costa rican food guide

The Best Costa Rican Food Guide – Costa Rica Rice & Beans and more

At first glance, you might think that the food of Costa Rica is a little bland and boring.  That Costa Rican rice and beans is all your might get to eat on your trip.  You also might think it’s just the same as the food you’ll find in her fellow Central American countries.  Welcome to our Costa Rica Food Guide which aims to show the differences and the specialities of Costa Rican Food.

Costa Rica has a well-developed tourist network.  You’ll be able to find places to eat at the top end and also at the budget level, although if you’re travelling in the region you’ll generally find that Costa Rican prices are higher than other Central American countries.

The traditional Costa Rican foods are simple – in the use of ingredients, flavours and texture.  Most Costa Rican dishes contain rice, beans and corn.

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We started our trip to Costa Rica in her capital, San Jose and had some amazing food there.  The breakfast at our hotel was superb (check out our recommendations on where to stay in San Jose at the bottom of this post!) – and we took the seriously cheap airport bus to San Jose too.

Where to Eat in Costa Rica

You’ll easily find places to eat in Costa Rica, whatever your budget.  If all you desire is pizza and burgers then never fear, Costa Rica can find them for you.  Costa Rica street food is the same as street food in the rest of Central America – you’ll find fried and grilled meats and vegetables.  If, however, you’d like to try the cuisine of the country, then you have a host of options.

At the budget end of the scale, you’ll find markets, street food and food trucks.  It’s not just Costa Rican Food though, these vendors cater for burgers, tacos and more.  The most common type of street food that you’ll see are empanada, ceviche, pastries, ice cream and Granizado vendors (but more on that later).

Cheaper cafes are called “Sodas” in Costa Rica.   They tend to be family run places, with usually just a few seats. They’ll have daily special meals that usually include a drink and some fruit.  These specials will tend to be available at lunchtime, or until they’ve sold out.   Some sodas will have a buffet style option and you won’t find any two the same.  They’re a GREAT option to try Costa Rican food for an extremely reasonable price.

Typical Menu in a Soda

Higher end restaurants are also easily available wherever tourists travel to.  You’ll find great seafood restaurants along both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts.

If you’re en route to Costa Rica you’ll want our guide to everything you need to know about Costa Rica and our free Travel Checklist – read it here.

Where to Eat in San Jose Costa Rica

If you want a culinary experience in San Jose Costa Rica – then we recommend taking this tour while you are in the city.  >  Check it out and book now.  You’ll not only get to taste great food, but you’ll find out what food is like in Costa rica quickly and easily.

Read about what other things to do in San Jose here.

What to Eat in Costa Rica

Breakfast

Gallo Pinto

The quintessential Costa Rican breakfast is Gallo Pinto.  The most important rule to understand about Gallo Pinto is that this is NOT rice and beans.  It is significantly different from rice and beans as you’ll come to discover, although sometimes you might find Gallo Pinto made from yesterday’s rice and beans.  While Gallo Pinto is a traditional element of the Costa Rican breakfast you can probably also find it later in the day too.

Gallo Pinto is a dish of rice, beans, onions, red peppers and coriander (cilantro).  Together.  It’s simply one part of your breakfast.  It’s usually served with eggs, fried plantains, corn tortillas (or toast) and either fresh or fried cheese.  It may also come with natilla (sour cream) and a sausage on the side.  And while Gallo Pinto is Spanish for spotted chicken there’s not even a sniff of chicken about this dish.  The name comes from a legendary homage to a chicken in San Sebastian.

Gallo Pinto Breakfast

Gallo Pinto is a tasty filling start to the day – although you’ll want to embrace your inner Tico (a term for Costa Ricans) and dash some Salsa Liziano onto your plate too.

When it comes to the main meal of the day, you might be best trying to take this at lunchtime, especially if you’re in a smaller location.  We’ve split Costa Rican food into the main meals (which obviously you can have a lunch or dinner time), and snacks, although some of the snacks definitely qualify for me as a meal in themselves!

Main Meals & Snacks in Costa Rica

The traditional Costa Rican way is to eat the main meal at lunchtime.  A Costa Rican almuerzo is filling.

