FOOD & DINING IN COSTA RICA
Costa Rican food is not especially memorable. Perhaps that's why there's so much international food available throughout the country. However, if you really want to save money, you'll find that Costa Rican, or tÃƒÂpico, food is always the cheapest nourishment available. It's primarily served in sodas, Costa Rica's equivalent of diners.
Meals & Dining Customs
Rice and beans are the basis of Costa Rican meals -- all three of them. At breakfast, they're called gallo pinto and come with everything from eggs to steak to seafood. At lunch or dinner, rice and beans are an integral part of a casado (which translates as "married" and is the name for the local version of a blue-plate special). A casado usually consists of cabbage-and-tomato salad; fried plantains (a starchy, banana-like fruit); and a chicken, fish, or meat dish of some sort.
Dining hours in Costa Rica are flexible but generally follow North American customs. Some downtown restaurants in San JosÃƒÂ© are open 24 hours; however, expensive restaurants tend to be open for lunch between 11am and 3pm and for dinner between 6 and 11pm.
Appetizers -- Known as bocas in Costa Rica, appetizers are served with drinks in most bars. Often the bocas are free, but even if they aren't, they're very inexpensive. Popular bocas include gallos (tortillas piled with meat, chicken, cheese, or beans), ceviche (a marinated seafood salad), tamales (stuffed cornmeal patties wrapped and steamed inside banana leaves), patacones (fried green plantain chips), and fried yuca.
Sandwiches & Snacks -- Ticos love to snack, and there's a large variety of tasty little sandwiches and snacks available on the street, at snack bars, and in sodas. Arreglados are little meat-filled sandwiches, as are tortas, which are served on little rolls with a bit of salad tucked into them. Tacos, tamales, and empanadas (turnovers) also are quite common. Gallos are popular snacks as well.
Meat -- Costa Rica is beef country -- one of the tropical nations that has converted much of its rainforest land to pastures for raising beef cattle. Consequently, beef is cheap and plentiful, although it might be a bit tougher than it is back home. In general, steaks are cut and served thinner here than in the United States or Europe. One very typical local dish is called olla de carne, a bowl of beef broth with large chunks of meat, local tubers, and corn. Spit-roasted chicken is also very popular here and is surprisingly tender.
Seafood -- Costa Rica has two coasts, and, as you'd expect, there's plenty of seafood available everywhere in the country. Corvina (sea bass) is the most commonly served fish and is prepared innumerable ways, including as ceviche. (Be careful: In many cheaper restaurants, particularly in San JosÃƒÂ©, shark meat is often sold as corvina.) You should also come across pargo (red snapper), dorado (mahimahi), and tuna on some menus, especially along the coasts. Although Costa Rica is a major exporter of shrimp and lobster, both are relatively expensive and in short supply here.
Vegetables -- On the whole, you'll find vegetables surprisingly lacking in the meals you're served in Costa Rica -- usually nothing more than a little pile of shredded cabbage topped with a slice or two of tomato. For a much more satisfying and filling salad, order palmito (hearts of palm salad). The heart (actually the stalk or trunk of these small palms) is first boiled and then chopped into circular pieces and served with other fresh vegetables, with a salad dressing on top. If you want something more than this, you'll have to order a side dish such as picadillo, a stew or purÃƒÂ©e of vegetables with a bit of meat in it. Though they are giant relatives of bananas and are technically considered a fruit, plÃƒÂ¡tanos (plantains) are really more like vegetables and require cooking before they can be eaten. Green plantains have a very starchy flavour and consistency, but they become as sweet as candy as they ripen. Fried plÃƒÂ¡tanos is also a popular dish. Yuca (manioc root or cassava in English) is another starchy staple root vegetable in Costa Rica.
One more vegetable worth mentioning is the pejibaye, a form of palm fruit that looks like a miniature orange coconut. Boiled pejibayes are frequently sold from carts on the streets of San JosÃƒÂ©. When cut in half, a pejibaye reveals a large seed surrounded by soft, fibrous flesh. You can eat it plain, but it's usually topped with a dollop of mayonnaise.
Fruits -- Costa Rica has a wealth of delicious tropical fruits. The most common are mangoes (the season begins in May), papayas, pineapples, melons, and bananas. Other fruits include the maraÃƒÂ±ÃƒÂ³n, which is the fruit of the cashew tree and has orange or yellow glossy skin; the granadilla or maracuyÃƒÂ¡ (passion fruit); the mamÃƒÂ³n chino, which Asian travelers will immediately recognize as the rambutan; and the carambola (star fruit).
Desserts -- Queque seco, which literally translates as "dry cake," is the same as pound cake. Tres leches cake, on the other hand, is so moist that you almost need to eat it with a spoon. Flan is a typical custard dessert. It often comes as either flan de caramelo (caramel) or flan de coco (coconut). Numerous other sweets are available, many of which are made with condensed milk and raw sugar. Cajetas are popular handmade candies, made from sugar and various mixes of evaporated, condensed, and powdered milk. They are sold in differing-size bits and chunks at most pulperÃƒÂas (general stores) and street-side food stands.
Frescos, refrescos, and jugos naturales are favourite drinks in Costa Rica. They are usually made with fresh fruit and milk or water. Among the more common fruits used are mangoes, papayas, blackberries (mora), and pineapples (piÃƒÂ±a). You'll also come across maracuyÃƒÂ¡ and carambola. Some of the more unusual frescos are horchata (made with rice flour and a lot of cinnamon) and chan (made with the seed of a plant found mostly in Guanacaste -- definitely an acquired taste). The former is wonderful; the latter requires an open mind (it's reputed to be good for the digestive system). Order un fresco con leche sin hielo (a fresco with milk but without ice) if you are trying to avoid untreated water.
If you're a coffee drinker, you might be disappointed here. Most of the best coffee has traditionally been targeted for export, and Ticos tend to prefer theirs weak and sugary. The better hotels and restaurants are starting to cater to gringo and European tastes and are serving up better blends. If you want black coffee, ask for cafÃƒÂ© negro; if you want it with milk, order cafÃƒÂ© con leche.
If you want to try something different for your morning beverage, ask for agua dulce, a warm drink made from melted sugar cane and served either with milk or lemon, or straight.
Water -- Although water in most of Costa Rica is safe to drink, bottled water is readily available and is a good option if you're at all worried about an upset stomach. Agua mineral, or simply soda, is sparkling water in Costa Rica. If you like your water without bubbles, be sure to request aqua mineral sin gas, or agua en botella.
Beer, Wine, & Liquor -- The German presence in Costa Rica over the years has produced several fine beers, which are fairly inexpensive. Most Costa Rican beers are light pilsners. The most popular brands are Bavaria, Imperial, and Pilsen. Licensed local versions of Heineken and Rock Ice are also available.
Imported wines are available at reasonable prices in the better restaurants throughout the country. You can usually save money by ordering a Chilean wine rather than a Californian or European one.
Costa Rica distills a wide variety of liquors, and you'll save money by ordering these rather than imported brands. The national liquor is guaro, a rather crude cane liquor that's often combined with a soft drink or tonic or mineral water. If you're looking to buy or try some guaro, stick to the Cacique brand. Both the CafÃƒÂ© Britt and Salicsa brands produce a couple of types of coffee-based liqueurs. CafÃƒÂ© Rica is similar to KahlÃƒÂºa and quite good. You can also find delicious cream-style coffee liqueurs.