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Costa Rica (Day 1): Eating With Royalty

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Merry Christmas and happy holiday season to everyone out there in cyberspace!  I hope this post finds you well, and you have been enjoying plenty of delicious dishes at some rockin’ parties.  Today begins the recounting of our (Janice and I) adventure to Costa Rica.  Why Costa Rica you might ask?  Well, it was the same price as a ticket to Texas, and we wanted some place warm.  So, why not go to a place that is a bit more exotic and less like King of the Hill? Then there is the question as to what exactly Costa Rica offers over more popular Latin American destinations like Brazil or Argentina or Mexico?  Easy.  A country that is an anomaly in the region in the sense of being a more European enclave surrounded by more indigenous/mestizo nations.  A country that has not had a standing army since 1948.  A country with the largest sloth sanctuary in the world (more to come on this particular Costa Rican highlight).  Another fun fact is that our trip to the land of Pura Vida is that it was one of my best vacations ever thanks to my lovely travel partner and delicious food that we sampled all over the country.  Day one takes us to a local favorite in San Jose, the capital city.

When we landed in the country, we were greeted with sun, smiles, and warm weather.  Coming from typically frigid Chicago, I could only turn to Janice, chuckle, and say, “This is December”.  This became a common refrain when we witnessed something absolutely beautiful that would be instead frozen solid or coated in a sludge of melted snow if it was up north in Chi-town.  While being driven from the airport to our condo, we talked with the driver, Rigoberto, about what would be a good, local place to grab dinner.  He recommended La Princesa Marina (The Marine Princess), and soon thereafter, our condo owner also confirmed that it would be a perfect way to kick off our vacation.

We caught a ride with the condo owner, and eventually arrived at the door.IMG_5082  I couldn’t give you directions there since Costa Rican street names aren’t the best, and most locals rely on landmarks to show you the way.  Ergo, the biggest thing by the establishment is the Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica shown below (the national soccer stadium build by the Chinese curiously enough).  IMG_5086It was moderately packed when we walked into the place since local soccer club, Saprissa, was getting ready to play the final game of the season against neighboring Heredia. IMG_5080 Apparently this is one of the big, rowdy hangouts when the big matches happen.  Luckily, we came there way before kickoff, so we weren’t caught up in any type of hubbub. IMG_5081 Most of the staff were rocking their Saprissa jerseys though.  Janice and I just had our game faces on as we were looking over their giant menus that were in both English and Spanish, and there were two columns of prices that indicated the price before and after tax.  I never saw that anywhere else in the world.  Obviously, La Princesa Marina is a seafood place, and Costa Rica is known for their amazing frutas del mar.  Naturally, we kicked it off with two different types of ceviche, camaron con aguacate (shrimp with avocado; 3,690 colones/$6.80) and corvina con aguacate (sea bass which is a local specialty with avocado; 3,320 colones/$6).  NOTE:  They accept both Colones and USD in Costa Rica in most places, but the exchange rate is really messy when trying to convert between the two which made it difficult for us to determine what was a good or bad deal.  They say use USD, but I’d recommend using Colones because it’s less of a headache.

Sloths!

Sloths!

To drink, I got a Costa Rican Bavaria Gold ( 1,905/$3.50).  That came out first, and it was nothing special. IMG_5065 It was a pilsner that was slightly bitter and had hoppy notes, but it was pretty watery overall.

When they all came out, I was pleasantly surprised.  Now, I’m not a big fish guy beyond shrimp and tuna fish sandwiches, but this ceviche really won me over.  Ceviche has a colorful history that stretches back over 2,000 years in Peru (originally called siwichi in Quechua) that was first invented by Inca populations that then adopted the citrus fruits like oranges, limes, and lemons that the Spanish explorers brought with them compliments of their former Moorish overlords.  The dish basically hasn’t changed since then since it still consists of raw fish that is “cooked” by the citric acid from the aforementioned fruits, in this case lemon and lime.  However, it was a bit different than Mexican ceviche I’ve tried that had tortilla chips on the side instead of the saltines the Costa Ricans preferred.  Plus, it had a lot more liquid in it which was similar to an Ecuadorian variety I sampled at a family friend’s party.  Either way, I sampled both and liked the shrimp ceviche better. IMG_5068 I found the corvina to be good, pure white sea bass, but it didn’t have the chewier texture that the shrimp brought to the table.IMG_5066  For both, I loved the combination of smooth avocado with the onions, cilantro, and tangy citrus juices that I kicked up a notch with a trusty local hot sauce that I could liken to a kind of Tabasco. IMG_5071 I wasn’t a huge fan of the saltines as a means of transporting the tasty ceviche from bowl to mouth due to the crumbliness of the cracker, so I guess I enjoy the Mexican ceviche more in that aspect.  Once we were almost done with our ceviches, our main plates came out.

