5 Restaurants Every Foodie Will Want To Try On A First Visit To Curaçao

Some creative chefs are turning this Dutch Caribbean paradise into the region’s premiere culinary destination.

Ask anyone who lives in Curaçao which one meal you must try during your first visit and the answer will be either Keshi Yena, the national dish, or Karni Stoba. There's a better chance, though, that people will simply say, "You have to try them both," and they're 100 percent correct. The trick is knowing when to eat them, because the former is a pretty large ball of cheese that is stuffed with meat and other goodies, and the latter is a meat stew. Have them at lunch like I did on one of my visits last year, and you'll lose a good chunk of your day to naptime.

Now, ask anyone from Curaçao where you should eat and it's an entirely different conversation. That's because this destination has been experiencing a creative renaissance, with street art that is transforming the cities into massive outdoor galleries and restaurants serving delicious dishes and cocktails that would have Guy Fieri poking a few new holes in his spiked leather belt.  

The only problem with this much variety? You can't possibly try it all in one vacation, so let's start with this collection of joints that I dined at last year—and can't wait to visit again.

Restaurant and Café Gouverneur De Rouville

For your first vacation or 100th return trip, you're going to visit the Handelskade, aka that awesome stretch of colorful buildings that you've seen in every ad for the island (and at the top of this article), and you're probably going to cross the Queen Emma Bridge multiple times to get the right photos and enjoy a little shopping as well. But one of the best places to enjoy Keshi Yena and the view of Willemstad's landmarks is Restaurant and Café Gouverneur De Rouville.

The first time I dined at "De Gouverneur" I had both Keshi Yena and Karni Stoba, which was great for learning about authentic local cuisine but terrible on my waistline. On my second visit, I had a Caribbean chicken sandwich and for the third experience I had the fettucine truffle pasta, and each meal was highlighted by a different mocktail. The point is that even if this restaurant is considered a little "touristy" it's still an exceptional part of the real Curaçao, because the food is phenomenal and the variety makes it easy to keep coming back.

BBQ Express Caracasbaai

All I'd heard ahead of my first trip to Curaçao was how much I was going to love the truk'i pans, or food trucks, and how I wouldn't want to eat anywhere else. Challenge accepted. But when it came time to pick just one, my hosts insisted that it be the legendary BBQ Express Caracasbaai. Many people call it the best of the island's offerings, and it's not hard to see why. Give me a heaping plate of steak and fries, and I'm yours for eternity.

However, it's hardly that simple. For starters, the menu's variety would make Ron Swanson do a backflip, so I went with a Mix Combo #3 just so I could cover my bases with steak, chicken, and chorizo (if there's chorizo on the menu, it's going to be on my plate somehow). But the star of the meal is the sauce, of which there is also a wide variety. Already a huge fan of satay, I went straight for the peanut sauce, but my host stopped me and said, "Mix them."

"Mix them?"

"Mix them," she insisted, pointing to the peanut, a creamy garlic, and a mystery sauce I still don't recall (I only remember being thrilled to sit down and gorge).

I was terrified of such a concept because I am a bit of a picky eater, but then she showed me with her plate, as she drizzled a line from each pump, and it looked like a delicious work of art. My apprehension faded and after three bites I thanked her. Then I thanked the cooks. And I thanked the universe for bringing me here, even as the meat sweats inevitably set in.

Sal the Kitchen

I have a theory that I've mentioned before and will perhaps one day turn into a book: any restaurant named some form of Salt and is located anywhere in the Caribbean is going to be great. First, I raved about the pizza and pasta at Salt Pizzeria Napoletana in Turks and Caicos. Then, it was Sale e Pepe in St. Maarten. And now it's Sal the Kitchen, located in the heart of Willemstad's energetic nightlife scene, and the walls of this building are built from coral, so this whole place is just salty in the best way.

This is a fantastic place to kick off an evening of bar hopping, as the small plates are ideal for sharing, especially since it means getting to try a little bit of everything. Even as I lean carnivore, the vegan dishes won my heart and I'm still thinking about the mouthwatering cauliflower baklava and habibeh ravioli, as well as the very creative cocktails, almost a year later. 

But what really won me over was the hospitality, and most notably how owners Mauro and Dmitri made the rounds to introduce themselves to guests, explain the menu, and help choose the right items based on personal preferences. Dmitri was bummed that I couldn't try the karko (conch is also a highly recommended meal across the island), but he guaranteed I'd love the angus neck n' nopal (grilled cactus with braised beef neck) and he was absolutely correct.

Bklyn

If I had a power ranking of my favorite restaurants and bars in the entire Caribbean, Bklyn would be sitting pretty in the top five just for style alone. Fans of vintage New York rap and hip hop music will love this tribute to the scene that owner Martin has cultivated, from the hit-packed playlist to the wallpaper designed by Mike D of the Beastie Boys (for sale on Flavor Paper, if your home needs a makeover).

Just don't call this place a gimmick. 

My cohorts made fun of me as I sipped my Lil Kim (a vodka cocktail in a small glass and named for the pint-sized rapper because it is "sexy, fresh, a lil' sweet and a bit feisty") but I just kept mumbling her verse from "It's All About the Benjamins" as I went back and forth between the insanely good pork belly sliders and downright addictive funchi fries. For food, drinks, and enough energy to keep your engine running, this is the joint.

If Sal the Kitchen is the place where you start a night, Bklyn is where you spend the rest of it.

Immanuel Café

As a picky eater who is trying to break out and finally try new things and conquer old fears, having a shellfish allergy is a huge obstacle when it comes to some of the Caribbean's more traditional dishes. So, when I visit an island for the first time now, I tell them I want to try something more unusual—to me, that is—and when I asked for a recommendation on Curaçao, the answer was quick and unanimous: yuana stoba. 

Iguana soup. Yikes.

Alas, no man can back down from his own challenge, so I asked my hosts to find me the best iguana soup on the island. First, we visited the Old Market, or Plasa Bieu, but it was early that day and the vendors were still setting up. Fortunately, we were heading to beautiful Kleine Knip the next day, and that meant a side trip to Immanuel Café would do the trick.

Chef Rignald Mingeli's team has created the kind of spot that makes a newcomer feel right at home, and even though they might chuckle as they pour a bowl of iguana soup, you can rest assured that it's fantastic. Just keep telling yourself that it tastes like chicken.