust, and international visitors in town with expense accounts. It has also become a “special occasion” restaurant for middle-class Ticos. In any case, it is almost always packed.
La Esquina de Buenos Aires is on Calle 11, between Avenidas 4 and 6. It is literally across the street from the rear of the beautiful Soledad Church. It has a full bar and an extensive wine selection. You are likely to find it very crowded every day of the week, so reservations are recommended. Phone: 2257-9741.
Sapore Trattoria is a popular Italian restaurant on Avenida Segundo. One reason for its popularity comes from the fact that its offerings range from traditional spaghetti bolognese, to much more sophisticated dishes from different parts of Italy. However, the main reason for its popularity is because everything is excellent.
You can start with an antipasto plate of wonderful Italian meats, cheeses and olives. It is a perfect starter for four or more, while you decide what to have next.
You might try ossobuco with fresh pasta, or try the risotto with asparagus and champagne, or perhaps fresh tuna livornese . . . . or you might just want to try the classic chicken parmesan.
If you have a craving for pasta, Sapore makes several styles of pasta, all of it fresh. You get to choose from a wide range of toppings including 3 different kinds of mushrooms, or frutti di mare. And if that weren’t enough, Sapore is also popular for its pizzas.
Sapore is one of the bargains of Downtown San José. Mind you, I did not say “cheap,” but it is reasonably priced when you consider the quality of the dishes. For example, Ossobuco with Papparadelle pasta is 8,950 colones. Risotto with Asparagus and Champagne is 9,950 colones. Fresh pasta dishes range from 6,500 to 9,000 colones.
Sapore Trattoria is owned by David Eminente, a native of Rome, and his chef is also from Italy. Together they have created one of the finest restaurants in San Jose. There is a small bar. A selection of beers and wine is available. It is located on the corner of Avenida 2 and Calle 13. That means it is two blocks west of the National Museum. Phone: 2222-8906.
Downtown San José is filled with restaurants that claim to be Chinese. However, anyone who has spent time on the West Coast of the U. S. or Canada, or anyone who has traveled to the Far East, knows that most of these restaurants are not Chinese. Many North Americans label them as “Chinarican” restaurants, because they have adapted so many Costa Rican dishes.
A variety of tasty Chinese dishes from Casa China, including a steamed fish with fresh ginger, green onions and soy sauce.
After an extensive search, we discovered Casa China, possibly the most authentic Chinese restaurant in Downtown San José. Casa China has a huge menu with page after page of offerings. You might want to start with one of the Chinese soups; we had the hot-and-sour soup and it was excellent.
You will find all the popular Chinese dishes, such as beef brocoli, kung pao chicken, chicken with mushrooms, and way more than we can possibly list. Or you might try something a bit different: We had a whole fish steamed with fresh ginger and soy sauce that was the hit of the night. And Casa China has a growing reputation for its dim sum, the traditional bite-size portions served on small plates or in steamer baskets.
Casa China is a huge restaurant. It is basically a warehouse with scores of tables, so do not go expecting charm and ambiance. On a recent visit, we went early in the week, so very few of the tables were occupied. Thus, we got excellent service.
If you are familiar with Chinese restaurants, you know that the bigger the group you are with, the better. Most Chinese dishes are meant to be shared, so having four or more people at your table means that you can order several dishes, and everyone can sample each of them. For example: The small bowl of Hot-and-Sour Soup is 3,936 colones and it will easily serve 4 people. Kung Pao Chicken is 7,134 colones, and the Shrimp with Cashews is 9,594 colones.
One word of warning: The duck is over-the-top expensive. Duck is a favorite of classical Chinese cuisine. But here, the Peking Duck is 39,360 (about $75 U.S.)! One gentleman at the restaurant, at Tico attorney, informed me that we have no duck farms in Costa Rica, so it is all imported. (Sounds like a potential business opportunity.)
Casa China is on Calle 25A and Avenida 10. It is 50 meters south of the ultra-modern Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart (Templo del Sagrado Corazón). There is wine and beer available. Phone: 2222-1374.
Many people are surprised to learn that there is a German restaurant in Downtown San Jose. This may be because it is hidden away on a quiet residential corner of the Los Yoses neighborhood.
It is Club Alemán (in English: “German Club”) Restaurant and Biergarten. There has been a German Club in Costa Rica since the 1880’s, and it is currently owned by Hans and Sabine Wehnemann.
The Wehnemanns have brought a deep knowledge of German dishes along with a keen ability to take advantage of Costa Rica’s fresh produce. Hans tells us, “Nothing comes from a can here. We make everything from scratch: the soups, the sauces, the mushrooms, everything.” The couple also owns a spice farm near Quepos where they grow their own cardamon, cinnamon, black pepper and many other spices.
Their most popular dishes are Jagerschnitzel, a milanese of pork with a mushroom topping; Rouladen vom Rind, a beef roll with a sauce inside; and they have several popular goulashes. Of course, it would not be a German restaurant without sausages. Club Alemán boasts a big variety of German sausages (bratwurst, bockwurst, weisswurst and much more) that Hans tells us come from local farmers and processed by a true German butcher.
This fall, Club Alemán will host its extremely popular Octoberfest. There will be music, dancing, food and, of course, lots of beer. The Octoberfest will be held on two weekends: September 31/October 1, and October 14/15.
Dishes at Club Alemán are reasonably priced. For example: The Jagerschnitzel is 8,500 colones, the Rouladen von Rind is 9,000 colones, and the goulashes range from 8,000 to 9,500 colones.
The restaurant has several rooms, including a lovely screened-in porch big enough to accommodate a dozen people. There is also a billiard room, which is available to all guests. On the ground floor, there is a separate bar, or biergarten, where dishes from the kitchen are also available.
Club Alemán is located on the corner of Avenida 8 and Calle 35. Since it is hidden in the Los Yoses Barrio, let me give you directions. The easiest way to find it: From the National Theater take the broad Avenida 2 toward San Pedro. As you climb up the hill, you will see a new Starbucks Coffee on the right. (That is Calle 35.) Take that right and go down a steep hill to the next corner. Club Alemán is closed on Sundays and Mondays. Phone: 2225-0366.
This is just a small sampling of the tremendous variety of restaurants in Downtown San José. It is an exciting scene that is always changing and growing. As the nation of Costa Rica continues to prosper over the coming years, you will see more and more international restaurants in Downtown.
Whether you live in Downtown, or you come in from the suburbs occasionally to enjoy the art galleries or the symphony, there are now more and more good reasons to linger for a fine dinner.
No compensation was asked for, nor given, from any of the restaurants discussed in this article.
Michael Miller is the author of the only guide book that focuses on Downtown San José, titled: The Real San José.