Restaurants and Drinks
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Costa Rican Cuisine
Costa Rican cuisine is simple, and spices are shunned. Comida típica, or native cuisine, relies heavily on rice and beans, and “home-style” cooking predominates. Gallo pinto, the national dish of fried rice and black beans, is ubiquitous, including as a breakfast (desayuno) staple. Many meals are derivatives, including arroz con pollo (rice and chicken) or arroz con tuna.
At lunch, gallo pinto becomes the casado (literally “married”), a cheap set lunch plate of rice and beans supplemented with cabbage-and-tomato salad, fried plantains, and meat. Vegetables do not form a large part of the diet, and when they do, they are usually overcooked.
Food staples include carne (beef, sometimes called bistec), pollo (chicken), and pescado (fish). Beef and steaks are quite lean—Costa Rican cattle is grass-fed and flavorful. Still, don’t expect your tenderloin steak (lomito) to match its North American counterpart. (It’s ironic that a nation that sells much of its beef to McDonald’s has burgers that make even a Big Mac taste good.)
Seafood is popular—especially sea bass (corvina), mahimahi, shrimp (camarones), and lobster (langosta). Light and flavorful tilapia (African bass) is increasingly popular, especially served with garlic (al ajillo). Marlin and sailfish are regional specialties at local restaurants. They are particularly delicious when prepared with a marinated base of fresh herbs and olive oil, and seared over an open grill to retain the moist flavor. Ceviche is also favored, using the white meat of corvina steeped in lemon juice mixed with dill or cilantro and finely cut red peppers.
Guanacaste province is particularly noted for its local specialties, such as sopa de albóndigas (spicy meatball soup, with chopped eggs) and pedre (carob beans, pork, chicken, onions, sweet peppers, salt, and mint), plus foods based on corn, such as tortillas.
Sodas, open-air lunch counters, serve inexpensive snacks and meals.
Eating in Costa Rica doesn’t present the health problems that plague the unwary traveler elsewhere in Central America, but you need to be cautious. Always wash vegetables in water known to be safe. And ensure that you personally peel any fruits you eat; you never know where someone else’s hands have been. Otherwise, stick to staples such as bananas and oranges.
In San José, restaurants serve the gamut of international cuisine at reasonable prices. Hoteliers and gourmet chefs are also opening restaurants worthy of note in even the most secluded backwaters. On the Caribbean coast, the local cuisine reflects its Jamaican heritage with mouthwatering specialties such as johnnycakes, curried goat, curried shrimp, and pepperpot soup.
Many bars in Costa Rica serve bocas—savory tidbits ranging from ceviche to tortillas con queso (tortillas with cheese)—with drinks. Some provide them free, as long as you’re drinking. Others apply a small charge. Turtle (tortuga) eggs are a popular dish in many working-class bars.
Most towns have Saturday-morning street markets (ferias de agricultor). Even the smallest hamlet has its pulpería or abastecedor—local grocery store.
Costa Rica grows many exotic fruits. The bunches of bright vermilion fruits on the stem found at roadside stalls nationwide are pejibayes. You scoop out the boiled avocado-like flesh; its taste is commonly described as falling between that of a chestnut and a pumpkin. The pejibaye palm (not to be confused with the pejibaye) produces the palmito (heart of palm), used in salads. Guayabas (guavas) come into season September–November; their pink fruit is used for jams and jellies. The marañón, the fruit of the cashew, is also commonly used in refrescos. Mamones are little green spheres containing grapelike pulp. And those yellow-red, egg-size fruits are granadillas (passion fruit). One of my favorites—it comes both sweet and sour—is the star fruit, or carambeloa, with the flesh of a grape and the taste of an orange.
Sweet and succulent sandías (watermelons) should not be confused with the lookalike chiverre, whose “fruit” resembles spaghetti! Piña (pineapple) is common. So too are melón (cantaloupe) and mangos. Papayas come in two forms: the round, yellow-orange amarilla and the elongated, red-orange cacho. Moras (blackberries) are most commonly used for fruit sodas.
Costa Rica has no national drink, perhaps with the exception of horchata, a cinnamon-flavored cornmeal drink. Coffee, of course, is Costa Rica’s grano de oro (grain of gold). Most of the best coffee is exported. Coffee is traditionally served very strong and mixed with hot milk. When you order coffee with milk (café con leche), you’ll generally get half coffee, half milk. If you want it black, you want café sin leche or café negro.
The more popular North American soda pops, such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola, as well as sparkling water (called agua mineral or soda), are popular and widely available, as are their Tico equivalents. Refrescos are energizing fruit sodas and colas. Batidos are fruit shakes served with water (con agua) or milk (con leche).
Sugar finds its way into all kinds of drinks, even water: agua dulce is boiled water with brown sugar—energy for field workers. Roadside stalls also sell pipas, green coconuts with the tops chopped off. You drink the refreshing cool milk from a straw.
Imported alcohol is expensive in Costa Rica, so stick with the local drinks. Lovers of beer (cerveza) are served locally brewed pilsners and lagers that reflect an early German presence in Costa Rica. Imperial and Bavaria are the two most popular brews. Tropical is a low-calorie light beer. Heineken is also brewed here under license. Bavaria makes a flavorful dark beer (negra). Even the poorest campesino can afford the native red-eye, guaro, a harsh, clear spirit distilled from fermented sugarcane. My favorite drink? Guaro mixed with Café Rica, a potent coffee liqueur. The national liquor monopoly also produces vodka and gin (both recommended), rum (so-so), and whiskey (not recommended). Imported whiskeys—Johnnie Walker is popular—are less expensive than other imported liquors, which are expensive.
Costa Rica even makes its own (unremarkable) wines, sold under the La Casa Tebar label, and grown at La Garita by the Vicosa company, which also makes a sparkling wine. Chilean and Argentinian vintages are widely available and inexpensive.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition