Fishing — and making memories — with his dad in Costa Rica

“It wasn’t like this the last time I was here,” my father harrumphed as we cast our lines toward the shallows of Lake Arenal.

It was easy to believe him. We’d been fishing for more than two hours and there’d been nary a nibble. He had visited this lake in the northern reaches of Costa Rica nearly two decades earlier. His fond memories of bringing up more than his fair share of guapote, a cichlid fish with hypnotic spotting, and razor-toothed machaca had become one of his favorite tales to tell at family get-togethers, cocktail parties and anywhere else he could find an audience.

I didn’t mind that we hadn’t caught dinner yet. It was a sunny morning in early November of last year. A few wispy clouds punctuated the blue sky, and a slight breeze ruffled the lake, keeping us cool. At the far southeastern end, a wall of mist obscured Arenal Volcano, an active peak that had experienced its last major eruption in 1998.

I wasn’t sure that my father and I would ever have another day quite like this one. Although he’s the most active and adventurous 86-year-old I know, his hearing and eyesight have been slowly deteriorating in recent years, and he often gets dizzy spells — aftershocks from a decade-old stroke. Back home in Washington, my wife was eight months pregnant. Soon my responsibilities and schedule would change, making long trips like this one difficult.

“Let’s try trolling,” our guide, Sancho, suggested as he fired up the outboard motor at the end of his flat-bottomed johnboat.

He guided us away from the water’s edge until we were 100 yards out, then angled us parallel to the jungle-covered shoreline. As we cast our lines on opposite sides, I mentally crossed my fingers in the hope that we would catch something. I didn’t want this new adventure to end in disappointment for my father, who clearly wanted to add some new myths to his storytelling arsenal.

“I’ve got something!” I heard him exclaim behind me. Unfortunately, when he pulled in his line, he found an immature, six-inch machaca wriggling at the end of it.

Thankfully, his next strikes yielded a pair of two-pound fish that were tossed into an ice chest after a few quick smacks to the head. After another hour, I managed to add another to our haul. It wasn’t enough to brag about, but it would be enough for dinner.

Finish reading this story on the Washington Post website.

Share

Best Bites & Stellar Sips: Costa Rica

Getting to spend a week traveling around central Costa Rica with my dad was a rare treat. This bonding trip was a last hurrah before I become a father myself, so we tried to pack in as much as possible. In between spotting poison dart frogs during rainforest treks, fishing for guapote (rainbow trout) in a primordial lake at the center of an extinct volcano crater, and relaxing in natural hot springs, we had a chance to check out the local food scene. These are my favorite culinary moments from our adventuresome excursion.

Casem Coop

We had the best meal of the trip up in the cloud forest settlement of Monteverde. This tiny, backroom restaurant at the local artists cooperative serves well-executed comida tipica (traditional food) that’s equally fresh, flavorful, and filling. My arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) came with small salad and a glass of just-juiced guanabana (soursop), all of it simply delicious and well priced.

Passion Fruit Juice Bar & Coffee House

Stumbled across on an unassuming side street in the dusty tourist town of La Fortuna, this diminutive squeezed-to-order café came as a welcome surprise on a hot afternoon. I opted for a strawberry-mango smoothie, while Dad ordered a show stealing mango batido ­– fresh fruit blended with milk and ice – that I wanted to steal as soon as I’d tried a sip.

Tom’s Pan

Otherwise known as the German Bakery (not to be confused with the Austrian Bakery, which is just a few doors down the hill), this laidback operation in Nuevo Arenal is perfect for breakfast. Strong cappuccinos go well with a basket of the house-made rolls and hearty whole wheat toast, or maybe one of their winning cinnamon buns.

Café Monteverde

My favorite coffee in the world comes from one of the most difficult-to-reach roasters on the planet. Their rich dark roast is more than worth the three-hour drive over pothole-riddled dirt roads. A pick-me-up espresso was so outstanding that my 85-year-old father declared it was one of the best he had ever enjoyed in his entire life. And this is coming from a guy who has enjoyed dopios from the tip to the top of Italy.

Las Delicias

This unassuming gem in Nuevo Arenal offers an excellent representation of regional fare. Breakfasts were particularly memorable. I always ordered a casado – a plate full of scrambled eggs, gallo pinto (spiced rice and beans), fresh slices of avocado, a few fried plantains, fresh sour cream or a slab of fresh Costa Rican cheese, and one or two palm-sized tortillas.

