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Costa Rican Traditional Food

Eating Out at a Local Soda is a Great Option

A typical breakfast in Costa Rica, with eggs, plantains, and fruit.

One of the universal ways to experience a culture is through its local cuisine. In Costa Rica, soda, small diners specializing in typical local food, serve stick-to-your-ribs, hearty meals for a few thousand colónes (no need to panic; 1000 colónes is approximately equal to US$2). Food is displayed in buffets, where servers assemble mix-and-match meals as customers select or point to what they would like, or a server will come to the table and take your order. Soda offer similar menus that differ only slightly in taste and selection. Most soda are locally owned and are housed in humble but clean structures. There are soda throughout the country, even in small towns. This is partly because Costa Rica relies exclusively on trucks to transport the nation's food and soda, essential in feeding hungry truck drivers who regularly drive on the curving roads. In fact, soda are like truck stops between towns, so they are often frequented by locals who know where to find good, reasonably priced food.

In our travels, we explored most Costa Rican culinary specialties. Ubiquitous rice and beans, gallo pinto, are available at every time of day, and the best way to feel like a true Tico is to taste a spoonful alongside your scrambled eggs for breakfast. Other traditional breakfast items include fried plantain — sweet and surprisingly not greasy — tomato salsa, sausages, and fruit. Of course, no breakfast would be complete without a cup of coffee, and visiting Costa Rica without sampling their world-famous blend would be sacrilegious. Days into our trip, we learned that if you do not care for café leche con, rather than your typical shot of cream, politely utter gracias when your waiter has poured the desired amount of milk into your cup. Costa Ricans like their coffee to contain equal parts cream to coffee.

Costa Rica is the 15th-largest producer of coffee in the world. Enjoying coffee is a long tradition in this part of the world. Rows upon rows of coffee plants are a testament to the seminal place this crop still occupies in the culinary culture of Costa Rica. One of the most worthwhile souvenirs is a freshly roasted and ground coffee bag to take home. Purchase a freshly brewed cup, accompanied by dulce de leche churros (long, fingerlike doughnuts), and take a seat. People watch on a lazy, rainy afternoon, and your day will feel blessedly serene.

Costa Rica is an Agricultural Country

Costa Rica is still an agricultural country, with more than 1/4th of its population working in this sector. Consequently, many items on the menu come from local farms, gardens, and plantations. Bananas from the East, coffee, palm oil, sugar from the South, citrus from the North, and many other agricultural goods make up the dishes served at soda.

The flavors of Costa Rican cuisine also differ slightly by region. In Tortuguero, on the eastern coast, where people with African roots fled the Caribbean, the cooking, like the architecture, is inflected with spicy Caribbean flavors. Here, gallo pinto is delicately infused with coconut milk, adding a mellow, creamy taste. In fact, coconut is used in everything from breakfast to dessert in this part of the country. Though disarmingly sweet, bolitas de coco, balls of grated dried coconut, condensed milk, and cookie crumbs lightly fried in butter are frequently served for dessert. All the cultural influences add complexity to Tico cuisine, which is influenced by Spanish and native cuisines.

Costa Rican Lunches at a Soda

In Costa Rica, as in most other Latin American countries, maize, or corn remains a staple — nearly every soda makes chorreados, a large, thick corn tortilla combined with cheese and served with natilla (sour cream). In fact, horrendous can be a meal in themselves. We learned this from our guide, Guido, after driving back from an early morning bird-watching trip to the mountains south of San Jose.

