A bespoke day-long tour around San José, Costa Rica with chef Federico Lizano might involve a cup of locally grown and roasted artisanal coffee at Kalú, a gorgeous space in Barrio Escalante; a sampling of heirloom tomatoes at Las Hortelanas, an organic farm in the hills of Santa Ana; or a plate of slow-smoked carne ahumada (beef jerky meets smoked meat) at a hidden backyard restaurant called a clandestino. Here, a matronly home chef monitors the bubbling olla de carne (beef stew) on an outdoor stove while serving up frosty mugs of “gin” (slang for ginger ale).
Lizano’s love for slow food is propelled by his reverence of local ingredients: Costa Rica’s unique geography and resulting microclimates allow the country to grow some of the best produce in the world and access seafood from both Caribbean and Pacific waters. He is also fascinated by Costa Rica’s old-world culinary traditions—from recipes and techniques to equipment and even fuel. The clandestino smoked meat is a perfect example of heritage slow food: thin strips of beef are pinned to a rod and hung over a tiered, cast-iron, wood-fired stove, above pots of simmering stews. The meat is flavoured by neighbouring dishes as it desiccates in the rising smoke.
Lizano routinely scouts the Costa Rican countryside to learn from home chefs in the hopes of preserving this knowledge and sharing it with the country’s emerging slow food scene. At his flagship San José restaurant, Maza Bistro, these traditional techniques are regularly integrated into the cooking practices.
“We’ve tried to make a menu that’s open to different kinds of tastes.”
“We do a lot of smoking and braising over wood. The food cooks for a long time, but it also gains lots of flavour, bringing out the best [from] the ingredients,” says Lizano. He also collects volcanic rock from around the country: once heated, these fuel-efficient stones hold their temperatures, allowing Lizano to cook vegetables and proteins on the rock’s surface.
While the techniques and ingredients are local, Maza has taken a relatively new concept in Costa Rica—brunch—and made it into an all-day affair. The menu features dishes that are both soothingly familiar and excitingly new for locals and tourists: gluten-free pancakes made with coconut and yuca flour (also known as cassava or tapioca), served with cashew butter, basil oil and guisaro (guava) compote. Maza’s take on French toast (“We don’t call it ‘French’ because it’s Costa Rican,” says Lizano) features homemade vegan bread with Caribbean-chocolate ganache, organic candied peanuts, lime-ginger syrup and a coconut glaze. The free-range poached eggs are served with a culantro coyote hollandaise (featuring wild cilantro) plus homemade brioche, heirloom tomatoes and fresh arugula.
After years of travel and research, Lizano and his team at Maza have contributed something unique to the international culinary scene: a true Costa Rican brunch. “We’ve tried to make a menu that’s open to different kinds of tastes. [Serving brunch] has given us the opportunity to [embrace] a concept that is well known in other countries, using local ingredients and traditional cooking techniques.”
Federico Lizano’s picks for quick bites to eat in San Jose
“Olivia’s pizza is different because they make their tomato sauce from scratch, and the chef is one of the most talented cooks in the country.”
“The lamb and beef meatballs from Buchón is slow-food cooking at its best. Good technique from back in the day and simple, but super tasty.”
“This is the place to find the best coffee in San José with the best doughnuts. They care about coffee and give it the importance it deserves.”