Share

Chefs du Tour: Where Bethesda’s top chefs go for R&R and what they eat when they get there

Being a chef might look like fun and games on the Food Network, but it’s a grueling gig. The hours are long, it’s hot as hell in the kitchen and you’re on your feet all day. Plus, you’ve got to deal with the occasional mouthy waitperson, oil fires and complaining customers. By the time vacation rolls around, most chefs can’t wait to trade their aprons and Crocs for sunglasses and flip-flops.

No matter where in the world they go, good eats play a role in their travels. Chefs might not be offering to cook anyone dinner—who wants to work on holiday—but they’re more than ready to enjoy childhood favorites, discover regional specialties or dig into comfort food classics.

We checked in with some traveling toques to find out about their itineraries and best bites as they get that much-needed break from the burners.

Destination: Lake Tahoe, Calif.

Robert Wiedmaier
Mussel Bar, Bethesda

When the 52-year-old chef-restaurateur touches down in California for vacation with his family, they make a beeline for the nearest In-N-Out Burger. He gets his hamburger “Animal Style,” topped with lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, extra pickles and special sauce. To commemorate this stop at the patty palace, he picks up a T-shirt. “They’re always changing the design,” he says. “So now I have a huge collection.”

These summer trips to the West Coast are often booked around family reunions, which sometimes take place on the shores of Lake Tahoe. Since part of his family lives in Alaska, they feast on salmon, chili and elk brought in fresh from the last frontier. “I stay out of the kitchen unless I’m asked to taste something,” Wiedmaier says. “I usually tell whoever’s cooking to add more heat.”

Destination: Puerto Rico

José Andrés
Jaleo, Bethesda

The 43-year-old chef-restaurateur was seeking middle ground when he found his ideal vacation destination. “Puerto Rico is the perfect meeting point between the country I come from—Spain—and the country that adopted me,” he says. “I love the island, the cooking and the beautiful, small frogs that sing all night long.”

He enjoys golfing, sailing and scuba diving in this tropical paradise. During one deep-sea expedition 100 feet below the surface to a reef wall, Andrés saw his first sea turtle. “It changed my life,” he says. “It’s very astonishing to see how much life is under the water.”

Back on dry land, he makes time to eat at José Enrique Restaurante in San Juan. “I’ve eaten some of the best lobster dishes there,” Andrés says. “Puerto Rican chefs are becoming some of the best in the world.” That’s high praise from a James Beard-award winner, and yet another reason to book a ticket to the Island of Enchantment pronto.

Find out where all the other chefs go by clicking over to the Bethesda Magazine website now.

Share

Best Bites: Hawaii, the Big Island

A recent trip to the Aloha State included a non-stop exploration of the local food scene. In this last of three posts (check out recs for Kauai and Oahu), I look back at our favorite gastro memories from Hawaii, the Big Island, which include furikake crusted ono, hot pepper cheese balls, and lilikoi mousse.

Big Island Peppers

My wife loves hot peppers and – though I don’t have her extreme tolerance – I do, too. So when we found a small stand in the Hilo farmers market selling Cheez Doodle style snack balls coated with fresh ground Hawaiian hot peppers, we couldn’t resist. The flavor morphed from artificial cheese to a smoky, yet floral, capsaicin burn that was so compelling that I had to contain myself from eating the whole bag in a single sitting.

CanoeHouse

Hawaiian master chef Alan Wong started out years ago at this beachside beauty at the Mauna Lani Bay resort before going on to build his own empire. Recently appointed chef de cuisine Allen Hess carries on the restaurant’s prodigious pedigree with an impressive new menu that highlights locally sourced proteins and produce. The furikake crusted ono with tempura fried green beans and ginger dressing was a tour de force – the plate went back practically licked clean.

Shipman House Bed and Breakfast

Every morning we stayed at this historic home-turned-inn overlooking Hilo, we were greeted with a colorful spread of fresh fruit (seen above). Much of it was grown on the property, and the platter often included guava, passion fruit, figs, several kinds of papaya, dragon’s eyes, and white pineapple. There were also thick slices of freshly baked Hawaiian sweet bread, which were the perfect AM treat after they were toasted up and slathered with local butter and homemade lilikoi butter.

Merriman’s Waimea

Chef-owner Peter Merriman is one of a core clutch of Hawaiian chefs helping define modern island cuisine. Fresh caught fish and locally raised beef star in many of the entrees, but it was the dessert course that I found the most fetching. The Hanaoka Farms lilikoi mousse has been on the menu since the restaurant opened and it’s easy to see why. Smooth, creamy, slightly tangy and not-too-sweet, it was a picture perfect finale.

