You’ve been planning your Costa Rican vacation for months now and you’ve probably found more activities than can possibly be fit into one itinerary. With volcanoes to scale, rainforests to explore, and a couple mandatory beach-bum days, you’ll have more than enough to fill up a vacation. It’s true that some activities will need to be sacrificed with limited time in the country, but the good news is that you’ll still have a chance to fully explore Costa Rica’s greatest asset: food. Your time is limited and you’re busy, but you still need to eat. And you’re in the perfect country to do so. Don’t waste a single meal or snack at a fast food joint, you’ll want to take full advantage of your days in Costa Rica, and meal time is part of that.
Costa Rica has a rich and vibrant culture that combines tradition with modern development, and this unique combination is readily apparent in the country’s favorite dishes as well. You’ll find new takes on old dishes, and every meal will be a cultural experience. Look into the local names for favorite dishes before your trip so you’re ready to order the moment you hit the ground.
Gallo Pinto is the traditional beans and rice mixture that locals eat for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. While this may seem like a simple combination, the local black beans and combination of salt and onion will quickly get your mouth watering. For breakfast, ask for gallo pinto with fried eggs and a cup of local coffee. Your Costa Rican host will deliver your meal with hot sauce options and the local favorite “salsa lizano” to dress up your plate. This will be the absolute perfect breakfast combination and will help your body prepare for your long day of hiking and exploration. This meal will be easily found at any cafe, restaurant, or hostel breakfast.
In Central America, nearly every country claims to be both the birth place of gallo pinto and the best cooks of this meal. In fact, this is a common theme of friendly arguments among countries. If you are backpacking the area, be sure to order gallo pinto in every country and note the differences in bean type, bean-to-rice proportions, and salsas and spices used. You’ll be asked to report on your favorite style multiple times during your Central American stay.
Tamale is definitely the most confusing food to eat for incoming gringos. You’ll need to open the plantain leaf to get at the mixture of spiced cornmeal, rice, beans, vegetables, and meat. A tamale in Costa Rica is almost a sacred food, and its respect is well deserved. It takes an incredible amount of energy and time to make a single tamale, and every single cook will make it differently. Most local families won’t make their own tamales as it can be a serious commitment, but they will all know their favorite neighborhood tamale maker.
For the best tamale, don’t order at a restaurant. Instead, find a cafeteria style joint called a “soda” or a simple house advertising “hay tamales” with a sign out front. This will be a hearty meal and the best way to enjoy a lazy Sunday.
If you find yourself touring the Caribbean region, you absolutely cannot leave until you try rondon, a spicy coconut seafood soup. There are some staples to this flavorful soup, such as boiling potatoes and yucca in a vat of coconut milk for hours over a wood-stocked fire, but the rest of the ingredients are totally up to the chef. Every restaurant will have their own take on rondon and each will claim to be the best in town.
Soup is surprisingly popular in this tropical country, and is typically thought of as a Sunday meal. Young locals also use this as a hangover cure. Head to a beachside restaurant on the Caribbean on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and order a large bowl of this creamy entre.
Platanos fritos, or fried plantains, are the most common side dish to any traditional plate. You’ll see these eaten during all three meals in various cuts and sizes. This may not be the healthiest way to eat the local fruit, but it is absolutely the tastiest. This side dish is typically made with very mature, yellowed plantains, offering a surprisingly sweet treat. Try to get a couple of these to accompany your gallo pinto breakfast, you won’t regret it.
Picadillo is another common side dish which usually accompanies a large lunch of rice, beans, and meat. Each cook makes a different version of this food, but it will typically center around parboiled chayote squash, carrots, onion, garlic, and possibly ground beef. Some versions of this dish will be a light and tropical side to your meal, while others can be heavy, substantial, and almost used as a main course.
Finding the best picadillo will be a challenge, as every Costa Rican claims the best version is made in their mom’s kitchen. Fortunately, restaurants do a pretty good job of keeping up. You’ll find this side dish in any region of the country at both upscale restaurants as well as at sports bars.
Ceviche is thought of as a Peruvian dish, but Costa Rica makes an even better and more surprising version. Ceviche Tico is fresh, chopped fish, typically sea bass, which has been “cooked” by a cold marinade of lime juice and garlic. A variety of vegetables and herbs, such as red onion, peppers, and cilantro, will be added to the mix and it will be served with a couple packets of saltine crackers. It will be one of the lightest and most refreshingly tropical dishes you try during your entire stay in the region.
For the best Ceviche Tico, head to a ceviche bar or outside restaurant along the Pacific Coast. Ask for your meal to be served with plantain chips instead of saltines and you’ll be ready to kick your feet up and relax.
Olla de Carne
You might see Olla de Carne translated to Beef Stew, but it’s much, much more than that. While every country makes a beef stew, you’ll never again taste an Olla de Carne outside of Costa Rica. This stew is created with huge cuts of locally raised beef, potatoes (both sweet and regular), carrots, squash, plantains (both green and yellow), and a local root vegetable known as camote. It is an incredibly nutritious and filling meal, only to be enjoyed after a long day of exploration. This soup takes hours to prepare so it may only be available once a week. Find a “Typical Food” restaurant in your area and ask when their Olla de Carne will be available. You’ll want to fit this heavy dish into your itinerary.