I never had high expectations for the food in Costa Rica. I figured there was probably a reason I had never been to a Costa Rican restaurant in my life. When I started this journey, I would not have been able to name a Costa Rican dish. My greatest hope was that there would be fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables for my vegan and gluten-free wife as well as locally-sourced, hormone-free meat and delicious bread for myself. With the usual caveat that I’ve only been here two months and have yet to really explore much outside of Monteverde, I thought I would tackle the subject of the food here.
Most days we cook at home using produce we recently purchased. Almost every day, we buy local onions, bell peppers, lettuce, broccoli, and potatoes, along with fruit such as bananas, plantains, mangoes, passion fruit, pineapple, and papaya. We keep them on a counter rack and try to use it before we lose it. As long as it is grown locally, the fruit and vegetables are cheap and of good quality. I’ve even been frying my own Yucca fries and plantains. Meat is a 40-minute walk each way, so when I make the trip, I load up on bags of frozen chicken and fish.
I thought there would be more fresh seafood available, but most of it is frozen. Despite the fact that we can see the Bay of Nicoya from here, getting fresh fish up the mountain and remaining “fresh” is apparently a huge hassle, so, we’ll save those cravings for when we venture down to the beach towns. You can get ceviche in many restaurants, as it is a staple of the local diet. I’ve tried making my own but both attempts have been far too sour and disappointing.
When most people imagine dining out in Costa Rica, they probably picture a Latin American country with burritos, tacos, and margaritas. This is really not the case. Most of the dishes you would equate with being “Mexican cuisine” are just as imported here as they are in the States. For the most part, if they exist on restaurant menus, it is to appeal to the gringo tourists more than the local Ticos.
While not overly complex or aggressively seasoned, Costa Rican food is refreshing, varied, farm-to-table, and most importantly, traditionally passed down. It is affordable, utilitarian food designed to stick to the ribs of people who chop wood and brush, walk for miles, and farm the land. There are no Michelin stars here. The best dishes are more influenced by a grandmother’s recipe and Caribbean flavors than by some ambitious top chef.
To travel to the heart of Costa Rican food, you must go to a “soda,” the ubiquitous small mom-and-pop joints that serve only breakfast and lunch. (By the way, for Ticos, lunch tends to be the biggest meal of the day. Dinner is usually just a light salad or snack.) Everything here begins with the rice and beans. For breakfast, that means gallo pinto (literally, “spotted rooster”), a tightly packed combination of black beans, day-old rice, red bell pepper, onion, cilantro, and Salsa Lizano, the national condiment. It is not spicy hot; nearly nothing here is. Just a savory blend that is more like a vinegary Worcestershire sauce.
The “tipico breakfast” comes with gallo pinto, fried egg, fried plantains, some sliced white cheese, and a bit of fruit. Lunch is referred to as “casado” (meaning “married”) as the rice and beans are served separately but next to each other. Cute, right? It is served with your meat of choice (beef, chicken, pork, fish, tongue), more plantains, chopped vegetables (almost like ratatouille), and a salad. A heaping plate of simple home cooking for hard-working people. They frown at credit cards, speak only Spanish, but are friendly and super grateful for the business.
My favorite soda so far in Monteverde is in the Casem Women’s Co-op. Women artisans sell their arts and crafts on consignment in the front, but in the back room is a dimly lit, no-frills diner called Cuchara de la Abuela (Grandmother’s Spoon).
Everything I’ve ordered here has been delicious. Sodas also have the benefit of being generally cheaper than the tourist joints. A breakfast or lunch will run between $2,800–4,500 colones ($4.50 to $7). As I’ve said before, you can find cheaper prices in Latin American countries with more poverty, but in Costa Rica, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is smaller and the prices reflect that, which is good. At sodas, you have to learn how to read the menu. Pollo con arroz (chicken with rice) features pieces of roasted chicken with rice on the side; arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) is a rice dish laced with chopped vegetables and pulled chicken. There is a carne con salsa (meat in sauce) that tastes like a delicious pot roast. You can also get wonderful stews, soups, and tortilla dishes. A wonderfully frothy and freshly made fruit juice will set you back only 800 colones here ($1.25). But, of course, the casado is king.
Across the street from Casem is Stella’s, a more tourist-targeted breakfast and lunch restaurant where the dishes run more into the 4,700 to 8,000 range ($7-12). Stella’s features the tipico breakfast, but also French toast, pancakes, wraps, and lasagna. In my opinion, the huevos rancheros is why you should come here. Best I’ve ever tasted.
Many of the restaurants in town, including a few of the sodas, make an attempt at recreating American foods such a hamburgers, pizza, hoagies, and paninis. I haven’t tried many of them because they have a reputation for being disappointing misses. (As a friend of mine said, “Just because ‘ham’ is in the name doesn’t mean you should put a slice of ham on an ‘American’ hamburger.”) The fried chicken is pretty good–I guess that’s pretty universal by now. There is a decent gourmet taco joint (Taco, Taco) and I want to get over to the Monteverde Brewing Company on the other side of town.
Caburé is an Argentinian bakery and restaurant with a gorgeous view from a covered balcony. They have decent fish and curry items, as well as pizza and sandwiches, but what keeps us coming back is their ginger/mint limonada. (Ditto for the coconut limonada at the Monteverde Coffee Center.)
Weird thing here—no lemons. Or oranges for that matter. They have two types of limes (green and orange on the inside), both of which are called “limons,” so it gets confusing. Also, if you want to see confused looks, go into a grocery store like I did and ask where the salsa is. It’s like going into a supermarket in the US and asking where they keep the sauce. Anyway, Mexican salsa is not really a thing here. Best you can get is a jar of Tostito’s salsa. Go to Mexico for that.
Truth is, you can find almost any type of food in Costa Rica. I’ve heard people rave about great Indian food in some towns, and, as I said, the seafood at the beach is supposed to be outstanding. The Caribbean coast also is know for some of the finest food in the country. As in most places, COVID hit the restaurant industry hard here. Many places are boarded up and probably not coming back. Hopefully some new, enterprising souls will be inspired to step into the culinary gap. In the months to come, we hope to travel more and expand our knowledge of Costa Rican food and the places that serve it. At Christmastime, there will be tamales (wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks)!
And you can wash all of it down with the national beer of Costa Rica: Imperial.