Although Costa Rica is not a foodie destination or known for gourmet dishes or fine dining, you’ll still eat well during your vacation. Due to the mass influx of foreigners from all around the world, you can find a variety of food like Italian, Argentinian, Mexican, American, French and Spanish.
But if you want to try traditional Costa Rican dishes, then you must go to a soda (what Costa Ricans call local restaurants). There you will find only local Costa Rican food and one good thing about eating at a Costa Rican soda is that it’s usually much cheaper than eating at a touristic restaurant.
If you’re curious as to what exactly Costa Rican cuisine is like, check out this post. We included 15 of our favorite Costa Rican dishes on there and recommendations for our favorite sodas. Since Yeison is Costa Rican, I’ve had the privilege to try a lot of Costa Rican dishes that most tourists don’t get to so I’ll also include recommendations for where to get them.
Traditional Costa Rican Dishes: Chifrijo
Chifrijos are the ultimate Costa Rican bar food. It’s basically a bowl of rice, beans, pico de gallo, chicharrones (fried pork) and guacamole. They usually serve this at every local bar and though it may not be on the menu (there are some patent laws regarding the name), you can ask the waiter.
Pair the chifrijo with an Imperial beer (or a shot of chiliguaro) and you basically have Costa Rica in one meal! Our favorite places to go for a chifrijo are at the Posada de la Brujas restaurant in San Jose (it is called a patrulla on their menu), Isagas Bar in Jaco and Bar Villa Costa in Villarreal. I recommend going to a local bar though, most tourist bars don’t have them.
Olla de Carne
Olla de carne is one of the few soup dishes they eat here. It’s a very simple but hearty and healthy soup with beef, yucca, corn, green plantain, taro, yam, carrot and potato.
Only local restaurants have olla de carne but not all of them have it every day. Since this soup is known as “hangover food” and takes awhile to make, restaurants usually only make them once a week. Our favorite places for olla de carne is Soda Sabor Tico in Monteverde and the Parada de Bus in La Fortuna. The soup in the photo is from Las Delicias del Maiz in Alajuela. They all have them every day.
You can try to make this at home with our Costa Rican olla de carne recipe.
Ensalada de Caracolitos
Caracolitos in Spanish are the small pasta shells and Costa Ricans make a tuna pasta salad with them. It’s more like a side dish rather than a main dish and I like to get it when I don’t feel like rice.
If you go to a soda that is buffet style, you will usually find ensalada de caracolitos.
Costa Rican Taco
Costa Rican tacos are not like Mexican tacos at all. They roll the tortilla with the filling and deep fry it.
They put shredded cabbage with ketchup and mayonnaise on top and it’s usually filled with beef or chicken. You can find this in some sodas and it’s usually under the fast food section.
Patacones are smashed fried plantains and they’re probably one of the best things to eat in Costa Rica. You can order them with guacamole, pico de gallo or beans.
We usually order this as an appetizer and patacones are normally served with rice and beans on the Caribbean coast. The patacones in Puerto Viejo are amazing and we also had really good ones at Soda Tipica Las Palmas in Montezuma and Soda Tiquicia in Santa Teresa.
These are Costa Rican corn pancakes that are eaten as a snack or for breakfast. These are delicious paired with coffee as they are normally made sweet or you can eat it with natilla like the picture above, a type of sour cream.
Chorreadas is like a pancake but made with ground corn which you pan fry until it turns a crunchy golden brown. We’ve had good ones at Soda Sabor Tico in Monteverde but they are not usually on menus so you can ask the waiter.
Churchills were invented in Puntarenas and this is a must if you love sweets. It’s a more intense variation of the Costa Rica copo with ice cream with kola syrup, condensed milk, powdered milk and barquillos (the straw cookies).
You can also try a copo or granizado which is the same thing without the ice cream. You can find them in every beach town and most cities.
Rice and Beans
Rice and beans are from the Caribbean side of the country, making it completely different than the typical gallo pinto breakfast dish. The locals use coconut milk in the rice and beans, pair it with patacones and slow cooked chicken or fish.
Add a bit of the Caribbean hot sauce and you have one of the best things to eat in Costa Rica. Our favorite place for rice and beans is Soda Lidias in Puerto Viejo.
