What to Eat in Costa Rica

A common misconception among first-time visitors to Costa Rica is that all south-of-the-U.S.-border cuisine is the same. This is absolutely not the case—the only place you’ll dine on tacos and fajitas here is in a Mexican restaurant. Although Costa Rican food is not spicy, you’ll frequently find homemade chilero sauces—cauliflower, carrots, onions, and hot peppers pickled in vinegar—in a jar on tables in local restaurants to spoon onto your food for more of a kick. It’s always optional, of course. Costa Rican cuisine is hearty and mild, but certainly not the country’s biggest draw. Comida típica, or "typical food," consists primarily of chicken, pork, beans, and rice, although kitchens around the country serve sophisticated Thai, Indian, Italian, and Lebanese cuisine.

Start with the Staples

The cilantro-and-onion-flavored pot of black beans cooked with yesterday’s rice, known as gallo pinto (literally "spotted rooster"), is synonymous with all things Costa Rican—“As Tico as gallo pinto" is a common expression here. Mounds of this hearty dish, served with scrambled eggs, tortillas, and sour cream, can be had in all of the quintessential local eateries called sodas. (Costa Rican Spanish calls a carbonated beverage a gaseosa.) Gallo pinto usually serves as a breakfast staple—even McDonald’s has embraced the dish on its morning menu—but it shows up for lunch and dinner in Costa Rican homes, too. The ubiquitous Salsa Lizano just might deserve to be classified as its own Costa Rican food group. No self-respecting Costa Rican kitchen is without this condiment resembling a thick Worcestershire sauce.

Lunch is typically the biggest meal of the day here. If you’re watching your budget, follow that lead; you’ll find omnipresent midday restaurant specials, and upscale restaurants go equally posh in their lunchtime terminology, offering an almuerzo ejecutivo or "executive lunch" special. Casado (married) is a plate that "marries" rice with cabbage salad, fried plantains, and a main entrée of beef, chicken, pork, or fish; it's always the lunchtime bargain in mom-and-pop Costa Rican restaurants. Hearty dishes of olla de carne (a beef and vegetable stew) and sopa negra (a black-bean soup with a poached egg) will fortify you for an afternoon of sightseeing, too. The mildly seasoned arroz con pollo (chicken with rice) makes a good choice if you’re not feeling too adventurous. Few visitors develop a taste for chicharrones, fried pork rinds.

Add the Bounty of the Land

You’ve never seen so many fruits and vegetables. The usual suspects like bananas, oranges, pineapples, lemons, mangoes, potatoes, and cabbage are all ubiquitous, but a walk through any Costa Rican market turns up new products you won’t find back home. Most visitors develop a fondness for carambola, or star fruit, a mildly sweet treat that's perfect on a warm day.

Don’t try eating plantains raw—plátanos should always be cooked. They end up as a side dish in casados around the country. The Caribbean coast always marches to its own drummer, of course, and cooks there mash them, fry them, and serve them as patacones with a touch of salt. Plátanos, along with breadfruit and yams, also get mixed in with fish or meat to make rondón, a hearty Caribbean stew. Coconut (coco) infuses Caribbean cuisine, most notably the long-simmering rice and beans—the name is always in English—that bears no resemblance to the gallo pinto you’ve been eating elsewhere in Costa Rica. Roadside vendors around the country will whack a coconut in half with a machete, insert a straw, and, voilà, you have a refreshing drink called agua de pipa.

Costa Rica is one of the world’s top exporters of palmito, the heart of palm that is a staple in salads here. The starchy palm fruit pejibaye is cooked and served with a dollop of mayonnaise. Ensalada rusa, the so-called Russian salad, mixes beets with potatoes, eggs, and mayonnaise, and is a must-have in the arsenal of any Costa Rican cook. Elote, or roasted corn on the cob, is a favorite at any small-town Costa Rican celebration. The hearty, gourdlike chayote and the starchy cassava root yuca taste bland on their own, but as ingredients in other dishes, assume a variety of flavors.

Wash It Down

Café con leche mixes strongly brewed coffee with milk and lots of sugar for breakfast. Your best bet for a decent cup of coffee, however, is always an upscale restaurant that's attuned to foreign tastes. It will keep export-quality product on hand. Costa Rica’s signature beverage takes center stage again mid-afternoon when seemingly the entire country takes a coffee break. Natural fruit juices, called frescos, also come with teeth-shattering amounts of sugar, but the variety of flavors is astounding. If you’re watching your own or your child’s intake, request one with only a little sugar (con poco azúcar); chances are it will be sweet enough, but you can always top it off if need be. For a less sweet alternative, try an horchata, a beverage made of cornmeal and flavored with cinnamon. It's a Guanacaste specialty.

Cervecería Costa Rica, the country’s sole large brewery, has a virtual monopoly on beer production, but makes some respectable lagers that pair well with beach lounging. Iconic Imperial (known by the red, black, and yellow eagle logo that adorns bar signs and tourist T-shirts) is everybody’s favorite. The slightly bitter Pilsen is a close runner-up, followed by the gold, dark, and light variations of Bavaria. Feeling brave? Guaro, the locally distilled sugarcane firewater, really packs a punch; surprisingly, its distillation is exclusively a state enterprise. The various rums of the locally made Ron Centenario are respectable, but less well-known outside of Costa Rica—and even here, Nicaragua's famous Flor de Caña rum has made huge inroads. House wines are typically a low-end Chilean choice (this simply isn’t wine-drinking country). Our advice? Go tropical! The country’s abundant tropical fruit juices mix refreshingly well with local rums or, in a pinch, with a dash of guaro.

Leave Room for Dessert

You’ll soon realize that Costa Ricans like things sweet; the country has one of the world’s highest rates of sugar consumption—and, alas, also a high incidence of type 2 diabetes. Tres leches mixes three milks (evaporated, condensed, and whole)—the name means "three milks"—into a very sweet sponge cake. As an alternative, cajeta de coco is a tasty coconut fudge. Pan de maíz translates literally as "corn bread," but all the sugar in the recipe makes it more like a corn cake instead.

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