Catalina Meets Costa Rica

Restaurante Pura Vida combines unique food and friendly service into a fun dining experience.

It's worth noting that age-old axiom: Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.

This applies to this week's Chow review, because if the owner hadn't asked, her restaurant would not have been reviewed now, or anytime soon, in The Weekly. You see, we only review restaurants that we hear about or see or have exposure to. And Restaurante Pura Vida ... well, it's out there.

Its address is 15930 N. Oracle Road. It's way the hell north of Tucson, past Oro Valley, in a somewhat isolated shopping center in Catalina. Seeing as The Weekly's office is located on the southside near the airport, and none of our staffers (at least that I know of) live that far north--it's a 30-mile trek from the office to the restaurant--chances are we would not have wandered across the restaurant anytime soon.

But Erin Deely, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Victor Olivares, nagged us to review the place through e-mails and even a phone call or two. In admiration of her persistence, we decided to head up north to check the place out. But as everyone knows, a restaurant review can turn out well, or it can turn out to be a huge disaster.

Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.

I thought about this as I made the almost one-hour-long drive from my eastside residence to Restaurante Pura Vida on a recent Saturday night. I was meeting Irene Messina--who lives on the northwest side and thus had a much shorter trek than I--and as I drove I thought: How uncool would it be if after this long drive, and after all the efforts of the owner, the restaurant ends up sucking?

Thank goodness the restaurant didn't suck.

Irene and I arrived at 7 p.m., just as the sun was saying good-bye for the day. Off to the west, across Oracle Road, the sky was a beautiful canvas of reds and oranges. I noticed a young woman in the parking lot, snapping pictures of the glorious sunset. It turns out she would be our server; she'd wandered out for a second to take some shots.

The servers were kind enough to seat Irene and I were near a west-facing window, so we could enjoy the sunset. It provided a nice start to what would be an enjoyable, if not perfect, dining experience.

Once our energetic server came inside, we were enthusiastically greeted and given our menus. The cover touts "Central American and International Cuisine." Our server clarified that to mean that most of the food is Costa Rican, meaning it's flavorful, but not too spicy.

We decided to split an order of prensada, which is farmer's cheese and diced garlic sandwiched between corn tortillas and then grilled ($3.95). The soups looked good, too, so Irene ordered the sopa de frijoles ($2.95-$4.95), black bean soup with egg, cilantro, sweet pepper, garlic and onions. I went with the gazpacho ($2.95-$5.50), a cold vegetable soup puree.

The appetizers were quickly delivered, and they were quite good. The prensada was simple, yet tasty. The garlic was wonderfully strong. (Thank goodness I didn't have a date later where my breath could have been an issue.) Irene's soup was delicious--quite different from most black bean soups in that it had a more liquid consistency. Irene raved about it, and the bite I had made me wish I had ordered it instead of the gaspacho, which was also quite good--although it was quite spicy, violating what our server said in her introductory remarks. The soup had a kick; the server apologized and later said they just started including chiles in the recipe. I liked it; I was just surprised by it.

For main courses, I ordered the pollo jengibre ($11.95), chicken stewed with ginger, garlic, sweet peppers, onion and cilantro along with sides of white rice, black beans and cabbage salad. The menu's short on vegetarian entrees--meat and seafood shishkabobs, pork chops, chicken, steak and seafood are all presented in a variety of ways, but the only real entrées were a few pasta dishes. (There is a separate lunch menu, a weekend breakfast menu and a four-item kids' menu as well.) Irene's a vegetarian, and she didn't want pasta, so she decided on the casado, a house specialty with rice, black beans, cabbage salad, plantain, picadillo and scrambled eggs in place of the usual pork chop, chicken or beef.

At this point, the sun had set, so we were visually occupied with the restaurant's décor. Various knick-knacks--paintings, sombreros, baskets, etc.--adorn the pastel green walls. Tropical-themed tablecloths cover round tables, surrounded by wire mesh chairs. It's nice and bright, but it certainly has a strip-mall feel to it.

Our meals arrived and we dug in. My chicken breast--buried underneath a pile of accompanying vegetables--was juicy and delicious. Unlike my soup, it fit our server's description to a tee: not spicy, but flavorful. Irene and I both enjoyed our servings of black beans (which were good, albeit a bit bland) and our rice, which was nice and fluffy. The cabbage salad, which was tart thanks to an infusion of lime, didn't meet the fancy of either of us, but it was just a taste thing.

Irene enjoyed her perfectly cooked plantain and picadillo pieces, but her eggs were unspectacular--just eggs. (I also noted when the bill came that she was charged the same amount as someone ordering one of the meats; this seemed wrong to me, as eggs are much cheaper and easier to prepare than chicken, beef or pork.)

Though we were reasonably satisfied and full, we decided we both had to have dessert, seeing as we were doing the restaurant-reviewing thing. (Hey, it's a tough job.) I ordered the queque Pura Vida ($4.95), chocolate cake with pineapple, mango pieces, vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. Irene ordered the tres leches, or white cake soaked in three spiced milks.

Both were fresh and delicious. However, Irene's tres leches was to die for. Sweet, soft and delightful, it alone would have been worth the drive.

All in all, it was a fantastic, if imperfect, experience. I only wish I lived closer to Restaurante Pura Vida. Although maybe I should be careful about what I wish for, eh?