With its abundance of fresh fruit, delicious seafood and simple, hearty dishes, Costa Rica should be high on the list of any traveler who enjoys a good meal. While Costa Rican food might have a reputation for leaning a little heavily on the classic rice-and-beans combo, any traveler who puts in the effort to find the culinary gems will soon understand how the country earned its title of the “rich coast.” Hemmed in by the Caribbean and the Pacific and boasting the highest density of biodiversity of any country, Costa Rica certainly has the raw ingredients to work with. A Costa Rican meal might not be the fanciest dining experience you’ve ever had, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be one of the best!
Traditional Costa Rican food demonstrates many influences, including those of Afro-Caribbean cultures and of the indigenous Central America people, including the Chorotega. Additionally, many Costa Rican culinary traditions descend from the Spanish. This vibrant mix of edible heritages makes for an interesting and well-developed national palate.
Traditional Costa Rican food is heavy on rice, beans and oil, and it’s usually accompanied by fresh fruit juice or a local beer. To make up for the relative simplicity of the ingredients, Costa Rican chefs typically use an abundance of spices. (They’re not big, however, on spicy foods.) Beef and pork are the most common meats, but chicken is also standard, and the fish is excellent, especially on the coasts. A typical Costa Rican meal consists of rice and beans (mixed together for breakfast but separate for lunch) accompanied by a protein, avocado and some fruit for desert. Mealtime is always a simple and sweet experience!
The Dining Experience in Costa Rica
Traditional Costa Rican food is simple (and proud of it!), and the dressed-up versions you can find at hotels or in touristic areas are rarely an improvement on the classic options. For an authentic tico (slang for Costa Rican) experience, head to a soda, or a Costa Rican lunch counter. You’re sure to find an affordable, hearty meal, as well as the opportunity to mingle with the locals. Some sodas offer a menu of options, while others are set up so you simply point to the ingredients you want (buffet style). Cantinas, or small bars, are a great place to enjoy typical Costa Rican bar food, which is excellent. Don’t forget to wash everything down with a local beer; Imperial and Pilsen are the favorites.
On the other side of the dining spectrum, the more touristic parts of the country today, especially San José, are home to all kinds of international and modern cuisines. Travelers looking for something different can find food from Peru, Argentina, Thailand and nearly any other country imaginable—all within Costa Rica’s cramped borders. If rice and beans aren’t up your alley, give these other cuisine styles a shot. Be warned, though. Outside San José and other tourist destinations, the quality drops quickly!
Typical Costa Rican Dishes
No traveler should leave Costa Rica without trying these quintessentially tico dishes:
The classic Costa Rican dish, casado is often served at the soda and consists of rice; beans; avocado and your choice of fish, chicken or beef.
● Gallo Pinto
The classic Costa Rican breakfast, this one is made of (you guessed it) rice and beans. Mixed together and usually served with sour cream, avocado and a strong cup of coffee, it makes for a great start to your day!
● Fried Plantains
A cousin of the banana that grows in South and Central America, plantains are an essential part of the Costa Rican diet. Tostones or patacones are green plantains smashed, fried and seasoned with garlic to make a savory treat, while maduros are also fried but left to ripen beforehand for a sweet flavor. Make sure to try both versions!
A tamale, which is usually wrapped in plantain leaves, consists of ground cornmeal and a filling of chicken, beef or pork. You can find them premade at little shops and roadside stands, or if you’re lucky, you can find a friendly tico who’ll make you some. Ordered too many? Don’t worry. They’re easy to reheat. Just drop them still wrapped into boiling water, and they make for a great snack.
● Sopa Negra
This Costa Rican soup is made of black beans, cilantro, onion and egg. While most of the country is warm, it can get a little chilly in San José, and sopa negra is a great way to warm up!
● Olla de Carne
Another soup, this one is heartier and consists of beef, carrots, potatoes, plantains and yuca (a starchy root vegetable native to the area).
● Arroz con Leche
This classic Costa Rican dessert is the tico version of rice pudding. It’s made by cooking rice in a mixture of milk, sugar, cinnamon and raisins. (From the main course to dessert, one thing remains clear: Costa Ricans love their rice!)
Backroads Pro Tip
A staple of tico cuisine is salsa lizano, the Costa Rican version of English brown sauce. It tastes like Worcestershire and goes great with gallo pinto, casado or just about any other dish. Costa Ricans use it liberally, and it’s more common than hot sauce at most restaurants!
Regional Foods and Specialties
Despite its small size, Costa Rican cuisine varies widely from coast to coast and from San José to small towns. Here are some of the more unique regional dishes on offer that are worth the trip!
While fish can be found throughout the country, on the Costa Rican Pacific coast, you’ll notice more restaurants offering fish for reasonable prices. Fried, grilled or baked, the local seafood is excellent and always fresh. Sopa de Mariscos, or seafood soup, contains a variety of shellfish and other delicacies, while ceviche, raw whitefish brined in lime juice, makes for a delicious appetizer.
● Pipa Fria
While you’re relaxing on a Costa Rican beach, what better treat than an ice-cold coconut that’s been chopped open and served with a straw for your refreshment? Strolling beach vendors normally sell pipa (Costa Rican for “coconut”), and it’s often fresh off the tree!
● Caribbean Cuisine
Along the country’s Caribbean coast, you’re likely to encounter a different variety of cuisine. Here, Jamaican and Caribbean cultures are highly influential. Give the spiced bread, jerk chicken and seafood a try, but be warned. It’s likely the spiciest food you’ll find in the country.
● Freshwater Bass
Lake Arenal, the largest lake in Costa Rica, is famous for its supply of freshwater bass. Enjoy a plate at the foot of Arenal Volcano—if you still have your appetite after a ride down the zip line.
Costa Rican Dining Terms: Glossary
Words to Know on the Menu
● Beef: Res or carne
● Fish: Pescado
● Chicken: Pollo
● Small snacks (usually served at a bar or a cantina): Bocas or boquitas
● Rice: Arroz
● Crispy fried pork skins: Chicharrones
Words to Know When Dining Out
While many Costa Ricans, especially in touristic areas, speak basic English, locals will certainly appreciate you using a little Spanish. Here are some phrases to get you started:
● Could I have the bill, please?: Regalame la cuenta, por favor.
● I’m a vegetarian: Soy vegetariano.
● Waiter: Mesero (male)
● Bottled water: Una botella de agua
● Tap water: Un vaso de agua
● Restroom: Baño
● Bon appetit!: ¡Buen provecho!
A 10 percent tip is standard at Costa Rican restaurants. Always check, though, whether a service charge has already been included in your bill. Tips above 10 percent are always appreciated for good service. Unlike in the United States, there’s no need to tip at bars or casual restaurants without table service here.
Costa Rica operates on the same dining timetable as the rest of northern Latin America. This means dinners typically begin between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m., or around the time the sun sets. Breakfast is normally available beginning at 6:30 a.m. or even earlier!
If you’re waiting for the check, don’t be afraid to ask. In Costa Rica, it’s considered rude to bring it unprompted because it might appear as if the server is rushing the guests out of the restaurant.