Rice and Beans Costa Rica

I’ll start with the most famous.  Costa Rica Rice and Beans – the words just go together.  This is exactly what it says in its name.  Rice and Beans Costa Rica is something that you will just get used to and hopefully come to love

How rice and beans are served depends on the area of the country that you’re in, the meal that it is with and the local speciality.  Rice and Beans obvious are the main components of the previously discussed Gallo Pinto, but usually, when they’re served as the main meal they’re not mixed together.  You’ll get a separate scoop of rice and a separate scoop of beans.

The rice is generally white rice and usually accompanies most meals in Costa Rica.  On the Caribbean coast, you’ll find rice and beans mixed together (ala Gallo Pinto), but also containing coconut milk, red beans thyme and spices.  It’s delicious.

The beans tend to be just plain and simple black beans – this is just plain Costa Rican Black beans and rice.  You usually see on a menu Costa Rican Beans and Rice along with all the following…

Casado – a Costa Rica Food staple

Casado is probably the most popular Costa Rican menu option for lunch.  The word means “Married Man” in English – and it is a marriage of Costan Rica flavours.  A Costa Rican Casado is a set meal – it’s comprised of black beans, rice, some vegetables (like fried sweet plantains usually) and protein – chicken, fish or pork chop.  You might also get a slice of Costa Rican queso fresco (fresh cheese).  Casado is usually the cheapest – and most eaten – item on the lunch or dinner menu.

Casado

Arroz Con…

You’ll find Arroz Con on virtually every menu.  It stands for “rice with” – and as rice is the primary staple food in Costa Rica it’s served in most meals.    In this dish, the rice is usually mixed with a saffron-like herb called annatto which makes it yellow.  Vegetables are added – peppers, peas, whatever is available and then your selection of protein.

  • Chicken
  • Vegetables
  • Mariscos (seafood)
  • Camarones (shrimp)

Arroz con is usually served with chips or a small side salad.

Arroz con camarones

Olla de Carne – Costa Rica Cuisines for the chillier climes

There are some parts of Costa Rica that aren’t the sun-drenched beaches – at higher elevation is can get a little wet and chilly at certain times of the year and that’s when Olla de Carne comes into its own.  This is beef stew.  Made with chunks of beef, potatoes, yucca, corn, carrots and Costa Rican squash called chayote.    It takes a while to cook so you might find it only on weekends.

Olla de Carne

Rondon – Costa Rican Caribbean Food

Originating as whatever the cook can “run down” this dish dates back to subsistence diets and it’s a Caribbean coastal dish.   It’s a rich coconut milk soup that contains, well, whatever the cook managed to find.  Usually a fish head and whatever else was caught.  Sweet potatoes, corn or yucca or plantains and thrown in.  There’s usually some chilli in there for a little zing too.

This is tasty, hearty comfort food. We had some amazing Rondon on the Caribbean Coast in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. More about what we got up to there here.

Sopa Negra

This is the Costa Rican version of chicken broth.  But there’s no chicken in it.  It’s what’s served when people are sick or cold, as once you get to higher elevation it can get a bit chillier (honest!).  At its heart, this is a simple black bean soup.  You’ll usually find it served with a couple of hard-boiled eggs, some rice and corn tortillas.

Chifrijo –  my favourite Costa Rican dish

My out and out the favorite dish in Costa Rica is Chifrijo.  Most places have this as an appetiser or a bar snack.  Chirfrijo is a bowl of rice and beans topped with twice-fried pieces of pork or pork crackling (known as chicharrones here in Costa Rica). The Chicarrone is a double deep-fried piece of pork rind served with lime juice and fried yucca.  Fat, cholesterol and oh so much taste.  You’ll find them on your Chifrijo, but also sometimes as a separate order.

Chifrijo

The Chifrijo is then topped with avocado, pico de gallo, chimichurri and lime.  You’ll get fresh tortilla chips to ladle this wonderful concoction into your mouth.   Pico de Gallo is a tomato salsa with onion, coriander and lemon.

It’s amazing.

Costa Rican Ceviche

Ceviche is another of those dishes that is usually found on the menu in the appetiser section, but one which I tend to enjoy as a main course.   It’s typically made of sea bass in Costa Rica, chopped into small cubes and mixed with diced red onion, coriander, possibly red pepper and then marinated in citrus juice  That’s it.  The acid in the citrus juice cooks the meat.

