Dogs, Birds, Hamsters, and the Flying Tomato — By Jennifer Shipp
Central America Costa Rica North America

Dogs, Birds, Hamsters, and the Flying Tomato — By Jennifer Shipp

The Flying Tomato in La Fortuna, Costa Rica
Lydian sitting at a table while the dog sniffs around under the hamster cage near the entrance to the kitchen at The Flying Tomato vegetarian restaurant in La Fortuna.

The Flying Tomato was a restaurant that John really wanted to go to in La Fortuna. He was excited about it because it was the first real vegetarian restaurant that we’d found in Costa Rica that we’d be able to go to and that was featured at Happy Cow (an important online resource for vegans and vegetarians). It had excellent reviews and his expectations were very high.

We had gone to the orphanage in La Fortuna that morning and didn’t leave until sometime after noon, so we were hungry. John had told me earlier on Friday that “no matter what happens” he wanted to make sure we went to The Flying Tomato in La Fortuna. “If someone tries to take us to a different restaurant, I’m going to insist that we go to The Flying Tomato instead.” He told me.

So, after our orphanage visit, we started looking for this purportedly vegetarian restaurant where there were supposed to be two kindly women who would “cook whatever you wanted”. On the way, we saw a drum line, which was cool. We stopped and watched/listened to them for a few minutes thinking that we would be fed and satisfied very soon.

But that was not the case.

There were signs that led us to The Flying Tomato restaurant, which was located in a residential-type area of town. We

Lovebirds at The Flying Tomato vegetarian restaurant in La Fortuna, Costa Rica
Note the birds, located just behind the table at The Flying Tomato.

walked in and sat down without judging the place on face value. Most family-owned restaurants and shops in Costa Rica are set up to look a lot like the play-pretend restaurants and shops my brother and I used to set up when we were kids. We’d take whatever chairs and tables we could find and rearrange them in a room in the basement that had leftover pieces of carpet on the floor and the musty smell of leaking water that’s been sitting for awhile. If there was spare fabric laying around, we’d use that for table cloths or for “merchandising” our items more aesthetically. This is the typical look for Costa Rican restaurants and shops because people can’t afford to make things look pretty. I can accept that and even eat in an environment that looks like that, but The Flying Tomato took play pretend and kids’ view of good restaurant hygiene and service a step further.

We were a little overwhelmed from having been at the La Fortuna orphanage that morning and when we sat down, we didn’t assess the environment very well at first. Of course, there was the hodge-podge of tables and chairs scattered around a scanty space in which to sit. I noticed the birds in a cage behind John and thought they were cute. We ordered our food from a young girl who could most aptly be described as “dopey.” We ordered spaghetti and some smoothies made of soy milk and fruit.

Fifteen minutes later, I noticed the hamster in the corner by the kitchen. The girl tromped in and out with her flip flops and frumpy garb to get John a hot coffee (he’d ordered iced coffee). I was really hungry and thirsty at this point. Then, the dog came in.

He was a cute dog, probably a mutt, but what got my attention was that he was somewhat dirty. Around this time (perhaps thirty minutes into our wait), the frumpy girl came out again with our drinks. I imagined the condition of the blender used to make them and became concerned. John had by this time noticed the dog, the hamster, the birds, and the numerous signs on the wall about cats. Images of the girl petting the dog while preparing our food entered my mind. Perhaps she had cleaned out the hamster cage right before we arrived and then failed to wash her hands. And then the men next door started spraying out recycle bins in the lawn right outside. We decided to get the drinks to go, but as long as the food came out steaming hot, we thought that perhaps we’d be able to eat it and not die or get worms. We were being generous because we didn’t want to be…mean or seem stodgy.

But I wasn’t entirely sure about our decision. On our last trip to Morocco, John came home with cyclosporiasis, an intestinal

La Fortuna Costa Rica The Flying Tomato
A very disenchanted John at The Flying Tomato in La Fortuna. We had been waiting for 45 minutes or longer with the dog, the birds, the hamster, and the men next door spraying out recycle bins for a plate of spaghetti.

protozoan that made him sick for a month. He had eaten a rewarmed chicken-pastry-thing and then vomited and had diarrhea for twenty four hours in Fez. Then the protozoan became somewhat dormant and he just had an ashen appearance and completely lost his appetite. By the time he finally got treatment a month later, he had lost 20 pounds. We weren’t keen on taking risks with food, especially when the environment was so obviously toxic like that at The Flying Tomato in La Fortuna.

About 45 minutes into our wait, we decided to ask for the food “to go” (para llevar) and then just throw it away or give it to a homeless person. We were starving by then, but not hungry enough to risk foodborne illness. Thank God the food preparation had been delayed because it gave us time to realize that it would probably make us sick. When I asked her if we could get it to go, she said very succinctly that “No, it wasn’t possible. You’ll have to eat it here.” So, we quietly left the money for the food on our table and took off. I would recommend to anyone else (vegetarian or not) endeavoring to eat at The Flying Tomato to consider eating at home instead.

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