First, there was my arroz de la casa (rice of the house;  4,180/$7.75) which was a ton of cooked rice that was seasoned and filled with shrimp, pork, chicken, and a mix of vegetables. IMG_5074 It was similar to the rice side dish found in almost every Mexican restaurant in terms of the orange hue, slightly buttery flavor, and corn and peas lurking amongst the grains, but the meat really jazzed up this side dish to make it one of the highlights of the meal.  My lomo en salsa jalapeña (sirloin in jalapeño pepper sauce; 5,535/$10) was also fantastic.IMG_5072  The steak was seared to perfection, and the spicy sauce was filled with onions, peppers, and extra spicy jalapeño slices.  Not only did I have the huge slab of meat in front of me, but there was a cup of fried plantains, plain white rice, and black beans on the side.   IMG_5075I ignored the rice, but the fried plantains were wonderful since they tasted like a mix of caramel and bananas.  As for the black beans, they were interesting since there literally was a piece of pork sticking out of the ebony muck like the sinking Titanic.  However, this doomed piece of pork imparted its flavor to the beans that were scrumptious, and soon thereafter had a one way ticket to my stomach.  Then there was Janice’s mixed plate of shrimp, fish filets, and octopus (plato surtido de camaron, filet, y pulpo 7,380/$13). IMG_5076 Even with the wonderful seafood in the ceviche, Janice was quite disappointed with this mixed plate, and she loves seafood which is saying something.  It looked like the shrimp were cooked and marinated in some type of butter/olive oil sauce with herbs, but I didn’t try them or the fish filets. IMG_5077 The filets just looked like fried pieces of corvina, so I’m sure they weren’t anything special. IMG_5079 As for the octopus, if they were cut in slightly smaller pieces with a pinch of paprika, I would say it was just as good as the pulpo gallego I had in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. IMG_5078It was so fresh that the suction cups still would stick to the plate, and it was neither too chewy nor too soggy.  Definitely the king of this sea platter.

When it came time to pay, I found out that I had go up to a cashier window that looked more at home in a liquor store than a restaurant since it had bars on the window and a small opening where receipts and money were exchanged.  While paying, this was where I first found out how screwy the currency was since our bill came out to roughly $50 bucks.  I paid in USD, and I got Colones back and mixed change, i.e. there were 100 colon coins, 500 colon coins, and then some nickles thrown in there for fun.  Seriously?  Nickles?  Either way, La Princesa Marina was a filling and satisfying way to kick off our vacation, and got us ready for the adventures to come.

 

I Believe I Can Fry

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Hey, everybody!  Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues which is my early Christmas present to the world.  Today I’ll be talking about a restaurant that Santa himself would love to dine at in place of downing his traditional fare of milk and cookies.  The place in question is called Gongdeok Town (공덕전타운) which is located at Gongdeok station going straight out exit 5.IMG_1426  Walk for about 8-9 minutes, and you’ll see it on your left amongst many narrow and claustrophobic alleyways including one that specializes in jokbal or pigs’ feet.  What should you be looking for?  Fried food as far as the eye can see.  You can smell it coming from a mile away that’s how intense this dining experience is.  So let’s begin at the start of the adventure.

