Beautiful Belize is a small, but culturally interesting country on the Caribbean coast of Central America. Nestled beside Mexico and Guatemala it has a diverse geography from the second largest barrier reef to a tropical jungle that is home to hundreds of different species. Not to mention many ancient Maya Ruins.
When it comes to dining you will find a mix of Caribbean, Mexican, African, Spanish, and Mayan culinary influences. North American style foods like burgers, pizzas, and chicken dishes are readily available. Rice and beans, popular in the Caribbean and Central American countries, is a common staple and often served as an accompaniment to main meals. Along the coast and island destinations, seafood is big on the menu with fresh fish, lobster, shrimp and conch dishes readily available.
What you will also find is a large number of expat chefs have settled in Belize and are thoroughly immersed in the culture and raising the bar of Belizean cuisine. Here are three restaurants that stood out on my last visit to Belize.
Chef Driven Restaurants
Chef Rob’s Gourmet Cafe (Hopkins)
In Hopkins, Belize, I spent a highly entertaining evening over a great dinner, while being regaled by Chef Rob’s stories. His cooking style is best described as eclectic as he brings the culinary experiences and techniques gained from around the world, together in his wonderful menu. The menu is small and changes daily (dependent on what produce is available that day) using the best of local ingredients from the freshest fish to vegetables and meat. Like most Belizean restaurants there is a heavy emphasis on seafood dishes.
Chef Rob’s cuisine incorporates flavours from Asian, Mayan and Garifuna cultures.
Chef Rob’s second restaurant “Love on the Rocks” allows guests to cook their own food on a hot lava rock, a concept the chef introduced in Belize many years ago while he worked a the Radisson Fort George Hotel restaurant in Belize City.
Rob’s career began at the age of 16 in the Netherlands by accident. His father had sent him to wash dishes in a local restaurant as punishment for bad behaviour. Little did the senior Pronk know, his son was to be bitten by the culinary bug and would soon seek out culinary schools to attend.
“Every day we get a fresh supply of seafood and vegetables which are the starting point of the culinary delights which make it to our menu.” Chef Rob Pronk.
At 21, he started his quest for culinary experience and exposure, working his way through renowned establishments around the world, ending in the Caribbean. He eventually (16 years ago) settled in his discovered paradise of Belize. Now a culinary celebrity in Belize, he has appeared on radio and television and is frequently asked to judge competitions.
Restaurant: Chef Rob’s Gourmet Café Owners: Rob & Corrie Pronk, Sittee River Road Hopkins Village Stann Creek District, Belize Phone: 501-663-1529. Open for Dinner.
Maya Beach Hotel and Bistro (Placencia)
While visiting Placencia in Southern Belize I met John and Ellen Lee at their Maya Beach Hotel and Bistro. John, an engineer by training (from Australia), is a self-taught chef who executes some of the best dishes you’ll find in the country. His menu focuses on fish and seafood along with beef and pork dishes, all locally sourced.
On arrival Ellen (from Denver USA), John’s wife, who is responsible for the operation of the business, greeted me. It was a very busy night but Ellen had reserved a lovely table with views of the ocean. We discussed dinner options and decided on a tasting menu, which allowed me to try a number of dishes with wine pairings.
Among my many courses was an incredible Lobster bread pudding, a delicious Watermelon, Tomato and Feta Salad.
Grilled Marinated Shrimp with Caribbean couscous, cucumber sauce, house-roasted peanuts. This dish is inventive and flavourful. The Nut Encrusted Fish Filet with peanut, coconut, curried watermelon reduction, mashed potatoes, and spicy black beans was simply mouthwatering. Over the course of the evening, I tasted 9 small plate dishes. The bistro features an excellent wine list, which explains the 2013 Wine Spectator award. Featuring this many wines on the restaurant menu is no small feat since everything has to be imported into the country.
The restaurant is very lively and a favourite of both locals and tourists. Upon finishing my meal I could understand why it is so popular.
Restaurant: Maya Beach Hotel & Bistro, Owners: John & Ellen Lee, Maya Beach, Placencia Belize, Phone: 1-501-533-8040. Open Lunch and Dinner.
Victoria House (San Pedro, Ambergris Caye)
In San Pedro’s Victoria House, I met the resort’s director, Janet Woollam for lunch. Janet kindly squired me around the luxuriously lush property. This gem is located on the island of Ambergris Caye, about a mile from the second largest barrier reef in the world, and easily accessible by plane from Belize City.
Victoria House has won numerous luxury awards and is a great place to relax with a cool Coconut Mojito, which is exactly what I did. The Palmilla Dining Room features a mix of seafood and continental dishes, all expertly created by Executive Chef Jose Luis Ortega.
For lunch, I started the meal with a delicious black and red bean soup and finished with a grilled fish sandwich.
The Admiral Nelson’s Bar located close to the beach affords more casual dining for both lunch and dinner. The Lancaster Group out of Texas owns the property. Most of the guests staying here are from the United States and have come to regard this beautiful resort as a perfect ‘getaway’ from their busy lifestyle. I couldn’t agree more with this assessment.
Restaurant: Victoria House Resort, San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize Phone: 501-226-2067. Open for Lunch and Dinner.