Wondering what to eat in Costa Rica? The traditional plates of Costa Rica are often criticized for being wholly uninspired, bland, and repetitive. A simple plate of rice and beans is served at most meals, and while most Costa Ricans are not bothered by this—saying it’s affordable and filling—foreigners might find the repetition a little hard to handle.
Take breakfast for instance; most small restaurants, known here as sodas, quickly insist on gallo pinto, which is mixed rice and black beans. Gallo pinto (pronounced gaiyo peen-toe) is translated literally into ‘spotted rooster’ and is a national dish in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Food historians believe the dish got its name because it was made to conceal the lack of chicken. Although meats are considered a staple in most meals, many families simply can’t afford them. The mound of rice, beans, onions and peppers in gallo pinto, is often accompanied by eggs, toast, fried plantains, and of course, coffee.
For lunch, the typical dish is a casado, named for the marriage of foods in a small space. A large plate of food, bordering on too much, the casado could include flank steak or chicken breast and is always served with a small mountain of rice and beans.
You see the problem? Rice and beans are served twice daily, often three times for dinner. For locals, this diet is repeated day in and day out.
Foods to Try
Before you tire of too much of the same thing and resort to walking into a McDonalds, consider this list of typical foods and snacks that most Costa Ricans forget to tell you about:
Chorreadas – corn pancakes served with natilla cream. Made by literally mixing mashed kernels of corn, milk, and spices, and then pouring this wondrous mixture over a griddle, these corn pancakes make an excellent breakfast or mid-afternoon snack.
Guanábana – Translated as a Soursop, this fruit is one of the best to enjoy in a smoothie. It is wildly popular in Latin America and is often included under the batido, or smoothie, section in menus. Remember to always ask your waiter what smoothies they have because sometimes they aren’t displayed on the menu. If you are ever in a fruit market, ask vendors to point one out. They will show you something that looks like an elongated watermelon with needles.
Guayaba –Guayaba jam is the perfect spread for your morning toast. Most restaurants should have it. Because of the high levels of pectin, guayaba, or guava in English, is often used in candies and jams. If you are not fortunate enough to come across the jam version, check out small kiosks for guayaba candies. This exotic fruit promises to give you a quick burst of energy, no matter how you eat it.
Ceviche – if you love sushi or seafood for that matter, then you will adore this raw fish dish. Ceviche, which is said to have originated in Peru but has found a soft spot in Costa Rican diets, is raw fish cooked in lime juice, mixed with minced onions, cilantro, peppers and maybe even some Fresca.
Patacones – These fried and smashed plantains are a very popular boca or appetizer in Costa Rica. Best equated to a thick potato chip, patacones are served with cheese, guacamole, and bean dips.
Olla de Carne – beef lovers and stew fans will adore this national dish. It literally translates to ‘Pot of Beef’ and contains big chunks of beef, potatoes, yucca, corn, chayote (Costa Rican squash), and carrots. Yucca is a starchy root and tastes a lot like potatoes. If you don’t get to try the soup, at least try to find some fried yucca. It should be available in most Costa Rican restaurants.
Rundon Soup – another soup option, rundown soup is a regional favorite on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Named for whatever the cook can ‘run down’ before meal time, this dish contains a wide variety of ingredients, but the staples are coconut milk, fish, and yams. It’s the closest thing to a Latin version of clam chowder.
Arroz con Palmito – if you cannot get enough rice then this is a unique alternative to the casado. Rice with palmito (heart of palm), is a delicious idea that mixes rice, heart of palm, mozzarella cheese, minced onions and other spices.
All these recommendations are easy to find, but sometimes you need to ask for them as they may not appear on the menu. Most Costa Ricans will be quick to tell you about their gallo pinto and casados, but don’t be ashamed to kindly ask for one of these other specialties. Locals will be impressed when you mention these other foods and will most likely help you find them.