First off, I would have never found this place had it not been for the luck of my friend, Steph, who found this fried food heaven on the internet.  Naturally, she shares my same sense of culinary curiosity, so we made plans to go there after a very long work week.  After going out exit five and going left, we were quite lost.  I looked to my right in the distance, and I could see an alley that seemed to be more bustling than the others, and we were greeted by incredulous looks by the restaurant owners at the fact that two waygookins (foreigners) were in this labyrinth of produce and meat.  After walking past a few eateries, I could see plates piled high with pork knuckle and no fried food.  They sent us further down the main road, and we finally saw the promised land.  They had a mind-boggling variety of tasty morsels to try that ranged in price from 500-5,000 W per piece.  IMG_1409IMG_1412

Mmm shrimp

Mmm shrimp

Lots of fried sweet potatoes, kimbap, and vegetables (left to right)

Lots of fried sweet potatoes, kimbap, and vegetables (left to right)

Some of the pajeon or Korean pancakes of egg or kimchi

Some of the pajeon or Korean pancakes of egg or kimchi

How it works is they hand you a wicker basket along with a set of tongs, and you just work your way down like a Supermarket Sweep of sorts.  Some of the labels were a bit hard to follow due to the imperfect translations and others were just very vague.

Skinflints for only 500W?  What a deal!

Skinflints for only 500W? What a deal!

Something looks a little fishy...

Something looks a little fishy…

 Nevertheless, we soldiered ahead and took a little bit everything.  Once we had our baskets filled to the brim, we brought them to the end of the line where a lady weighed our food and gave us a number.  We were then ushered inside where we found out that the smoking section is downstairs and the upper level is non-smoking and much larger and warmer. IMG_1421 Eventually they brought us our plate of food along with the bill.  For this mountain of food, it was 8,000 W between the two of us.IMG_1416 IMG_1417 Within our fried cornucopia that lied on our table just beckoning us with its golden-hued breading, we had more conventional foods like gooey Western style cheese sticks and crunchy chicken tenders that came with a complimentary drizzling of honey mustard.  Then there were pieces that were more Korean like the squid tentacles, kimchi pajeon, and various forms of sweet potato which I was semi-averse to since I prefer regular potatoes.  It still was a nice contrast to the savory, semi-greasy breading.  An interesting selection in the mix was the fried beef liver.  Texture-wise, it was quite firm, and it had a rich beefy flavor with plenty of body.  I greatly enjoyed the fried cucumbers, chilies, and pork stuffed perilla leaves as well.  Plus, they had plenty of different forms of taro root like the purple sesame seed coated balls you see on the first plate.  So for all you vegans out there, there is plenty of selection for you too aside from that last one.  There was also a mystery nugget that I chose because it looked like it had a strip of bacon in it, and I loves me some bacon.

My mystery nugget and I.

My mystery nugget and I.

 When I finally tried it, it was quite bizarre since it didn’t taste bacon or anything else for that matter.IMG_1420  It had a generic flavor of meatvegetablesbreading?? that left me generally confused along with the imposter  “bacon” strip that just tasted like burned matter.  It was quite the letdown.   Once we finished our first plate, I had to go back for a second helping since I still was hungry.

Round 2 (starting lower left corner and going clockwise):  scallop, taro ball, cheese sticks, potato bread, chilies, millet cakes.

Round 2 (starting lower left corner and going clockwise): scallop, oyster, taro ball, cheese sticks, potato bread, chilies, millet cakes.

 The scallop was quite delectable as it was rich and buttery like breading that enveloped it, and the oyster was quite good aside from a rubbery texture that might put off some diners.  The potato bread was a bit of a mystery to me at first since I was anticipating it to be stuffed most likely with pork, but it just ended up being a ball of fried dough.  Last and definitely the least favorite of all the food I tried there were the millet cakes.  They looked almost like mini-red velvet cakes minus the cream cheese frosting, but they were the opposite of the tantalizing dessert.  Not only did it taste quite musty, but it was filled with red bean paste!  Arrghhh, my Korean culinary arch-nemesis.  Foiled once again from having a completely fantastic dinner.  That minor bump aside, we ended up eating a ton of food for about 12,000 W each which is a bargain any way you slice it.

So if you’re looking for a warmer way to eat street food in the winter or perhaps need to layer up on some blubber for winter hibernation, go to Gongdeok town for some greasy good times.

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