How to Experience Traditional Costa Rican Cuisine
Eating Out at a Local Soda is a Great Option
|A typical breakfast in Costa Rica, with eggs, plantains, and fruit.
One of the universal ways to experience a culture is through its local cuisine. In Costa Rica, soda, small diners specializing in typical local food, serve stick-to-your-ribs, hearty meals for a few thousand colones (no need to panic, $1000 colones is approximately equal to $2 US). Food is either displayed in buffets, where servers assemble mix-and-match meals as customers select or point to what they would like, or, a server will come to the table and take your order. Soda offer similar menus, that differ only slightly in taste and selection. Most soda are locally owned and are housed in humble but clean structures. There are soda throughout the country, even in small towns. This is in part because Costa Rica relies exclusively on trucks to transport the nation’s food and soda serve an important role in feeding hungry truck drivers that ply the curving roads. In fact, soda are generally truck stops between towns, so they are often frequented by locals who know where to find good, reasonably priced food.
In our travels, we explored most Costa Rican culinary specialties. Ubiquitous rice and beans, gallo pinto, are available at every time of day and the best way to feel like a true Tico is to taste a spoonful alongside your scrambled eggs for breakfast. Other traditional breakfast items include fried plantain—sweet and surprisingly not greasy—tomato salsa, sausages and fruit. Of course, no breakfast would be complete without a cup of coffee, and visiting Costa Rica without sampling their world famous blend would be sacrilegious. As we learned days into our trip, if you do not care for leche con café, rather than your typical shot of cream, politely utter gracias, when your waiter has poured the desired amount of milk into your cup. Costa Ricans like their coffee to contain equal parts cream to coffee.
Costa Rica is the ninth largest producer of coffee in the world. Enjoying coffee is a long tradition in this part of the world. Rows upon rows of coffee plants are a testament to the seminal place this crop still occupies in the culinary culture of Costa Rica. One of the most worthwhile souvenirs is a bag of freshly roasted, and ground coffee to take home. Purchase a freshly brewed cup, accompanied by dulce de leche churros (long, fingerlike doughnuts), take a seat, and people watch on a lazy, rainy afternoon and your day will feel blessedly serene.
Costa Rica is an Agricultural Country
Costa Rica is still an agricultural country, with more than one fourth of its population working in this sector. Consequently many items on the menu come from local farms, gardens, and plantations. Bananas from the East; coffee, palm oil and sugar from the South; citrus from the North; these, along with many other agricultural goods, make up the dishes served at soda.
The flavors of Costa Rican cuisine also differ slightly by region. In Tortuguero, on the eastern coast where African slaves fled the Caribbean, the cuisine, like the architecture, is inflected with spicy Caribbean flavours. Here, gallo pinto is delicately infused with coconut milk, adding a mellow, creamy taste. In fact, coconut is used in everything from breakfast to dessert in this part of the country. Though disarmingly sweet, bolitas de coco, balls of grated dried coconut, condensed milk and cookie crumbs, lightly fried in butter are frequently served for dessert. All of the cultural influences add complexity to Tico cuisine, which is influenced by both Spanish and native cuisines.
Costa Rican Lunches at a Soda
In Costa Rica, as in most other Latin American countries, maize, or corn remains a staple—nearly every soda makes chorreados, a large, thick corn tortilla combined with cheese and served with natilla (sour cream). In fact, chorreados can be a meal in themselves. We learned this from our guide, Guido, after driving back from an early morning bird watching trip to the mountains south of San Jose. Guido took us to a popular soda in San Gerardo de Dota, Cafeteria los Chespiritos for lunch.
