This was the description of the first item on the menu at the Arenal Observatory Lodge. $6. "Specially made." Turns out, they were not kidding.
I lived in Manhattan in the early 80’s. Had Ceasar salad prepared table side at some fabulous restaurants: rub the big wooden bowl with lemon, toss in Romaine lettuce, raw egg, big fat homemade croutons, little olive oil, fresh Parmesan, whole anchovies… tossed and served by snobby old waiters in tuxedos. You can get ALL these ingredients in Costa Rica except the tuxedos.
Let’s just say this Cesar was nothing like that. Gayle (with whom I have done some pretty fine dining) could not resist and ordered it.
I may have mentioned that the food in Costa Rica is nothing to write home about. There is no cuisine here, which is fine. What you get in the markets is fresh, beautiful, plentiful and cheap. Fresh corn tortillas – especially the ones with cheese and natilla [na-TEE-jah, like a sour cream] – can be heavenly. Fresh gallo pinto can be delicious. You get damned sick of it, but, if you stick around long enough, you come back around to enjoying it.
Since there is no cuisine to fall in love with, you just want to be served good fresh food when you go out. Even if it is gallo pinto and tortillas. I was dismayed to discover that during our trip to Costa Rica’s Magic Kingdom®, ALL the restaurants in which we ate served bad gringo food. So mediocre and poorly translated, it was, fortunately, cause for amusement. Sometimes the plate of food would appear in front of us and we would stare quizzically. Then ask, "Is this what I ordered?"
The "specially made" Ceasar salad had four ingredients: chopped iceberg lettuce with tiny store-bought croutons. Not really too surprising. The black olive halves raised an eyebrow. But the pièce de résistance were the tiny cocktail onions scattered about the dish. Yeah. Cocktail onions. Like you get in a gin martini. The three of us gaped for the longest time, speechless. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the presence of mind to take a photo.
Gayle was still game – I mean, by this point, we’d had some pretty amusing meals delivered. Then they brought out the dressing: a monkey dish of gelatinous brownish goo that tasted… not that great. It may have just been the look of it, but it was not edible. This salad is now too special for us and Gayle sends it back.
How do the restaurants around the awesome Volcán Arenal get away with it? Captive audience. Despite the fact that vegetables are plentiful – the country is overflowing with delicious vegetables – at every meal, we had the same pre-packaged restaurant supply steamed broccoli/cauliflower/carrot mix. Exactly the same. You know the joke that all the Indian restaurants on 8th Street in Manhattan share the same oven? It’s like all the restaurants around Arenal shared the same chef.
Hey. If you are looking for something to do to make a million in Costa Rica and if you can cook – at all – open a REASONABLY PRICED restaurant around the volcano. I promise you will rake it in. Doesn’t need to be all gringo food either. Fresh and flavorful would pretty much get the job done. I’d recommend staying away from "special."