Holualoa Inn

This jaw-droppingly gorgeous bed and breakfast is well situated on nearly 30 acres, where a rainbow of fruits and coffee grow in abundance. Every morning, this beautiful bounty is showcased at the meticulously crafted breakfasts courtesy of musician-turned-master-chef Brian Conaway. His apple banana pancakes topped with toasted coconut, bits of toasted macadamia nuts, coconut whipped cream and house-made lilikoi syrup were a highlight of the trip (and a reason why we can’t wait to return for a much longer stay).

Share

Best Bites: Kauai, Hawaii

A recent trip to the Aloha State included a non-stop exploration of the local food scene. In this second of three posts, I look back at our favorite gastro memories from “The Garden Isle,” where we enjoyed a porky burger, primo poke, and, of course, shaved ice.

The Feral Pig

Hawaii’s heritage hogs are showcased at this easy-to-miss roadside restaurant inside an unassuming mini mall. Though it’s not on the menu, the namesake burger – made with half Kauaian beef and half local pork ground together – is the top choice here. A close second is the Kauai-Cubano, which bookends Kalua pork, ham, house-made pickles, Swiss cheese, and onion-mustard between a soft, yet hearty, roll. Both go down well with a refreshing glass of the homemade ginger-lemonade. 

Hanalei Dolphin

This Hanalei institution deserves the considerable attention heaped upon it. For a more casual happy hour or a relaxed lunch, sit out on the lanai; grab a seat at the sushi bar if you’re super serious about your sashimi; dine inside the restaurant if you want to be in the shade. The beer battered fish tacos (made with the catch of the day) and the spicy tuna ahi poke (it’s not on the menu, but it’s available) are your two best bets, though you can’t go wrong with the sushi. 

Shave Ice Paradise

Good shave ice is impossible to beat on a hot Hawaiian day and this stand makes a superlative version. Get a “root beer float” by asking for a scoop of vanilla at the bottom, root beer syrup, and a snowcap of condensed milk on top. My favorite featured a hidden globe of coconut ice cream at the core with lilikoi and mango syrups drenching the finely razored ice (seen above).

Salt Pond Country Store

You could drive by this shop a thousand times without looking at it twice, but you’d be making a mistake. This mini-mart stocks a wide variety of simple, freshly made Asian foods packaged to go. The rice-packed yuba and the fried chicken were both standouts and only cost $5 total, making it the meal deal of the trip.

Hanalei Pizza

The stereo at this slapdash pizzeria bangs out the requisite reggae tunes non-stop, while the half-stoned hippie hipsters behind the counter turn out surprisingly quality pies. The crust here is made with coconut water and comes topped with everything from locally sourced Kalua pork and Maui onions to more unexpected items, such as sauerkraut and beets. Friendly warning: your pizza will probably take at least 30 minutes to make, so bring along your vacation reading or take the time to walk around the nearby shops.

Share

Best Bites: Oahu, Hawaii

A recent trip to the Aloha State included a non-stop exploration of the local food scene. In this first of three posts, I look back at our favorite gastro memories from “Hawaii’s Gathering Place,” which pleasantly surprised us at almost every turn.

Opal Thai Food

This food truck turned bustling strip mall gem may have been the best food we had our entire trip. As we were sucking down sweet ‘n’ strong Thai iced coffees, owner Opel Sirichandhra asked us what our preferences were, then proceeded to bring out a slew of winning Northern Thai dishes (consider it the North Shore’s budget-friendly version of Little Serow), including a particularly memorable pork larb that was equally sweet, spicy, and vinegary.

Nobu

It’s no surprise that when Nobu lists “Shaved Ice” on its dessert menu, it’s not going to be a straightforward take on the classic Hawaiian dessert. Instead, this picturesquely presented version is made with finely razored strawberry ice drizzled with mango syrup and condensed milk, then paired with blueberries and raspberries, and a scoop of dulce de leche ice cream.

Dat Cajun Guy

The idea of traveling ten hours to the land of mango shave ice, ahi poke, and just-harvested papaya only to dine on deep fried favorites from New Orleans seems a little ridiculous. But this freshly minted food truck with a near impeccable Yelp rating was a welcome discovery. Sweet potato fries with a tingly green onion aioli (seen above) and the crispy, crunchy catfish po boy were both spot on.

