The food scene in Aruba caught me a little by surprise. It wasn’t simply good, it was superb, with a wide range of cultural influences. I was lucky enough to be there in October when the island celebrates ‘Eat Local Aruba Restaurant Month’ and many places had additional menus with some wonderful local dishes – their fresh fish was particularly good. While I enjoy seafood, it is rarely my first choice when dining out. However, the fish and seafood on this sun-drenched Caribbean island blew me away, as did the quality of pretty much everything I ate during my week-long stay.
In no particular order, here are my culinary highlights from Aruba.
Where and What to Eat in Aruba
Scallops at Wilhelmina Restaurant
Lokaal 2, Wilhelminastraat 74, Oranjestad (evenings only and no children under 12).
Named after the Dutch queen who reigned for some 58 years, the Wilhelmina Restaurant is in a renovated art deco building in Downtown Oranjestad, the capital of the island. The food here was superb, as was the service, and I ate what is now one of my favourite dishes, the Wilhelmina Salad, costing $18. The succulent grilled scallops and delicious chunks of Caribbean rock lobster were complemented by a salad containing haricots and edamame beans and a sprinkling of bacon and pine nuts – healthy and tasty all rolled into one.
For a main course I opted for Filet Mignon “au poivre” – a perfectly grilled Certified Angus beef tenderloin with haricots verts wrapped in bacon, pommes pont neuf (chunky chips to you and me) and a hollandaise and French pepper sauce. There was the option of either an 8oz steak ($46) or a 4oz lady steak ($32) – a term I’m less than keen on – but despite opting for the smaller portion, there still wasn’t room for dessert which was a shame as the Tarte Tatin, caramelized apple with puff pastry, vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce at $12, sounded particularly tempting. (Prices are in US dollars exclusive of the service charge and 1.5% sales tax.)
Pastechis at Huchada
4 328, Santa Cruz (Monday to Saturday open from 6am to 8pm, Sundays 8am to 2pm).
This colourful little bakery with a few tables and chairs is a great place to grab a bite to eat and a coffee for breakfast or a snack at any time. I tried the traditional Pastechi, a deep fried pastry which comes stuffed with either ground beef, ham and cheese, or chicken. These half-moon savoury pies flavoured with spices are Aruba’s national snack. Look out for the food truck Tia Rosa, which reputedly also makes excellent homemade pastechis. You should also try Arepa, which hails from nearby Venezuela, delicious dough parcels stuffed with cheese or other savoury deletes.
Huchada are also known for their delicious desserts. Quesillo, which is very similar to crème caramel, is a popular choice, and slips down far too easily.
Cactus Tempura with Forager Frank
Having spent 12 years working in a bank, Frank Kelly swapped his suit and tie for a pair of colourful shorts and turned to the foraging skills that he had learned from his grandmother. Frank now has a lifestyle that many would envy – he works as a graffiti artist come forager, organising pop up art galleries and special events and teaching others about foraging. Between events, he heads off to body board or play his guitar as the mood takes him.
We spent a fascinating morning with Frank, learning about the edible and medicinal plants on Aruba and sampling one of his delicious cocktails made from avocados, basil and lime mixed with local Palmera Rum. If you fancy learning how to make foraged falafels or cactus tempura, or want to commission some artwork or ask Frank to help you throw a pop up event to remember, you can contact him via his facebook page, Taki Aruba.
Fresh fish and seafood at Nos Clubhuis
Upstairs from Hadicurari Restaurant between Moomba Beach and Marriott Surf Club, Palm Beach (Open every day from 10am to 10pm).
Overlooking a beautiful sandy beach and thached parasols, Nos Clubhuis is where the local fishermen hang out and bring the best of their catch each day, usually wahoo, mahi mahi or tuna. It’s a great place to try authentic Aruban food. The atmosphere is welcoming and laid back, as is the service, but I found their Cangreu Burger ($11.50), a crab cake served with a spicy BBQ mayonnaise and fries, to be well worth the wait. I also tried their ceviche ($9.50), chunks of white fish marinated in lime with peppers, red onions and cilantro, which I’d highly recommend as well.
Fresh fish and seafood at Driftwood
Klipstraat 12, Oranjestad (Monday to Saturday 5 to 10.30pm).
Driftwood Restaurant in Downtown Oranjestad is owned by a local fisherman who personally catches all their fresh fish of the day, unless you opt, as we did, to catch your own dinner with a deep-sea fishing experience. Sadly, with the majority of our party feeling terribly seasick, we had to cut short our trip and head home empty handed. A great shame as I was thoroughly enjoying being out on the water. Of course, that didn’t stop us have a fabulous dinner that evening in this atmospheric restaurant, specialising in authentic Aruban seafood.
While the service was a little haphazard, the food was excellent and I’d still recommend it. For such a specialist seafood restaurant, I found their steak very good too but I did not spot any vegetarian options on the menu. Soups and appetisers start from $5 and their fresh fish of the day pan-fried Aruban style costs $26.95, while their Filet Mignon, US tenderloin costs $27.50.
Honeymoon sauce at Charlie’s Bar
Zeppenfeldstraat 56, San Nicolas (Kitchen open from 11.30am to 7pm. Closed Sundays and holidays).
In the colourful town of San Nicolas, a town worth visiting for the street art alone, Charlie’s Bar opened in the early 1940s when the town was nicknamed the New Orleans of the Caribbean. Over the years, this once booming town fell into decline, but it is now reinventing itself as a centre of music, art and culture.
