Some say that you don’t come to Costa Rica for the food. And it’s true that the simple, tasty, healthy cuisine of this beautiful country just can’t compare to its glorious beaches, cool mountains, dramatic volcanoes and gorgeous eco-resorts. Regardless, almost everyone enjoys it once they figure out what to eat in Costa Rica.
The signature dish is the casado, which literally means “married,” as it’s what a married man could expect at lunch (well, before Costa Rican women began running for president and whatnot). Because lunch is traditionally the biggest meal of the day, it has to be hearty and filling. At restaurants, a casado is an inexpensive set plate with rice, black beans, fried plantains and two or three salads or picadillos (diced vegetables seasoned with ground meat). Make your choice of meat, usually chicken (grilled or “in sauce,” usually a tomato sauce), pork chops, grilled beef (Costa Rican beef is usually tough by US standards) and perhaps tongue or fish. Most places will happily make a vegetarian casado by simply adding more salads.
To drink, have an incredible cup of Costa Rican coffee (espresso is also becoming more widely available), or one of their signature beers; Imperial is the most famous, but try Bavaria and Pilsen as well. Or, better yet, order a “natural” or “refresco,” a type of blended juice made with fresh fruit, ice and a lot of sugar—order it “sin azucar” (without sugar) for less of a kick.
On a menu listing several of Costa Rica’s tropical fruits—papaya, mango, pina (pineapple), guanabana (soursop), maracuya (passion fruit), mora (blackberry), sandia (watermelon), melon (cantaloupe) and so on—some will only be available “en pulpo,” as frozen pulp, rather than as fresh fruit. This means the sugar is already mixed in. You can ask for your natural “en agua” (in water) or “en leche” (in milk). Note that not all fruits work well with milk. Linaza, a rather slimy refresco made with flax seeds and generally drunk for medicinal purposes (it’s high in fiber), and chia, made with high-protein chia seeds, are acquired tastes.
Other unusual fruits you could try include pejibaye, a starchy orange palm fruit you’ll see boiled and soaking in warm water at grocery stores, or freshly cooked at markets; and pipas, green coconuts consumed primarily for the refreshing, nutritious juice.
For breakfast, you’ll usually be served huevos (eggs), tocineta (bacon), tostadas (toast) and Costa Rica’s other signature dish, gallo pinto (rice and beans). Gallo pinto, which literally means “spotted rooster,” is different from a gallo, or soft taco sandwich, often enjoyed as a light dinner.
On menus, arroz (literally “rice”) refers to Chinese-style fried rice, probably introduced to Costa Rica by Chinese workers during the railroad era. “Arroz con pollo” is chicken fried rice, while “arroz con mariscos” would be seafood fried rice.
Ceviche, popular among gentlemen for its invigorating properties, is fish “cooked” in lime juice and spices; it’s a bit different from the Mexican version. Costa Rican chicharones don’t resemble Mexican fried pig skins, either; instead, expect meaty hunks of fried pork, served with lime, tortillas and traditionally, beer.
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While travelers expecting Mexican cuisine may be disappointed by Costa Rica’s lack of fiery spices, those with a taste for picante (hot) seasoning will find a jar of homemade pickled onions, carrots and chiles on the table. That’s a chilero, and you’re welcome to spoon some over your food.
That’s just the beginning, of course. With two coasts, Costa Rica is well known for its fresh, excellent seafood, which is often served whole (including the head, eyes, fins and all). The Caribbean side of the country is considered to have the best food. Many traditional dishes, such as gallo pinto and sopa de mariscos (seafood soup) are made with rich coconut milk. Don’t miss rondon, a slow-cooked stew made with meat, seafood, potatoes and yuca (manioc root).
For desert, try a tres leches, a layered cake made with regular, powdered and condensed milk. The Central Valley is well known for its cajetas, fudge made with coconut milk and fresh sugar, sold at stands throughout the mountains.
Though Costa Rican cuisine may lack the gastronomical fireworks of Paris or Peru, you will eat well in the Tiquicia. Many travelers find themselves, upon returning home, missing their morning gallo pinto and daily casado. Just check online for recipes; you aren’t the only one!