Your Costa Rican ceviche will be served with (usually) soda biscuits and sometimes plantains fried as patacones.

Ceviche and Patacones

While Ceviche in Costa Rica is most usually fish, you may find shrimp or conch mixed in there in some locations.  Ceviche is generally found in all the coastal regions of Costa Rica and every one I tried was delicious.

Fried Plantains & Patacones

You’ll find fried plantains (they’re not bananas) as a side on most Casado offerings, you’ll come to love them, or not I guess.   When the plantains are green and are sliced, fried, flattened and fried again they’re called patacones and topped with salt and lime.  You’ll get them as an appetiser with refried beans (frijoles molidas), ceviche or pico de gallo.

Costa Rican Chilera

You’ll spot Chilera on every table in every Soda.  If you don’t you should ask for some.  It’s a big pot of pickled vegetables.  You’ll find all sorts in here, carrots, onions, cauliflower, cucumber and more. It’s a great addition to your rice, beans and Casado.

Chilera

Don’t miss Salsa Lizano

Since the 1920’s Lizano sauce has been flavoring the food of Costa Rica.  This is Costa Rican sauce.  The inventor tasted Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce from England (yay!) and decided he could make it better.  Salsa Lizano was born.

It is literally Worcestershire Sauce with a Tico tang.  Tangy, slightly spicy, a little sweet.  Once you try it you’ll be hooked and it will go on everything.

Lizano Salsa

Traditional Costa Rican Desserts

If you have a penchant for dessert then you should try Arroz Con Leche (sweet rice with condensed milk, cinnamon, and raisins) or Tres Leches Cake – a cake that’s soaked in evaporated milk, condensed milk, and cream.

Costa Rican Fruits

You won’t go far wrong in Costa Rica by trying a little fruit to end your meals.  Depending on the season you’ll get to try a variety of fruits that you may be able to try at home, but I guarantee that they won’t taste as good.  Here’s a selection of what to try.

  • Annona is the custard apple, a heart-shaped fruit – cut in half and use a spoon to scoop out the white flesh and black seeds.
  • Marañón is also called cashew fruit – it’s a favorite of the parrots and must be roasted before eating.
  • Guanábana – this is also known as soursop and you should put aside your preconceptions of the look and the name, it’s fabulous – a great combination of pineapple and kiwi. Try a smoothie if nothing else.
  • Pitaya – also known as dragonfruit, the inner flesh is white, creamy, and extremely tasty.
  • Maracuyá – passionfruit – eat raw or drink as a juice, the flesh is slightly gelatinous but extremely good.
  • Pejibaye – you’ll mainly find this fruit, which comes from the peace palm tree made into a soup, but it can also be eaten (after being boiled and peeled) as a fruit.
  • Tamarindo – this looks like peas in a pod, albeit brown. Tamarindo is mainly made into juices and jams and you can’t go wrong with a Tamarindo juice to wash down your casado. If you’re looking for the beach town of Tamarindo, then our guide to what to do there is here.

Ice Cream & Treats

Costa Rican Trits

I wasn’t a fan of the National ice cream treat, “Trits”.  Its vanilla ice cream with fudge ripple between two wafers.   While they were cheap they were also soggy, but you’ll find them in supermarket freezer sections and you can make your own mind up.

Copo, Granizado or Churchill in Costa Rica

Copo is the Spanish for flake and you’ll find these shaved ice vendors everywhere.  The same as you’ll find shaved ice in Hawaii, you’ll get shaved ice, powdered milk, flavored syrup, and condensed milk here too.   You might also find them marketed as Granizados throughout the region.

A Churchill, from Quepos on the Pacific Coast, takes it a step further and is a culinary experience that you shouldn’t miss.

Churchill

Travel Tips for Exploring Costa Rica

Final Words on the Best Costa Rican Food

Costa Rican food is plentiful, basic, and simple.  Beans, corn, and rice supplemented with meat, chicken, fish, and seafood.  There are delicate seasonings, Moorish sauces, and pickles to add further flavor.  Finally, you’ll taste the entire country in a mouthful of the plentiful, incredible fruits.  Give Costa Rican food a good try, otherwise, you’ll never know! And let us know your favorite Costa Rican food?  Do you recommend any restaurants or sodas to eat in?  What didn’t you like?

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