This establishment was much larger than other soda we had visited, and had a few kiosks inside. In fact, the chocolate and white fudge (cajeta) that was sold in the candy shop was very hard to pass up. As we began to order, the chorreados caught our eyes, so we asked for familiar "Tex-Mex" toppings of chicken, beans, and salsa. We noticed that when pointing to each item, the look on the face of the server behind the counter became increasingly puzzled. We simply took this to mean that our muddled Spanish was insulting the poor man, despite our best efforts. As we sat down to enjoy our meal, Guido began telling us about his childhood. He recalled his grandmother ritually rising early on Saturday mornings to make stacks of chorreados, much to the delight of all of her grandchildren. "Costa Ricans usually eat them alone, or with natilla". After a short pause, laughing hysterically, Guido remarked, "but I have never in my lifetime seen one assembled as you have." We all began roaring with laughter at our new creation.
Though tortillas and gallo pinto are ubiquitous, other lunchtime menus include a few varieties of meats, vegetable dishes, soups and a variety of fish. Fish, (usually tilapia, or trout) is almost always deep fried whole, and this brings out their sweetness. As most of the fish is caught or farmed locally, it is usually quite fresh. Picadillo, one of Guido's favourites, is a meat hash, which includes vegetables like chayote (christophene), grown locally. Fried plantain is a customary accompaniment to most meals. It is fried or served with a sweet glaze. Fried yucca (cassava) also a specialty in soda is deliciously crispy like a French-fry on the outside, with a sweet silky texture inside. Soda always serve casado, a heaping plate of all or some of these foods. Literally, casado means to marry—sweet, savoury and meaty flavours all come together. A casado is usually inexpensive and the portions generous.
Tabletops in Costa Rica are never complete without a bottle of Lizano sauce (similar to the North American penchant for Tabasco), and most soda make their own. Lizano sauce is made with vegetables and spices and lends a gentle herb-like infusion to meals. It is a brownish sauce, and is sold at grocery stores under the Knorr or Unilever labels. Legend has it that a wealthy man from Alejuela with the surname Lizano, invented the sauce. Jorge, another of our guides informed us that Costa Rican people do not have an affinity for spicy foods, contrary to some of their Central and Latin American neighbors.Lizano is not a hot sauce; rather it is meant to enhance the natural flavours of dishes and is often served with gallo pinto. As Lizano is a cultural institution, you cannot fully appreciate Costa Rican cuisine without a few dashes of Lizano sauce to accompany your meal.
Food, Pride, and Hospitality
Costa Ricans take great pride in their nation. Though the country has seen tourism flourish in the past few decades, preserving and maintaining the environment seems to be an ever important priority. This has allowed fruit trees to flourish. Often, while driving in the countryside we would make a game of asking Jorge to name the fruit trees. Soda take advantage of the abundance of fruits found in the country. They typically serve an assortment of drinks or refrescos, by combining fresh fruit with sugar, or milk on the premises. Among the fruits used in refrescos is cas, a sour guava that imparts a light green color to the drink, and is commonly grown in fields. Be sure to try some of the other fruits used in refrescos including: tamarind, a brown pod whose sour flesh is squeezed to remove the seed; guanabana, a slightly sour white-fleshed fruit that tastes similar to custard; mango; and the peculiar seed chan. Though the flavours is mild, chan is truly a sight for the eyes—tiny black seeds, resembling a minuscule arrow, are suspended in a thick translucent juice.
It was a Tuesday afternoon and Jorge, as accommodating and relaxed as ever, took us to a truly off-the beaten-path soda, Soda La Casa de Ara in the town of La Fortuna near Arenal Volcano. We walked up the steps to a white structure, resembling a house. Inside was a bustle of people, surfers eating after making their way from the coast, and families scattered amongst the casual wooden tables. We each ordered a modest casado of tortillas, gallo pinto, yucca, and fried plantain and whatever else looked good. Just as we were about to start our meal, Jorge bolted up, telling us he had forgotten something in the van. Upon his return, he clasped a large dark oval avocado almost a full pound in weight. A friend had given it to him. Jorge began slicing the avocado into equal parts with his knife, and we began our meal—sampling from each others’ plates, mixing and matching flavours. We talked and laughed, ate, and watched other people. It was then that we realized the remarkable spirit of the soda. When you immerse yourself into local life, if only through something as simple as food, you come to appreciate the culture of a country. You come to realize, as we did, the hospitality of the Costa Rican people, the family dynamic, the ease and the pura vida, all of which are beautifully relayed through the soda. These are not only places to eat, but places to feel entirely nourished.
