Count me among the many tourists who visit Aruba, the Dutch country in the Southern Caribbean, and stay in gorgeous high-rise resorts along the Southern beaches. However, I had the fortunate opportunity to drive around and dine like the locals. I ate at restaurants you’d likely never see or choose unless you had the inside scoop. So, here’s to sharing.
Breakfast: Linda’s Dutch Pancake House
Aruba was formerly a territory of the Netherlands, and Dutch customs shape much of the island’s culinary heritage. No surprise that Linda’s Dutch Pancake House specializes in Dutch pancakes. Blending the ingredients into a thin batter produces a confection slightly thicker than a crepe. Some pancakes contain fruit within the cake, but fresh ingredients or cheese top most. At Linda’s, a cup of coffee comes with a Hershey’s kiss.
I chose a traditional pancake baked with thin apple slices and raisins. The huge pancake that arrived tableside was almost the size of a pizza, covering an entire dinner plate. My order didn’t look as colorful as my friend’s mango and blueberry selection, but lackluster plate appeal wasn’t the end of the story. I followed the customary method of rolling the pancake, and then poured on a bit of Schenstroop, 100% beet sugar syrup. The luscious and satisfying taste reminded me of apple raisin strudel. I couldn’t have been happier with my choice. If I lived on Aruba, I’d want to dine at Linda’s every morning. It’s my kind of place. By the way, the restaurant gives a 10 percent discount to those using Bitcoin.
Zeerovers, meaning buccaneers in Dutch, appears from the road as a no-frills shack flying a pirate flag. It’s what we call in Florida, an outdoor fish camp or simple fish-fry restaurant, perched at the edge of a pier. The sparkling turquoise water and boats provide a $5 million dollar view, because, these days, $1 million wouldn’t get you such a fabulous scene. This idyllic spot in the seaside town of
Savaneta once served as the capital of Aruba.
Walk up to the main window and place an order from a hanging menu board featuring fresh fish from the ocean. The catch of the day might include wahoo, snapper, barracuda, kingfish, or shrimp. Choose a whole fish or filets. Side dishes include fries, onions in vinegar (pika), plantains (a starchy member of the banana family), and pan bati (Aruban cornbread). That’s it, but you won’t be disappointed.
Order a beer, maybe a Balashi, an Aruban favorite. Food orders come to the table in baskets (or in a bag of ice for those ordering uncooked fish to take home).
All the seafood is fried but without batter. It’s finger lickin’ good.
The caramelized plantains practically shout, “You want traditional Caribbean cuisine? Here it is.” The plantains were as scrumptious as any I have ever eaten. The French fries arrived cooked to perfection and salted with a little extra spice sprinkled on top. The only food I wasn’t crazy about was the cornbread. It looked more like a thick American pancake, cut into quarters.
The dessert menu features only one item: coconut cream ice cream served in a coconut shell. Don’t read the label or note the calorie count; just savor the feel of heavy cream as it coats the tongue. One coconut easily feeds two people.
Humble Zeerovers absolutely defines Aruba; enjoy the ambiance and the fish.
Charlie’s restaurant and bar sits in the San Nicolas area of the island. This part of the town formerly acquired a reputation for prostitution, but it is making great strides toward becoming an art district. Currently, you’ll find 10 or 12 stunning murals on exterior buildings painted by local and international artists. A new Museum of Industry, an arts center, and a shop selling handmade crafts are open and drawing customers.
Charlie’s sits on the same corner it has occupied for more than 55 years. Art, pennants, logos, knick-knacks, and well, you name it, adorn the overly crammed ceiling and walls. All the décor in about 100 Chili’s restaurants combined might come close to the volume Charlie’s offers. You could linger for hours without seeing everything.
Third generation owner Charlie, a most likable guy, deserves the moniker of “chef.” He personally prepares all the dishes on the menu. His barbequed ribs, eaten as an appetizer, can stand up to any of the renowned cuts in Kansas City, North Carolina, Alabama or Texas. The juicy meat falls off the bone and nearly melts in your mouth. Somehow the outside of the bones offer a slight but superlative crunch.
In season seafood reigns as the daily special, and I chose a shrimp dish with mango. My friends ordered lobster tails and blackened catch of the day.
Go at lunch time or late afternoon because, strangely, Charlie’s isn’t open at night. You’ll have an entertaining time, likely with live music.
Dinner: West Deck
Linear Park in Oranjestad, not far from the cruise ship harbor, lies near Governors Bay. Here you’ll find West Deck, a laid-back restaurant atop a large wooden deck. The owners first built a gourmet restaurant that they turned over to their son. West Deck, a casual island grill and lively beach bar, became their retirement passion.
I began with a beer margarita. The drink came in a square glass container with a bottle of Chill beer turned upside down. Every once in a while, I would lightly lift the beer bottle and let some of the liquid out. One of the tangiest margaritas ever was also fun.
West Dock features small plates or tapas ideal for sharing. Order a variety and pass them around. The spicy shrimp and seafood ceviche captured the taste of the ocean; peanutty goodness coats the chicken satay. A tenderloin skewer alternated beef chunks with plantains and a dash of salsa verde. The local favorite, Kenshi Yena, a thick chicken stew with prunes, local spices, and cashews, comes covered with Gouda cheese. I found the recipe, not from West Deck, but from the fine chef at the Aruba Marriott where I was staying (watch for the upcoming recipe.)
If you are lucky enough to visit Aruba, nicknamed One Happy Island, these four restaurants will keep your budget down, and I’ll bet you leave one happy customer. — —by Debi Lander, RFT Contributor