Crema de Pejibaye
If you love rich soups, then you must try crema de Pejibaye. Pejibaye, or peach palm is a type of fruit native to Central America. It kind of looks like a really small coconut but the inside is a soft, kind of grainy fruit that tastes a bit like sweet potato.
They make this into a cream soup so it’s quite rich but full of nutrients as pejibaye is very healthy. We’ve only ever had this at a few places in Costa Rica. Once at the Buena Vista Lodge and another time at a restaurant in San Jose.
This is the Costa Rican version of pickled vegetables. You can find this in nearly all sodas and if you don’t see one on your table, ask your waiter. Each soda makes their own so they’re always different but if you like the pickled/vineger flavor, you’ll love the chilera!
They usually use onions, cucumbers, carrots, cauliflower and Panamanian peppers. Most sodas make their own chilera.
A Costa Rican gallo is kind of a snack and it is very common in barbecue restaurants. It is basically a tortilla with a meat, either beef, pork or chicken but they also have them with beans and cheese.
A very popular place for gallos is Betico Mata in Turrialba.
Ceviche de Banano Verde
Ceviche de banano verde is made with green banana, lettuce, onion, celery, sweet pepper and lime juice. It’s eaten as an appetizer and you can eat it with chips.
This is an excellent dish for vegans as it’s made with green bananas, onions, celery and other veggies. We haven’t seen this in too many sodas except for ones in very small rural towns. We had this one at Danta Corcovado Lodge.
Another Caribbean dish to try is rondon, a rich coconut milk soup with fish and veggies like corn, yuca, Panamanian pepper and potato.
This is a hearty soup, perfect for rainy days in the Caribbean. You can find this at all the local restaurants in Puerto Viejo, the one at Selvin’s was really good.
Trits Ice Cream
Trits is a type of ice cream made from the Costa Rican company Dos Pinos who makes all sorts of diary products. It’s originally an ice cream cookie and they just made an entire Trits flavor ice cream.
You can get Trits ice cream at any supermarket or small grocery store. It’s so good!
Costa Rican empanadas are another one of our favorite fast food snacks. They fill the empanada with meat and stuff it with cabbage.
Rainforest Cafe in La Fortuna is one of our favorite places for empanadas, they are huge!
Arroz Con Palmito
Arroz con palmito is a Costa Rican rice dish that’s not super common at restaurants but we have gotten it a couple times. It’s rice with heart of palm. This hearty dish is topped with cheese and made with whole cream. Yeison loves this but he doesn’t really like ordering it at restaurants, he prefers to eat it when his aunts make it.
Spoon Chocolate Cake
This isn’t really a dish since it’s a dessert but I couldn’t leave this one out. Spoon is a chain of restaurants and they make their own desserts and pastries. Their chocolate cake is one of my favorite cakes.
I’m not a huge fan of frosting but I love theirs. It’s thick and gooey and their cakes are always good but the chocolate is the best! You can buy Spoon cakes at supermarkets like Auto Mercado or Mega Super.
Traditional Costa Rican Food
I certainly can’t talk about Costa Rican food without mentioning the three below. These are three of the most common, most traditional dishes of Costa Rica that you will find at every single local restaurant.
These two dishes are probably what you’ll eat in Costa Rica the most as you can find them at every soda, or traditional restaurant. Gallo pinto, a mixture of rice, beans and chopped veggies is the signature breakfast food usually accompanied with eggs, toast, fried plantains, sausage and natilla (sour cream). Some Costa Ricans prefer tortillas instead of toast.
Pair that with a cup of coffee and you got yourself a super traditional Tico breakfast! You can get our Costa Rican gallo pinto recipe here.
The casado, translation “married” is a typical dish for lunch or dinner. It’s like a smorgasbord plate but typically comes with rice, beans, a meat, a salad and fried plantains/tortilla/cheese.
The reason why these two main dishes are quite heavy is because most of the Costa Ricans back in the day were farmers or coffee pickers so they needed a lot of energy to work.
Arroz Con Pollo (Or squid/seafood/shrimp)
This is a fairly popular Costa Rican dish and just as common as casados. Rice and chicken, mixed with vegetables normally accompanied with salad and fries. This rice and chicken was one of the best I ever ate with heart of palms in the salad, one of our favorites.
If you’re vegetarian, you can ask for a vegetarian casado or vegetarian rice. You can read more tips on eating vegetarian in Costa Rica here.
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