Back in the town’s heyday, scuba divers started the tradition of hanging their underwater finds on the walls of Charlie’s Bar. Now you can see everything from car number plates to bundles of bank notes to student union cards from around the world, stuck to every available inch of the walls, doors and ceilings.
Charlie’s Bar simply oozes the sense of character and quirkiness that so many of us enjoy. And the traditional Aruban food served here won’t disappoint. If you like things spicy, ask for some Honeymoon Sauce but proceed with caution – it’s claimed it may lead to violent intercourse! Their words not mine (I think they probably mean ‘passionate’). I had a top notch Churrasco tenderloin steak ($22), served in a delicious mustard sauce which was tasty but not overpowering and just a dash of Honeymoon Sauce. With my fiancé back in England, I’m glad it didn’t live up to the claim, or maybe a dash is simply not enough!
Death by Chocolate at White Modern Cuisine
L.G. Smith Blvd, Noord (Monday to Saturday, 6pm to11pm).
In a new location on the Gold Coast Development, White Modern Cuisine is a little hard to find, but it is a great choice for a special occasion. I was pleased to see that their tantalising menu included many vegetarian and gluten free options. Prices are high and portions small, but every exquisitely presented morsel is bursting at the seams with flavours that will get your taste buds dancing.
At the end of our meal, I could have died fully satisfied as I tucked into their signature dessert, Death by Chocolate ($12) – chocolate lava cake with chocolate ganache, chocolate custard, white chocolate mousse, chocolate lemon vinaigrette, chocolate crumble, chocolate covered strawberries and Ferrero Rocher ice cream.
Watch the sunset at Passions on the Beach
J.E. Irausquin Boulevard 252, Eagle Beach (12 noon to 4.30pm and 6.00pm to 930pm).
With your feet in the soft sand and a view of the sunset, Passions on the Beach (featured image) must be one of the most romantic restaurants on the island. The food and service was excellent, and the menu featured plenty of vegetarian and gluten free options. I eagerly devoured my grilled Mahi Mahi topped with broiled scallops and a tarragon cream sauce (costing $34 exclusive of taxes and a service charge).
My only criticism is that it could do with more lighting. While the menus lit up so you could read them, I do also like to be able to see my food (I used the torches from a couple of mobiles to take this photograph). Nevertheless, I loved it here and really enjoyed my meal. Passions is one of two restaurants in the hotel I stayed in, Amsterdam Manor, in a great location across the road from Eagle Beach, my favourite beach in Aruba.
What to drink in Aruba
Balashi and Balashi Chill
Balashi is the locally brewed lager made from German malt and hops. While I’m not a great lager fan, it is light and refreshing and a good fit for Aruba’s hot weather. Balashi Chill is crisp pale yellow lager from the same brewery, usually served with a slice of lime, marketed for a younger audience. Again, it’s a good match for the hot climate, although personally, I preferred the original.
Aruba Ariba, the most famous local cocktail, seemed an obvious ‘must try’. It’s made with vodka, rum, Coecoei, creme de banana and fruit punch, plus a splash of Grenadine with Grand Marnier to top it off. Stirred, not shaken, I’m told.
Coecoei was new to me. It’s a local liquor made to an ancient recipe from the sap from the “kukwisa” or agave plant, mixed with rum and cane sugar. It’s a popular ingredient in Aruban cocktails but is not exported off the island.
The Aruba Ariba I tried was a little too sweet for my liking, but I’m sure each bar has a slightly different recipe and I think more research is needed before drawing any firm conclusions. Have you tried it? What did you think?
Coffee and craft beer at Craft
J.E. Irausquin Blvd 348, Palm Beach (Monday to Thursday, 7am to 1am, Friday and Saturday 7am to 3am and Sunday 7am to 12 midnight)
Craft is another great place for breakfast. I had a wonderful waffle here, the Nutty Monkey, with bananas, salted caramel, whipped cream and touch of cinnamon, costing $7. For a healthy option, they do some great fruit and oat bowls, including a couple of vegan options which sounded very good.
This is also the place to come for a good coffee, reputedly the best on the island (from $2.25).
It’s a popular hangout in the evenings as well, with an impressive range of liquors, cocktails and craft beers.
Smoothies at Garden Fresh Café
J.E. Irausquin Boulevard 87, Palm Beach (Open daily, 8am to 8pm)
After all that overindulgence, I was pleased to visit a healthy alternative at the Garden Fresh Café, where everything on offer is organic, with plenty of vegetarian options. Their smoothies cost $6 and I opted for a delicious Green Energiser made with apple, kiwi, kale, spinach, cucumber and lime juice.
As well as great smoothies and juices, they offer a fabulous range of salads, fruits, wraps, burritos, soups and paninis. I really enjoyed my Greek Goddess wrap stuffed with chicken, quinoa, asparagus, cucumber, carrots, bell peppers, alfalfa sprouts and basil pesto. Costing a very reasonable $9, it’s good for your wallet too.
I wish we had a Garden Fresh Café in my home town. I’d certainly be a regular.
The food in Aruba really impressed me. There’s a great range of restaurants to choose from, although it would be good to see more vegetarian and vegan options (although the latter applies to many towns and countries around the world). Seafood lovers, on the other hand, will be in seventh heaven.
It is a great shame that so much of Aruba’s food is imported from overseas – a whopping 99% of it in 2014. However, there is an initiative that is striving to increase the amount of sustainably and organically food grown on the island, which I wholeheartedly applaud as it can only improve an already superb food scene as well as being better for our planet.