Mini-Lexicon for Costa Rican Cuisine
Hello: ¡Hola!, Bueno
Thank you (very much): (Muchas) gracias
Please: Por favor
Do you have a table for 2: ¿Tienes una mesa para dos (2) personas?
I'd like a [—], please: Quiero una [—], por favor
May I have the menu? : El menu por favor?
I’d like...: Quiero...
A little more: Un poco mas
One beer please: Una cerveza por favor
Glass of water: Un vaso de aqua
The bill please: La cuenta por favor
Breakfast: El desayuno
Lunch: El almuerzo
Dinner: La comida (la cena)
A generous plate of any combination of rice, beans, plantain, salad, noodles and fish or meat: Casado
Typical Food/ Drink:
Drinks: Frescos, refrescos
Fresh juice: Jugos naturales
Tiny arrow-shaped black seeds in a thick translucent thick translucent juice: Chan
Mango: Mango, manga
Sour Guava: Cas
Fresh juice with milk: Un fresco con leche
Beverages : Bebidas
Drink made with cornmeal and cinnamon: Horchata
Black coffee: Café negro
Coffee with milk: Café con leche.
Water: Agua mineral
Minced chayote, potatoes, carrots or other vegetables combined with ground beef: Picadillo
Seafood marinated in acidic juice such as lime and eaten raw: Ceviche
A brown sauce made of vegetables and spices: Salsa Lizano
Rice and beans; literally spotted rooster: Gallo pinto
Thick corn tortillas: Chorreados
Sour Cream: Natilla
Long finger-like doughnuts filled with caramel and sprinkled with sugar: Dulce de leche churros
Dessert of grated dried coconut, condensed milk and cookie crumbs, lightly fried in butter: Bolitas de coco
Meat and Seafood:
Beef broth with large chunks of meat, local tubers, and corn: Olla de carne
Sea bass: Corvina
Cafeteria los Chespiritos
Location: San Gerardo de Dota
This is the very last stop before the mountains, so be sure to eat to your heart's content. The large cafeteria/soda has a broad range of Tico specialties including olla de carne, chorreados and fried fish.
Soda La Parada
Location: La Fortuna
Obliquely opposite the park, this soda is open twenty four hours a day. We enjoyed a large pizza, rice and beans, and lemon Fresca for less than $ 20 US for five people. This is a wonderful place for people watching, as La Parada is located on a bustling street. The evening we visited, there were several young couples and families that came for nachos or a quick bite.
Soda La Casa de Ara
Location: La Fortuna
When we were leaving this soda, the owner came out to personally thank us for visiting. This busy soda is a good lunchtime spot on the way to or from Arenal volcano. This was our first introduction to the wondrous chan. Their casado selections make a filling meal, and the soda makes their own Lizano sauce.
Bar Restaurant Selva Tropical
Location: between Baulio Carillo Park and Caño Blanco
Just off the highway on the way to Tortuguero, this quaint soda/restaurant is home to a small butterfly garden—you may even catch a glimpse of the miniscule poison dart frogs if you look closely. This soda is definitely a worthwhile stop if only for the fried yucca. They also serve good coffee. The friendly staff will be sure to make you feel at home.
Other Useful Information
This is a nearly exhaustive listing of all of the soda and restaurants in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica Tour, costaricatour.com: Customized tours of Costa Rica are a great option to experience the country. Small or large groups can be accommodated and the guides speak excellent English. Everything from hotels to excursions and meals can be reserved, and the entire staff is incredibly knowledgeable and helpful.