Costa Rican dishes stand out on the eclectic menu at Guanaticos, South Orange's new Salvadoran/Costa Rican restaurant.
I'm always excited when I can add another Costa Rican flag to the EthnicNJ map. Guanaticos opened this summer on Irvington Avenue in South Orange, right next to EthnicNJ favorite Lalibela, down the street from Munchies. It's wonderful to live in New Jersey, where you can walk from Central America to the Caribbean, with a quick stop for Ethiopian food.
I thought the name - Guanaticos - meant the owners had to be from Guanacaste, the northwestern Pacific peninsula and province of Costa Rica. Costa Ricans are known as "Ticos." Turns out the restaurant's name is a mash-up of "Guanaco" - slang for people from El Salvador - and Tico. The couple that opened the restaurant is bicultural. He is from Costa Rica. She is from El Salvador. Hence, Guana-Ticos. The woman cooking in the kitchen, however, is Costa Rican, so the flavors in many dishes tilt toward the Costa Rican versions.
For dinner recently, we tried a traditional casado - meat or fish typically served with rice, black beans, cabbage salad and sweet plantains (platanos maduros). Guanaticos' beef casado came with all of the above, a regular salad instead of the cabbage salad, plus two fried eggs and potato hash (picadillo de papa). The plate tasted just like the common dish served all over Costa Rica. The chicken soup our daughter ordered, homemade with fresh vegetables and stringy chicken pieces, is excellent. The arroz con pollo (chicken with rice) is OK, a little oily for my taste. The steak with fried onions (bifstek encebollado), a thin, well done cut of meat served over rice that absorbs all the meat and onion juices, reminds me of the versions I've eaten in Costa Rica.
Guanaticos' menu is a bit scattershot, ranging from empanadas to Mexican tacos to Salvadoran pupusas (thick, cheese-filled tortillas). I can only vouch for the Costa Rican platos tipicos. Curiously, Guanaticos does not serve traditional Costa Rican tacos - thin, deep fried, meat-filled tortillas.
The storefront space is spare, with a few tables, a counter with some stools, bright lights and minimal decoration - much more of a lunch counter than a restaurant feel. I'm told there's brisk business for breakfast and lunch.
For family-style Costa Rican food, my favorite sit-down spot is still Summit's The Banderas, but I will return to Guanaticos for a quick bite and plan to try a hearty plate of their pinto con huevo for breakfast.