Costa Rica cuisine stays strong to the philosophy of simplicity. Simple flavors, ingredients and textures. The staples: rice, beans and corn are used in almost all dishes.
Vegetarians, vegans and gluten free eaters will actually have a very satisfied stomach in Costa Rica because their food isn’t too complicated and it doesn’t use a ton of spices or processed ingredients.
There are a few traditional Costa Rican dishes that climb to the list of favorites for travelers and these are the must eats. Foodies, find out what to eat in Costa Rica to eat like a local in this post as well as some drinks.
What to Eat in Costa Rica
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!
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. And you know you’re at a super traditional restaurant when they add an egg (usually fried) to the casado.
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.
Rice with chicken/shrimp/seafood/squid
This is probably the 3rd most traditional/popular Costa Rican dish: rice with chicken/shrimp/seafood/squid or arroz con X. This dish comes with the mixed rice with fries and a salad.
You’ll find this dish at every soda as well. If you like spicy, I highly recommend adding some hot sauce to it or the next item, the chilera.
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 and all you do is scoop some of it out and put it on your rice. Yum!
The ultimate Costa Rican appetizer at the bar is the chifrijo. It’s pretty much Costa Rica in a bowl: rice, beans, chicharrones (fried pork), avocado and chopped veggies. You spoon some of it onto chips and chow down.
Best paired with Costa Rican beer!
I’m kind of obsessed with Costa Rican empanadas. They’re cheap, filling and oh so good. It’s definitely not the healthiest thing to eat but good once in awhile!
We like them relleno, or stuffed with cabbage or you can order them plain. We have a Costa Rican empanada recipe so you can try it yourself!
Whole Red Snapper
If you love seafood and visiting the coasts of Costa Rica, then you have to try the red snapper. Seafood restaurants usually offer them 2 ways: a grilled/breaded filet or a fried/grilled whole red snapper. Red snapper is a common fish in Costa Rica that is hearty and soft white meat.
This is a whole red snapper from Puerto Viejo so it came with the Caribbean style rice and beans, patacones and salad. If you get it in other parts of Costa Rica, it usually comes with fries and salad, sometimes patacones.
Which brings us to our next dish, Caribbean rice and beans!
Rice and Beans
I was introduced to Costa Rican Caribbean food back in 2010 during my first trip to Costa Rica. Yeison took me to Puerto Viejo and I fell in love with the food. Costa Rican Caribbean food is quite different than the rest of the country’s cuisine as they use a key ingredient: coconut milk.
Get a plate of rice and beans with Caribbean chicken and it’s heaven in your mouth. Add a little bit of the Caribbean hot sauce and it’s a party. The Caribbean side of Costa Rica is gorgeous but our favorite thing there is the food.
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.
Crema de Pejibaye
And if you love rich soups, then you must try the super costa Rican 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. They are high in calories though so don’t have this soup or eat the fruit too often!
Ceviche de Banano Verde
Ceviche is another dish to try in Costa Rica but if you want to try a Costa Rican ceviche dish, get ceviche de banano verde.
This is an excellent dish for vegans as it’s made with green bananas, onions, celery and other veggies. Eat it like a real Tico and put it on chips with some ketchup and mayonnaise!
Olla de Carne
This is Costa Rican beef stew. Great for hangovers!
It’s not very rich and it’s water based so it’s not quite like a stew, but they put in big chunks of beef, corn, yuca, potato and yam.
This Costa Rican corn pancake is a yummy snack and especially good for breakfast dribbled in some honey with coffee.
Most Costa Ricans like to eat them as a mid-afternoon snack to go with their afternoon coffee. There is also a cheesey version of the chorreada.
Arroz con Leche
In the mood for something sweet? Get a traditional Costa Rican arroz con leche.
It’s a sweet rice dessert made with condensed milk, cinnamon and raisins. Yum!
Costa Rican Fruit
Love fruit? Costa Rica has some exotic fruit that are incredibly nutritious such as mamon chino, tamarindo, cas, jocotes and noni. Though most of them aren’t actually native to Costa Rica, they grow in abundance here due to the weather.
Costa Rica actually grows their own type of avocados that are unlike the Mexican Hass avocados. They are big, green and really good. I highly recommend trying it!
It’s normal to get a fruit smoothie when out to eat which are called naturals. Many places have a mixed fruit and offer the basic tropical fruit such as mango, papaya and pineapple. You can also find chan (chia seeds) and horchata (almond).
You’ll find fruit vendors on the streets in every town and fruit here is cheap. You can buy a big bag of rambutan for $2 and 3 cantaloupes for $2 when in season.
Last but not least, coffee. Costa Rican coffee is of some of the highest quality in the world and don’t get stuck drinking/buying just the Britt brand. Try 1820 or Terrazzu, a couple of our favorites.
Coffee in Costa Rica like their food, is simple. There aren’t many cafes and most typical restaurants serve only drip coffee, no fancy machiattos or lattes. But I prefer to drink it black so I can truly appreciate the delicious taste of Costa Rican coffee.
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Now you know what to eat in Costa Rica! You can find all of these dishes in nearly every soda in Costa Rica except the Caribbean dishes which are found only in restaurants specializing in Caribbean Costa Rican food. Though foodies may be disappointed by the variety and lack of strange ingredients, Costa Rican cuisine is excellent for those who aren’t too keen on venturing outside the norm or for those who enjoy fresh flavors and local ingredients.
If you are vegetarian or vegan, check out our veg guide to eating in Costa Rica.
Read more about Costa Rican food here!