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What amazes me most about Costa Rican food and drink isn’t San Jose’s burgeoning culinary scene. Sure, the gastropubs, hidden food stalls and fresh market fare in the capital were delicious, but the best meal I’ve ever had within these borders was not in a restaurant. It was a simple meal in a simple kitchen, prepared by a family that knows nothing beats a home- cooked plate of chicken and rice.
Traditional Costa Rican food is immensely popular to locals and visitors alike. Take one bite of a breakfast favorite like gallo pinto or sip a batido and you’ll immediately agree. When you ask, “What is Costa Rican food?” you may get different answers, but all responses will have one thing in common: The most popular foods in Costa Rica are the ones that make you feel like you’re back at your family’s kitchen table. These are the traditional Costa Rican food and drinks you must try during your visit.
Costa Rican food and drinks to try
What are three typical breakfast foods in Costa Rica? Rice, beans, and tortillas. Granted, they’re three typical foods found in nearly every meal, but eggs, salsa, fresh fruit, and a cup of coffee combine with this tasty trifecta to start your day off the right way. You won’t regret waking up to these two breakfasts:
Gallo pinto: Fair warning to travelers: If you come to Costa Rica, you’ll be spending a lot of time getting to know gallo pinto, a popular traditional Costa Rican dish. It’s one of the most popular foods in the country and it’s the preferred way to start the day. The mix of white rice and dark beans gives it the name “spotted rooster,” though you won’t find any chicken on this plate. A fried egg, though? Chances are high.
Gallos: Got a hankering for breakfast tacos? Then get yourself a heaping helping of gallos. This savory morning meal is basically what tacos are to Mexico: tortillas filled with good stuff like cheese, eggs, sausage, bacon or veggies. Consider it a build-your-own breakfast and don’t forget to put a squirt of hot sauce or a dollop of sour cream on top.
Costa Rica food fact: Looking for the best Costa Rican coffee? You’ll have to travel internationally. Most of the top coffee beans harvested from the country are exported to the United States and Europe.
Breakfast may be the most important meal of the day, but lunch is definitely the biggest. You’ll have no trouble finding a restaurant ready to refuel you for whatever afternoon adventure awaits. The biggest problem with lunch in Costa Rica? You’ll want to take a nap afterwards!
Casado: Ask anyone what the three most popular foods in Costa Rica are, and casado will be tied with gallo pinto. But where gallo pinto is a standard dish, a casado is not tied down to any one set of ingredients. Casado, meaning “married,” is a mix of many foods that will usually include rice, beans, a meat like beef or chicken, salad, tortillas, and a range of side dishes. We have a feeling you’ll be married to this dish as well and celebrate your “anniversary” every time lunch rolls around.
Chifrijo: Looking for a different kind of lunch? Let us introduce you to the chifrijo. Go ahead: Try to name a better trio than fried pork rinds, beans and rice. This meal is typically served with a side of pico de gallo, a mix of chopped tomatoes, onions, peppers, lime and salt. It’s also a popular pub grub, so don’t be surprised if you find it with chips and guacamole at the bar.
Tamal: The tamal in its many variations is found all over Latin America. In Costa Rica, these tortillas full of pork, rice and vegetables are steamed in a banana leaf as opposed to a corn husk. The tamal is usually a special dish reserved for the holidays, so you won’t find it on abuela’s kitchen table on any old Thursday. But if and when you get a chance to chow down on this delightful dish, don’t pass it up.
Patacones: Plantains. Fried. Not once, but twice. Yes, my friends, patacones are as snackable as they sound and we know you’ll devour a plate of them the moment one hits your lips. This food can almost be considered a healthy snack; it is a fruit after all. Some restaurants will offer it as an appetizer, others may have it as a side dish. All we know is that you should order a plate with salsa or pico de gallo.
