A Peek at the Culinary Scene Via a Trade Mission to Latin America
Mosaic pizza ovens and a chair made from recycled tires at L'Osteria in Guatemala.
My recent trip to Latin America wasn’t supposed to be a culinary experience, but, hey, a girl’s gotta eat, right?
I was helping host a franchise trade mission to Costa Rica, Guatemala and El Salvador in late September and most of my meals were at hotels and airports. But I did manage to sneak away for a couple of unique food experiences. The downside of work-related international travel is that you miss the iconic spots in a country—for instance, I didn’t see the ocean in Costa Rica nor Antigua in Guatemala. But I did dine at a restaurant at the highest point in San Jose, which overlooked what appeared to be the lights of the entire country, and I had papusas, grilled corn cakes stuffed with either pork, beans or cheese and served with a vinegary slaw, in San Salvador for breakfast, lunch and dinner for two days.
Costa Rica is known for its superior coffee, but I didn’t know the government forbids robusta to be grown there. Robusta beans are aromatic, but tend to be bitter and primarily used as filler with the higher quality Arabica, which is the coffee grown in Costa Rica.
During a stroll around old town in San Jose, we found a fruit truck selling local produce. Pineapples, we’d seen, but we were intrigued with a red, spiny fruit that looked impenetrable. Known as a rambutan in its native Southeast Asia, in Costa Rica the dangerous-looking fruit is called Mammon Chino, or “Chinese sucker,” because you suck the fruit from the shell. Hidden inside the slightly sweet, custardy pulp is a seed that can contain low levels of poison. The other reason to avoid the seed is that it tastes bitter, and can choke a baby, according to our guide.
In Guatemala, we dined at a local Italian spot, L’Osteria, which was a rambling restaurant with some interesting twists. With its elevated wooden walkways and graveled open area dotted with lawn furniture, it looked like it should be at the beach, not in a crowded neighborhood. Inside the gate was a bicycle rack with a sign announcing anyone who rode their bike to the restaurant could save 15 percent on their bill. Next to the kitchen were two pizza ovens with mosaic-tiled shells. Classy, however, below was a bright-blue chair made out of reclaimed car tires. The menu was printed magazine style with full-page color pictures of dishes that looked more like mood shots than entrée suggestions.
A trend I found interesting in San Salvador, the capital city, was that Pizza Hut is considered fine dining there. Salvadorians bring their extended families out to dinner, so franchised restaurants there tend to be big-box buildings. Most also have indoor playgrounds because for safety reasons, parents are afraid to take their children to the local parks to play. Good for American brands—even Denny’s had an indoor park there—but a sad statement for kids growing up there.