As one of the most popular destinations in Central America, Costa Rica is on many people’s bucket lists. And rightfully so—it is an incredible country! Known for its beautiful natural scenery, incredible ecological diversity and Pura Vida culture, there’s a whole lot on offer.
But there’s one thing you might be surprised to find in Costa Rica: delicious food.
Costa Rica is not traditionally viewed as a foodie destination but after my recent experience living the Tico lifestyle, I beg to differ. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the food – especially as I read hardly anything about the cuisine in my research prior to trip. But I left the country with a happy belly full of comfort food, home-cooked meals and dishes bursting with mild Latin flavors.
Because although the most well-known dish sure is rice ‘n’ beans, there’s simply so much more to the food scene. Here are 5 dishes to whet your appetite and get you started:
A Costa Rica version of tapas or small plates is called picadillos. These are often served as a side dish to a main entree, but can easily be ordered as your main as well. Picadillos are typically a combination of diced vegetables and meat, but there is a lot of variety in the ingredient options. Common combinations that you might see include chayote squash and ground beef or roast potato and pulled chicken.
Picadillos are usually seasoned with garlic, bell pepper, onions and oregano, but the variations are endless. Restaurants typically have delicious options, but the best picadillos tend to be ones that are cooked at home.
A close cousin to the “plain” rice and beans, Gallo Pinto is one of the most common breakfast dishes in Costa Rica. I ate this almost every morning while traveling here!
Gallo Pinto translates to “spotted hen” which is a curious name for a vegetarian dish. From local lore, the name is rumored to have originated from the small town of San Sebastían where a local resident bragged about his prized spotted rooster, only to have the townspeople storm is house for a glimpse at the bird, at which time he was forced to cook Gallo Pinto for all the hungry residents.
Regardless of the origin, Gallo Pinto is a blend of rice, beans, onions, pepper, cilantro, and sweet plantains which are stewed and blended together overnight to marinate the flavors. Then, they are warmed up and topped with a fried egg and cheese, which makes for a dish that really sticks to your ribs. You won’t be hungry for hours after this breakfast! If you really want to look like a local, sprinkle on a few dashes of the national sauce, Salsa Lizano, for a little extra heat and smoke flavor.
A typical midday snack or late-night bar treat that you’ll find throughout Costa Rica is Chifrijo. The word is a combination of two other words, chicharrones and frijoles, which serve as the two primary ingredients for this dish. Chicharrones, or fried pork rinds, are layered together with beans and a starch, usually tortilla chips or bread, and topped with things like avocado, pico de gallo, chimichurri and lime.
This was my go-to snack when out for the night with friends, because it is just heavy enough to soak up the drinks in your stomach, but light enough to keep you from falling asleep before a late night!
Where to find the best chifrijo according to Intrepid’s Ops Manager for Central America, Monse:
There’s a few, but here are three of my favourites in San Jose: Bar & Restaurante Río de Janeiro in Barrio Mexico; La Muni Restaurant & Bar in Rotonda La Bandera; and Aguizotes Restaurant in in Barrio Escalante.
It is customary in Costa Rica to eat a large lunch, similar to the almuerzo and siesta traditions throughout Latin America, and Casado is the most common lunch you’ll see. Served at nearly every restaurant in Costa Rica, Casado is the comida typica or common food—think of it as the “steak and potatoes” of Costa Rica.
Many restaurants will offer Casado as their plate of the day, and it can come in a variety of combinations. It almost always consists of a protein, a potato variety, a salad, fried sweet plantains and you guessed it, rice and beans. It’s often a large portion, but no judgement is doled out for not finishing!
Naturales or Refrescos
A year-round growing season and warm climate means that fresh fruits and vegetables are always available in Costa Rica.
Often thought of as one of the healthiest and happiest countries in the world, Ticos have regular access to some of the highest quality natural ingredients. Naturales (sometimes also called refrescos) is a local term referring to fruit and vegetable juices available all around the country.
Naturales are most commonly found at small kiosks or booths on the side of the road. Independently owned by local farmers, I loved seeing these stands every day because they are literally juicing the fresh fruits in front of your eyes. I tried a new fruit juice daily! The most common flavors you’ll see are mango, pineapple, melon and banana but seasonal varieties are also available, depending on what is ripe at the time of year. My favorite naturales was the seasonal lychee flavor!
Regardless of where you go in Costa Rica, a big part of experiencing the local culture is eating the local cuisine. Ticos are incredibly proud of their food and love to experience long meals with friends and family. So join in on the tradition and enjoy some of these amazing dishes.
Ready to enjoy the culinary and scenic delights of Costa Rica? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group tours.