Prima

Most zas made on the islands are artless and disappointing, a cheap and easy way to fill the bellies of unadventurous mainlanders. Thankfully, this forward thinking Neapolitan pizzeria is upping the game. Hands down the best pizza I’ve ever had on any of the Hawaiian isles. Go for the Di Bologna, which stars an orangey, soft yolked egg at the center surrounded by pepperoncini, mortadella, and guanciale.

Waialua Sugar Mill

Most shave ice stands use commercially manufactured syrups (which I have no guff with, for the most part), but this boutique operation makes all of theirs from scratch. One particularly winning option uses locally grown chocolate and coffee and a dash of coconut syrup. For a lighter option, get the sweetly tangy lilikoi (passion fruit) with a creamy snowcap of condensed milk (seen above).

Share

Road Tripping with Bayou Bakery’s David Guas for Harley-Davidson’s Ridebook (Photo Gallery)

When Harley-Davidson called a couple of weeks ago to ask if I wanted to take a road trip up to Pennsylvania with Bayou’s Bakery’s David Guas, I had only question: Would I need to drive a motorcycle?

Luckily, my trusty 2005 Pontiac Vibe was an acceptable mode of transportation. The trip was a go.

A few days later, I rendezvoused with Guas at his Louisiana-accented comfort food café in Arlington. Our final destination would be Hackenberg Apiaries in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, which produces some of the honey used in Bayou Bakery’s muffins, salad dressings, and their wickedly refreshing hibiscus tea cocktail.

We hit the road midmorning – me in my grizzled car with the windows cranked down, and Guas on his Softail. Once we got out into the Maryland countryside, it was hard not to get hungry and pull over right away since there was food everywhere. Chubby’s BBQ had a “Bikers Welcome” sign, roadside farm stands selling freshly harvested vegetables abounded, and vineyards were a common sight.

Around lunchtime, we did stop at Red Rabbit, which promised a quick bite and cooling shade. It was an old fashioned drive-in right out of the 1950’s. Waitresses shuttling packed red plastic trays crisscrossed the parking lot, a vintage pinball machine flashed and chattered underneath the awning, and the clerk at the counter called everyone honey. A pair of the signature Bunny Burgers topped with crunchy, hickory smoked bacon strips and a tangy secret sauce, fries, and a crisply cold birch beer soda – a Keystone state favorite – were the perfect fuel for the remainder of the ride.

By early afternoon, the slow crawl of the Susquehanna River consumed the vista on the right side. Small wooded islands dotted the expanse. Tightly clustered trees came up to the shoreline, shrouding each one with mystery. Then the landscape went from flat to rolling; it was like passing into waves thrown up in the wake of a boat’s passing.

We arrived at the beekeeper’s sprawling farm in the early afternoon, where Guas proceeded to set up a camp and ready a fire pit so he could bake cornbread in the coals that evening.

I won’t tell you how it all went down though.

You’ll have to click over to Harley-Davidson’s Ridebook website to read my story.

Before you leave though, please do browse the photo gallery of shots that I snapped over the course of the trip. I wanted to capture unexpected images lurking in the periphery. To give them a timeless feeling, I shot them all using Hipstamatic and mostly in black and white. Enjoy.

Share

Smith Island: Paradise Lost

Intermittent showers sweep down from the blue-slate sky as the mail boat churns across the Chesapeake Bay. There is nothing around us, except for the occasional buoy bobbing defiantly in the white-tipped chop. The insistent growl of the motor makes conversation with the other two passengers nearly impossible, so I stare out the rain-splattered window into the foggy oblivion.

Our destination is Smith Island, a small chain of marshy, low-slung isles with three small communities spread across them. There’s Ewell, the largest town and de facto capital; Rhode’s Point, oftentimes referred to as Rogue’s Point by islanders; and Tylerton, which is alternately known as Drum Point. The only inhabited offshore islands in Maryland, they are home to a small community of watermen and their families.

After settling in Jamestown, Virginia, Captain John Smith charted the Chesapeake Bay in the early 17th century; during those explorations, he dubbed a string of bay islands the Russell Isles. Later that century, Jamestown’s own Henry Smith was granted 1,000 acres of this land, and the area’s islands became known as Smith Island. Largely composed of salt marshes, it was used for generations as a place for livestock grazing; since the late 17th century, the locals have made a living by fishing for blue crabs in the summer months and oystering during the winter. But as strict fishing regulations, intended to bolster crab populations, continue to limit how many can be caught, and as cheaper Asian alternatives flood the shellfish market, locals are watching their longtime livelihood slip away.

