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Costa Rican riches: Buen Provecho serves up Central American cuisine

Patacones at Buen Provecho are made from unripe plantains sliced and fried and then mashed and fried again. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

Facing demolition a little more than a decade ago, the El Vado Motel on West Central got a reprieve.

The city bought the Route 66 landmark and had it restored as a mixed-use development. El Vado’s Pueblo Revival details, including its mock vigas and undulating parapets, got a spruce-up, as did the multicolored neon sign that evokes a distant era in American travel.

Restaurants and shops now operate behind formerly boarded-up windows and doors. Where a decaying parking lot once sprouted weeds, diners eat and drink at gleaming picnic tables.

El Vado’s food court has a handful of carry-out places carved into the former rooms and carports of the motel. Established operations like Rude Boy Cookies share the court with upstarts like Buen Provecho, Costa Rican-born Kattia Rojas’ restaurant that grew out of her success at the Sunday Rail Yards market.

Buen Provecho – the name refers to the Spanish version of the French expression bon appétit – was drawing most of the visitors on a recent weekday lunch hour. It’s cramped inside, with a counter crowded with baked goods up front and a kitchen in the back. There’s no seating. You order, get a number and wait either at one of the oval metal picnic benches in the courtyard or inside a taproom across the way that serves beers from Ponderosa Brewery in the Sawmill District. The taproom has the added bonus of a kiva fireplace that was part of the old motel lobby.

The restaurant serves up signature Costa Rican dishes like the must-try patacones ($5), green plantain slices that are fried, flattened and fried again. The unripe fruit holds up well to the cooking, producing a crisp coating and a chewy, starchy center. A drizzle of roasted garlic-cilantro aioli, a sprinkle of sharp queso fresco and scoop of pico de gallo are there to add heat and flavor. The five patties are enough for a shareable appetizer or a stand-alone meal.

Buen Provecho’s arroz con pollo is an example of Costa Rican casados, meals that wed rice, beans and protein into a cohesive whole. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

The menu offers three versions of the Costa Rican dinner staple known as casados. The name, drawn from the Spanish word for marriage, reflects a union of rice, beans and protein into one cohesive whole. Arroz con pollo ($10.50), a tightly packed dome of rice yellow with achiote seasoning and embedded with peas, carrots and tender pieces of chicken, is a great example of this. The dish comes with outstanding yucca fries and sweet plantains – basically, ripe versions of the ones served in the patacones. Queso fresco, spicy aioli and black beans bring salt and heat.

Costa Rican-style tamales wrapped in banana leaves are a departure from the corn-husk-wrapped varieties with the dense masa filling so common to these parts. The wrapping imparts a slight green banana flavor, and the masa winds up very moist, almost like polenta. Buen Provecho offers four varieties, including a pork tamale ($6) with hunks of slow-cooked pork, garbanzo beans, peas and carrots embedded in the masa. With the vegetarian option ($5.00), you get three kinds of roasted peppers and cheddar cheese. A small cup of red chile sauce delivers a sorely needed jolt.

Beverages include a special roast of Costa Rica’s famous coffee and six flavors of agua fresca ($4.50). The tangy sweetness of the passion fruit, served in a cup of ice pulverized to an almost snow-cone consistency, makes it a good match for the food.

Even if it wasn’t part of El Vado, Buen Provecho would be worth a trip. The setting makes it that much more special.