Much of traditional Costa Rican food reflects the pura vida (pure life) attitude prevalent in this Central American country, balancing fresh produce, no-frills flavors, hearty staples, and sweet treats. Be prepared to eat a lot of beans, rice, and corn as one or all of these ingredients are included in most meals. While there is plenty of international fare found across the country, here are some popular and comida tipica (typical, in this case meaning traditional) Costa Rican dishes to try.
The name means “spotted rooster” for the speckled look of the black beans with white rice. But you won’t find any poultry in this dish. There’s a bit of onion, garlic, peppers, cilantro, and Lizano sauce. You’ll see a big scoop of it served for breakfast alongside eggs, sweet plantains, sour cream, and corn tortillas, though some people do eat it for lunch or dinner as well. Gallo pinto is the national dish and not to be missed. You might notice slight variations in different regions of the country. In Guanacaste, red beans may be used instead of black, and on the Caribbean coast, if you ask for rice and beans, you’ll get a sweeter version made of black beans, rice, chiles, and coconut milk. You can find gallo pinto on most local menus but one of the best settings to sample it is Chilamate Rainforest Eco Retreat in Sarapiqui where you’ll start your day dining on locally-sourced ingredients, including fresh organic fruits, in the open-air jungle restaurant, often with a symphony of birdsong.
Arroz con Pollo
It’s all in the name. Well, mostly. This popular dish is typically made of rice (arroz), chicken (pollo), and vegetables seasoned with Lizano, garlic, onions, cilantro, and achiote (for the color) and often served with salad and fries. It can be found at most sodas—local, no-frills restaurants—and celebrations. If you’re in San José, try the arroz de la abuela (grandmother’s rice) at La Esquinita de JM on the corner of Calle 15 and Av. 11, where authentic fare is served in a homey setting reminiscent of a Costa Rican grandmother’s house, right down to the tin coffee cups and Christian-inspired art on the walls. Order arroz con pollo at The Harmony Hotel in Nosara and you’ll also get a side of patacones, crispy fried mashed plantains served with refried beans.
A straightforward and traditional dish, casado usually includes rice, beans, salad, plantains, picadillo (vegetable hash), corn tortilla, and an optional meat, chicken, or fish. The name means “married” and some say it originated from the lunches married men carried to work or the fact that men requested this type of meal—typically cooked at home—in restaurants Others believe the term simply describes the “marriage” of ingredients to create a nourishing meal. Whatever the case may be, it’s a satisfying dish for lunch or dinner. You’ll find a casado and other Costa Rican dishes made with ingredients sourced from local organic farms at Mi Cafecito’s open-air restaurant. Bonus: this restaurant is on the same property as an organic coffee tour, a lookout point, and waterfall, so you can take a tour and eat lunch all in one place.
It’s not common to find indigenous dishes in Costa Rican restaurants. But you will find native Costa Rican cuisine in at least one in San José. After spending time with indigenous communities, the chefs at Sikwa are bringing ancient recipes to Barrio Escalanté, one of the newly-developing neighborhoods. Try the tasting menu, a six-course journey through cocina ancestral (ancestral cuisine). The menu changes with the seasons and makes use of staples like corn, pork, potatoes, and hearts of palm.
While Costa Rica can’t lay claim to ceviche, it’s still a dish worth devouring while you’re here, particularly if you’ll be spending time on either coast. Raw fish is marinated in lime juice, salt, black pepper, onions, cilantro, and minced peppers and served with fried tortilla or plantain chips. It makes a tart and refreshing appetizer, or order a bowl and make a meal out of it. Try the sustainably-sourced catch of the day ceviche at Playitas Beachfront Restaurant in the Arenas del Mar Resort in Manuel Antonio.
You might not imagine coffee can make a meal. But spend an evening at Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation Resort in the Central Valley, one of Costa Rica’s coffee-growing regions, and you’ll be a believer. The on-site restaurant, El Tigre Vestido, serves a “Coffee Connoisseurs Menu.” Every dish on this tasting menu incorporates the plantation’s organic, shade-grown Costa Rican coffee, from the tomato soup to the coffee-rubbed ribeye and the grand finale, an affogato—espresso with ginger, coffee ice cream, and coffee caramel sauce. Finca Rosa Blanca also offers guided plantation tours and coffee cupping experiences where you’ll learn about the history and culture of this beloved crop.
Named for chicharrones (fried pork skin) and frijoles (beans), this is a kind of Costa Rican fast food. Rice, beans, fried pork rinds, and pico de gallo are layered and served with tortilla chips and sometimes avocado. This treat is believed to have originated at Corderos Bar in San José more than 30 years ago but is now found on most local restaurant and bar menus (and if it’s not, ask. Trademark issues may prevent them from using the name but not serving the dish), and best enjoyed with a cold Costa Rican craft beer.
Olla de Carne
If you’re looking for Costa Rican comfort food (or a local hangover cure), order a bowl of olla de carne. This hearty beef stew made with vegetables like cassava and taro is traditionally served on weekends. It’s not always listed on the menu but may be offered on Saturdays and Sundays, so call ahead or ask on arrival. One place you are sure to find olla de carne all day, every day is La Parada in La Fortuna. It’s open 24 hours, seven days a week, and olla de carne is one of the permanent platos tipicos (typical or traditional dishes) on the menu.
This dessert is named for the “three milks” that are used: the cake is drenched in milk, evaporated milk, and sweetened condensed milk and then topped off with heavy whipping cream. Tres Leches is not a Costa Rican creation—versions of it can be found in several countries in Latin American and even in places further afield such as Turkey—but worth a taste if you’ve got a sweet tooth. Nibble on a piece at Nene’s Restaurant in La Fortuna or try a heaping helping at Hotel Grano de Oro in San José.
If you like the flavor of eggnog, you’ll love the sorbet at La Sorbetera de Lolo Mora in the Central Market. They’ve been using the same recipe since 1901 and after just one bite you’ll know why: with notes of nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove, it’s perfecto. Enjoy a small size as a palate cleanser before sitting down at a nearby soda for lunch, or saddle up on a stool here and dive into a big bowl for dessert. The consistent stream of locals at the counter confirms this is a spot worthy of a stop.