Liz Furlong strolls through frames of passion fruit vines at Las Hortelanas, a tiny organic farm in Santa Ana, just outside San Jose. She picks a pasiflora (garnish for her La Maldita cocktail) and reminisces about her first impressions of Costa Rica: "There were fruits I had never heard of, all these plants and herbs. Everything was super-vibrant and fresh." At the Hotel Belmar, the location of her first bartending stint in the country, "there were beautiful edible flowers all over the property, all organic, but basically just for decoration. At the time, nowhere in the Costa Rican bar world was anyone doing anything with them." So she did.
She wanders off to find some amaranth for the shrub she plans to make for us later in the day.
Furlong moved to the tropics nearly four years ago. Today, the 28-year-old Canadian is the most sought-after bartender in Costa Rica, with consulting appointments booked well into 2017. She spends the better part of the year traveling all over the country, working closely with chefs, designing custom cocktail menus, and training bartenders for high-end hotels and restaurants. She knows she's connecting on a personal level, too. "People are really proud and motivated in a new way in their jobs—in an almost artistic way, I think." This recent anecdote is the sweetest: An old trainee, prepping for a competition, asked her for feedback on the recipe. "And he really got it! All that effort and hard work had really sunk in. I was so proud!" She advised that he tell the judges his inspiration for the recipe, to which he said, "I'm going to tell them about you!"
Furlong's arrival dovetailed perfectly with the country's rediscovery of slow food. In both food and drink, there's an ideological shift gradually taking hold: Buy local, as it's not better just because it's imported. "We don't need to use Scotch in our cocktails because it's super-expensive or imported. We should use rum. We should make cheese plates with local cheeses instead of using imported Brie—I don't even know how you can make money using that! You can walk across the street from Maza [Lizano's restaurant] and pick mangoes. We pass a place on our walk to work where pitangas grow wild. They're a sort of chili-meets-berry—tastes kind of like raspberry. Everything grows so nicely here."
A majority of Costa Rica's old-guard chefs have been trained in classical French cuisine, says Lizano, a 33-year-old Costa Rican native. There's an inherent conflict when you try to create temperate, Old World classics with tropical, New World ingredients. Many of these chefs either try to force local ingredients into submission or import products at great expense. Add to this a growing tourist industry and an assumption that North American and European travelers will prefer hamburgers and pasta, and you've relegated Costa Rican food to sodas and clandestinos. And if sodas are your only experience of Costa Rican food, you'll walk away with the grave misconception that Costa Rican food is boring as hell.
"It happens a lot that if someone has a guest here, they'll take them to an Italian restaurant or an Argentinian steakhouse," Lizano continues. "Liz and I wanted to show you different types of scenarios, but all involving Costa Rica. Kalú, where we went for breakfast, was a first-world experience with really great Costa Rican coffee." (Kalú is indeed gorgeous. With its bright-white, midcentury modern interiors, lush plants and a highly Instagrammable patio, it's the stuff of tropical architectural dreams.) "The clandestino, where we went for lunch, was [also] 100-percent typical Costa Rican."
Clandestinos are unlicensed restaurants, typically set in someone's home. They are the go-to destinations for authentic, old-school Costa Rican slow food—but, as you can imagine, not very accessible to those not in the know.
We pile into the car and head out. A few minutes into the drive, the two begin debating: "Do you think they'll like it?" "Yeah, I think so … maybe?" "OK let's try it." Lizano pulls into a side street, down a dusty alley, and interrupts three little boys playing soccer. He asks them where the clandestino is—he hasn't been back in a while. (Furlong found it in the first place: a taxi driver named Shampoo brought her here.) The boys lazily indicate it's right behind us; they're more concerned that Lizano move his car: "You do see we're in the middle of a game, right? Go away."
Lizano backs up, away from the boys' makeshift soccer pitch, and parks. We walk down a nondescript driveway, through the side of someone's house and their backyard, and into the most incredible makeshift bungalow. Inside, we are met by a mishmash of chairs, plants, at least five fish tanks, a wood-burning stovetop, and some of the friendliest faces we've seen during our travels.
RECIPE: La Maldita Cocktail
The food here is definitely not your typical soda fare: There's actual soda, for starters. Ginger ale, which is delightfully nicknamed "gin," is served in mugs straight from the freezer. Also on offer is olla de carne, a hearty beef stew with rice, pumpkin, yucca, and potatoes.
We're also served chicharrónes with patacones and beans, as well as smoked meat, which the chef, Maggie, prepared by hanging pieces of beef above her cooker and leaving them to smoke on the spot. The results are something like a smoked jerky and completely perfect.
"The dishes we had at the clandestino require a long, long time [for] preparation," Linzano later confides. "[Maggie] wasn't worrying about how long she would take. The only thing she was worried about was that we were happy eating what we were eating. That's all."
For Lizano and his contemporaries—chefs like José Gonzaléz and Saúl Cordero—this style of slow food simply begs for renewed reverence for local ingredients and experimentation, an intersection of old and new. You'll find the results of this on the menu at Lizano's new bistro-café Maza, and you'll find Furlong at Alma De Amon. Together, they're also launching an event and catering company called 86, and speakeasy-style private dinners. (Furlong and Lizano's own clandestino perhaps?) In the meantime, don't forget to ask them to take you to visit chef Maggie in the hills of Escazú.