the best restaurant in the world is in aruba
The last time I traveled with someone else’s family it was to South Padre Island in Texas some time in the nineties.
Her dad and mom sat up front in his teal pick up truck. The truck had pink pinstriping and we drove along blasting top 40’s from the country charts. We ate bologna and Miracle Whip sandwiches at rest areas on the way. I will never be able to un-see his white-man’s Jerry curled mullet. It goes without saying that from then on I preferred travel with my own family or better yet, by myself.
Twenty years later and it’s February as fuck in New York and my seasonal depression is full blown. I’m invited to go to Aruba with a friend who’s been going every year with her family for as long as she can remember. I don’t hesitate. I don’t think about bologna sandwiches. I think about frozen cocktails with too much sugar but just enough parasols in them. It isn’t until I’m in a cab from the airport in Oranjestad to the hotel and I’m passing by TWO monstrous cruise-liners docked and presumably spilling retirement aged, orange skinned tourists looking to purchase gold by the pound all over the place that my anxiety specific to this kind of scenario creeps back. I’ve flown here on a whim and haven’t had a moment to put together my usual well researched Google map of landmarks and culinary gems to hit up. We pass a Pizza Hut. Fuck. Where am I even? This is not the off the beaten path Instagrammer’s paradise I romanticized on my flight down. And I know nothing about this family. It’s possible my friend has a spidey-sense about these things because she greets me with a cocktail when I arrive. At least there’s rum. And sun. And wifi. Right. I shake it off.
The next morning, I wake up with a renewed resolve to keep an open mind. Adventure at all costs. I’ve gotten over my misgivings about traveling with other families. The evening before was spent somewhat ridiculously cooking a birthday meal of shrimp scampi for a friend of the family. It’s tradition I’m told. Blunt knives and limited kitchen utensils be damned. I’m the new kid so I’m at the stove wearing a beach towel as an apron and drinking most of the cooking wine. I like this family. There’s no Miracle Whip in sight and no one has a mullet.
We decide to rent a car and get on the road. I’ve learned about a natural pool deep within Aruba’s Arikok National Park just set back from the ocean. What’s it called when it’s off the un-beaten path? This is exactly what I need. The further we drive from the Starbucks flanked by Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada the more I feel like this is my kind of island. Plus: cactuses. Big ones. And everywhere. It turns out that Aruba is a desert island and the landscape as a result is quite dramatic. My Southwestern roots are happy here. Arikok Park however is a bit of a challenge to find. Aruba’s roads are inconsistently labeled so we make do with a map from rental car place which is really more interested in guiding us to pirate themed booze cruises than remote natural wonders. We finally arrive at the entrance of the park after more than a few wrong turns. It should be said that there are plenty of tours offered to this (and many other areas) of Aruba but I harbor a particular fondness for getting lost among palms and ferns and cacti.
We realize we’ve made one critical error: the pool can only be accessed by 4X4 or via a somewhat treacherous 4 mile hike. I look mournfully back at the compact Toyota sedan we’ve been bouncing around in. Not gonna cut it. I’m wearing sandals. We have no water and my breakfast of half a dragon and passion fruit while fresh and delicious, isn’t exactly hiking sustenance. And now I’m hungry. Actually hangry. Disappointed, in need of food or at least, an ice cold beer.
Friend tells me she knows about a waterside place that serves fried fish and beer. We just have to find it. It’s called Zeerover she tells me. Weird name. Not exactly confidence inspiring but my hanger is calling the shots so we get back on the road. It’s not Pizza Hut. So I’m game. Skeptical. But game.
It takes an hour and a few stops to ask locals if they’ve heard of this place and where is it? Responses are a mixed bag. Zeerover I’ve decided after the third inquisition, is actually a unicorn. I’m starting to get seriously freaked out that my meals on this island will be as disappointing as my non-trip to the natural pool when after driving down what appears to be the same road for the fifth time, there’s a barely visible sign, more of a weather-worn banner: Zeerover.
I park the car like I’m mad at it (I am due to Arikok debacle) and pop over to a line that’s a bit longer than I anticipated. Confidence renewed. There’s a menu of about 5 items: catch(es) of the day, pickled onion, fried plantains, cornbread, fries. It’s…perfect. You order your fish by the piece or by weight. Wahoo, Snapper, Barracuda, Kingfish, plump, succulent shrimp as big as your thumb all caught that morning. You can tell because the small fishing boats line the docks which make up Zeerover’s al fresco dining room in back. A quick trip around the corner to grab a bucket of local beers (Balashi over Amstel Bright if you’re doing it right) and we scoop up a table by the water. When I say “by the water” I don’t mean that there is a body of water within my sight. I mean that I’m dangling my feet over the dock, dipping them into the crystal clear Caribbean drinking a beer while I wait for our fish to get fried up. Seagulls squawk and bicker over leftover fish bones and palm fronds swaying in the breeze and the ocean slapping against the bows of fishing boats provide the soundtrack. Our food arrives heaping in a plastic bowl the color of the ocean. Simply fried (read: un-breaded and un-greasy) and perfectly seasoned. A few lime wedges on the side and the islands local papaya based hot sauce are really the only things you need in addition. Forks if you’re fancy. Fingers if you’re me.
I think about the Michelin guide. How does it work again? One star for “a very good restaurant in its category”, two for “excellent food, worth a detour” and three for “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”. Given this criteria, Zeerover is ostensibly a three star Michelin restaurant. I went back in the time I was there. I had to. And I’ve vowed to return to Aruba for a “special journey”, dragging friends with me, ripping past the tourist mecca of Oranjestad, in a 4X4 this time (lessons learned), to Zeerover chasing the perfection of this place, this island and this restaurant. How often do we truly happen upon perfect experiences that put us in touch with our humanity? That sooth what we didn’t even know was ailing us and soften the sting of disappointments? It doesn’t happen at Prada I don’t think. But it does at Zeerover.