Photo by Matt OttoI've reviewed restaurants located in a grocery mart's storage room. I've reviewed restaurants that were the sole occupants of an abandoned mall. I've reviewed taco trucks, swap-meet stands and a Tijuana dive crammed between coal mounds.
But undoubtedly, the worst location I've discovered for a must-review restaurant is the Westminster shopping center that is home to Pura Vida Costa Rican Cuisine. The restaurant itself is pleasant: an open kitchen bordered by baby-blue walls partially covered by tropical frog tapestries and a looped soundtrack drumming out salsa and merengue tunes in the background. But Pura Vida gets little foot traffic because it faces a stretch of the Westminster Shopping Center that's really just a walkway between two parking lots. Okay, so it's not coal mounds, but I wouldn't wish Pura Vida's spot on Arby's: on my visits, I'm usually one of two patrons—the other being my charming companion.
Pura Vida's bad spot is a shame since it's a rarity: elegant dining with fast-food efficiency, tremendous portions and chowhound appeal. It's one of two county restaurants specializing in Costa Rican cuisine, a dazzlingly jumbled diet with Caribbean, Mesoamerican, even Chinese influences. You'll find fried rice here, but it's spiked with bell peppers and cilantro accompanied by a bitter dollop of beet salad. The traditional Central American side of gallo pinto (garlic-soaked black beans mixed with white rice) accompanies everything, but so does a cup of salsa lizano, a tan, bittersweet sauce that's as integral to Costa Rican life as boozy American coeds. And while the three-to-an-order tamale tico is delicious but pedestrian—a moist slab of masa molded around pork chunks, more bell peppers and tubby rice—the barbudos suggests Norms in San José staffed by Mexican chefs: three lengths of scrambled eggs stuffed with green beans, onions and bell peppers all wrapped in a corn tortilla.
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Pura Vida also confects sweets worthy of Wonka with the caramelizado de zanahoria, side-by-side scoops of vanilla ice cream and caramelized carrot shavings, and chilled glasses of agua dulce, an horchata-looking beverage that's a combination of condensed milk, brown sugar and God's love. Pura Vida's ultimate appeal, however, lies in its meat preparation. Whether it's chicken, pork or beef, whether they butterfly slabs or chop up gorgeous chunks, all the meat dishes are lean, succulent and come served with veggies. And these aren't weirdly concocted platters, either: the casado de res, a shiny, expansive steak topped with fried plantains and onions sautéed to the point of sugar, could make the cover of Gourmet.
PURA VIDA, 6731 WESTMINSTER BLVD., STE. 113, WESTMINSTER, (714) 893-3611.