The shift has led to a steep population decline as young islanders and families unable to support themselves have moved over to the mainland. According to the 2010 census, only 276 people now call the islands their home, down from a historic high of approximately 900 people a century ago. It is an aging population: More than 60 percent of islanders are over 50, while fewer than 10 percent have reached their 18th birthday.

The population isn’t the only thing breaking down: The islands themselves are slowly slipping below the water as erosion devours a shoreline that never rises higher than four feet. According to the US Army Corps of Engineers, Smith Island has lost more than 3,300 acres of wetlands in the past 150 years. Though the agency is currently engaged in several projects that aim to protect and restore the remaining land, it may not be enough to save this fragile ecosystem.

“With the continuing rise of sea level, erosion is a fact of life on Smith Island,” says Jeff Halka, director of the Maryland Geological Survey. “If you look at the history of the bay, there have been any number of islands—Holland Island, James Island, Poplar Island—that were inhabited with substantial communities, and now they’re gone or virtually gone.” It seems Smith Island’s demise isn’t so much a question of if, but when.

THE DEPARTED 
About halfway through the 45-minute trip by boat, Smith Island rises out of the mist like a submerged lost world breaking to the surface. At first all that can be seen are the tops of the trees waving in the wind, but soon the church steeple comes into view, followed by the modest one- and two-story homes that line the waterfront. Pulling up to the dock in Ewell, I am immediately swarmed by a black cloud of mosquitoes, gnats, and greenheads. “Lots of moisture and no wind,” captain Otis Ray Taylor explains as I swat at the dive-bombers and frantically root around for my bottle of Off.

As soon as my skin is glistening with bug repellent and granted a reprieve from the bloodthirsty insects, I can appreciate these new surroundings. Birdsong brightens up the murky May day, providing a cheery soundtrack to the scene. The road to the town extends in front of me, while the shoreline next to me boasts several whitewashed rectangular shanties where watermen work.

That’s where I find Mark Kitching, a lifelong crabber with soft eyes and roughened hands who has been working on the water for well over a quarter century. He is dividing his catch into two main categories: soft crabs that are ready to eat, and “reelers,” which are about to shed their shells and become soft crabs. The former are neatly packed into waxed cardboard boxes to be sent over to the mainland, where they can fetch $25 to $30 a dozen. The latter are put into aerated tanks and monitored until the metamorphosis makes them market-ready.

Kitching’s speech shows off the local drawl, which some linguists have dubbed Elizabethan, but which comes across more like a slightly twangy Southern accent. “This is probably the end,” he tells me when I ask him where he sees the local crabbing industry going in the next decade. “There’s nobody coming up after me.”

Not far away, Janet Evans teaches first through seventh grades at the on-island school, which now has only eight students enrolled. Despite the declining ranks, Evans’s warm classroom is crammed full of art projects in progress, a colorful jumble of toys, and pictures of all the American presidents. An alphabetical list of her students runs down the door of a cabinet. When I ask Evans if she thinks any of them will end up living on the island, she doesn’t say anything, just shakes her head while pursing her lips.

She doesn’t stay quiet for long. Soon she’s talking about the precipitous decline of Smith Island. “It used to be that when the guys graduated—if they went to high school at all—they got their boat and went to work,” she explains. “They married their sweetheart, settled down, and started a family. Now very few people want their children to stay here. When you keep pushing that, you can’t expect the population to stay the same.” Taking a deep breath, she finishes. “I hate to say it, but there’s really no hope. I always thought that eventually, down the line, [the island's people] would see a situation like this; I just never expected it in my lifetime.

Janet Tyler, the manager of the Smith Island Cultural Center and a 13th-generation islander, echoes that sentiment. “We’re in crisis mode with losing our people,” she says, her eyes glistening with emotion. “Because there’s no younger ones having families to generate people from. It’s getting scary here.” All around Tyler are reminders of the island’s vibrant past. Hanging from the ceiling are pieces of traditional fishing equipment—a crab pot, an oyster dredge, a sculling oar—while an original crabbing skiff built in 1919 sits at the center of the small museum. And there is a corner devoted to Smith Island’s culinary traditions, which show no sign of dying out.

Finish reading this story on the Capitol File website now.

Photo courtesy of Kip Dawkins.

Share