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What is a typical dinner in Costa Rica? Honestly, you’ll find many of the same plates placed in front of you for lunch and dinner. Not unlike hamburgers and fries or chicken fingers and salads, there are a variety of dishes that make a good meal anytime after breakfast. You’d be wise to remember these three:
Rondón: How’s a cup of run-down soup sound to you? Unless it’s your first time in Costa Rica, you’ll probably ask for a bigger bowl! Reduced coconut milk is poured into a pot, then loaded with whatever seafood and veggies are on hand. That’s why it’s called rondón – it’s made of whatever the cook can “run down.” Mackerel, snapper, chilis, plantains, conch, tomato, mussels – you name it, you can throw it in and watch it swim.
Sopa negra: Now here’s a soup you’re likely more familiar with: black bean soup. Sopa negra is a traditional soup with black beans as the star ingredient. The rest of the ensemble is usually made up of peppers, tomatoes and spices, with a hard-boiled egg or two on the side.
Olla de carne: Can you tell that we’ve got warm bowls of stew on the brain? We hope you’re hungry, because here’s another solid dinner to order up: olla de carne. Like the above, you’ll find chunks of veggies floating amidst the broth, but the big flavor in this bowl comes from beef and potatoes. This is a meaty meal that will send you to an early bedtime.
Costa Rica food fact: Rondón isn’t a Central American creation, but a Jamaican recipe brought to the mainland by laborers. Of course, Ticos took little time putting a Costa Rican spin on the dish.
Raise your hand if you skipped over the other sections just to find out what’s on the dessert menu in Costa Rica. We don’t blame you. Dessert in Costa Rica is worth saving room in your stomach for. Say yes please to any sugary, sweet treat you’re offered, but be especially sure to keep these two snacks on your radar.
Arroz con leche: We know that the literal English translation, “rice with milk,” doesn’t trigger the same reaction from your sweet tooth that a slice of chocolate cake and a scoop of ice cream would. But trust us, this tasty dish is more flavorful than it sounds. Cloves, cinnamon, and vanilla extract are often added to sweeten this sticky snack. Toss a little fruit into the mix and you’ll be in dessert heaven.
Flan de coco: The problem with vacationing in the Caribbean is that you want to look good in your swimsuit, but you’ll also want to eat your weight’s worth of flan de coco. Flan is a popular dessert throughout Latin America, and Costa Rica is no exception. Coconut flan is especially delectable, but then again, isn’t anything that’s sprinkled with coconut flakes?
Naturally, you can get a good cup of coffee in the country, but you’d better also believe that you can get different kinds of brew too. The craft beer scene in Costa Rica is getting better by the day. You also shouldn’t be surprised to find a full menu of cocktails mixed with Ron Centenario at any given bar. Here’s what we’re drinking on the regular:
Guaro: The national liquor of Costa Rica, guaro is a sugar-cane liquor similar to white rum. A straight shot of warm guaro will hit you like a ton of bricks if you’re not prepared. You can also take the shot chilled, as a miguelito with coconut milk, or as a chiliguaro, which spices things up with hot sauce, lime and tomato juice mixed in. Or if you’re hankering for a tasty cocktail, we vote for a guaro sour.
Batido: Need something to nurse your overindulgence of guaro shots? A batido, also called a natural or fresco, will do the trick. Wake up to this smoothie beverage that is essentially a blend of milk or ice and whatever fresh fruit is available. Any fruit will do, but soursop and passionfruit never disappoint.
Costa Rica food fact: Imperial is the national beer of Costa Rica and was introduced to the country way back in 1924. Everything from its brewing technique to its logo design were inspired by German practices. You’ll sometimes hear locals refer to the brew as “Aguila,” referencing the eagle on its label.
Enjoy the best of Costa Rican food and drinks
Costa Rica is a dream destination for foodies, picky eaters and people who just want to fill their bellies. Simple dishes like gallo pinto and regional flavors like those found in rondón will delight you morning, noon and night. Get your fill of Costa Rican food and drink next time you visit!