Guido took us to a popular soda shop in San Gerardo de Dota, Cafeteria los Chespiritos, for lunch. It was much larger than other soda shops we had visited and had a few kiosks inside. In fact, the chocolate and white fudge (cajeta) sold in the candy shop were very hard to pass up. As we began to order, the chorreados caught our eyes. We asked for familiar "Tex-Mex" chicken, beans, and salsa toppings. We noticed that when pointing to each item, the look on the face of the server behind the counter became increasingly puzzled. We took this to mean that our muddled Spanish insulted the poor man despite our best efforts. As we sat down to enjoy our meal, Guido told us about his childhood. He recalled his grandmother ritually rising early on Saturday mornings to make stacks of chorreados, much to her grandchildren's delight. "Costa Ricans usually eat them alone or with natilla." After a short pause, laughing hysterically, Guido remarked, "But I have never seen one assembled as you have in my lifetime." We all began roaring with laughter at our new creation.

Though tortillas and gallo pinto are ubiquitous, other lunchtime menus include a few varieties of meats, vegetable dishes, soups, and a variety of fish. Fish (usually tilapia or trout) is almost always deep-fried whole, and this brings out their sweetness. Most fish are caught or farmed locally, which is generally relatively fresh. Picadillo, one of Guido's favorites, is a meat hash that includes locally grown vegetables like chayote (christophene). Fried plantain is a customary accompaniment to most meals. It is fried or served with a sweet glaze. Fried yucca (cassava), a specialty in soda, is deliciously crispy, like a French fry on the outside, with a lovely silky texture inside. Soda always serve casado, a heaping plate of all or some of these foods. Casado means to marry — sweet, savory, and meaty flavors come together. A casado is usually inexpensive, and the portions are generous.

Tabletops in Costa Rica are only complete with a bottle of Lizano sauce (similar to the North American penchant for Tabasco), and most soda make their own. Lizano sauce is made with vegetables and spices and lends a gentle herb-like infusion to meals. It is a brownish sauce sold at grocery stores under the Knorr or Unilever labels. Legend has it that a wealthy man from Alajuela with the surname Lizano invented the sauce. Jorge, another of our guides, informed us that Costa Rican people do not have an affinity for spicy foods, contrary to some of their Central and Latin American neighbors. Lizano is not a hot sauce; it is meant to enhance the natural flavors of dishes and is often served with gallo pinto. As Lizano is a cultural institution, you cannot fully appreciate Costa Rican cuisine without a few dashes of Lizano sauce to accompany your meal.

Food, Pride, and Hospitality in Costa Rica

Costa Ricans take great pride in their nation. Though the country has seen tourism flourish in the past few decades, preserving and maintaining the environment is an important priority. This has allowed fruit trees to flourish. While driving in the countryside, we often asked Jorge to name the fruit trees. Soda take advantage of the abundance of fruits found in the country. They typically serve an assortment of drinks or refrescos on the premises by combining fresh fruit with sugar or milk. Among the fruits used in refrescos is cas, a sour guava that imparts a light green color to the drink and is commonly grown in fields. Be sure to try some of the other fruits used in refrescos, including tamarind, a brown pod whose sour flesh is squeezed to remove the seed; guanabana, a slightly sour white-fleshed fruit that tastes similar to custard; mango; and the peculiar seed chan. Though the flavor is mild, chan is truly a sight for the eyes — tiny black seeds resembling a minuscule arrow are suspended in a thick translucent juice.

It was a Tuesday afternoon, and Jorge, as accommodating and relaxed as ever, took us to a genuinely off-the-beaten-path soda, Soda La Casa de Ara, in the town of La Fortuna near Arenal Volcano. We walked up the steps to a white structure resembling a house. Inside was a bustle of people, surfers eating after making their way from the coast, and families scattered amongst the casual wooden tables. We each ordered a modest casado of tortillas, gallo pinto, yucca, fried plantain, and whatever else looked good. Just as we were about to start our meal, Jorge bolted up, telling us he had forgotten something in the van. Upon his return, he clasped a large dark oval avocado almost a full pound in weight. A friend had given it to him. Jorge began slicing the avocado into equal parts with his knife, and we started our meal — sampling from each others' plates, mixing and matching flavors.

We talked and laughed, ate, and watched other people. It was then that we realized the remarkable spirit of the soda. When you immerse yourself in local life — primarily through a ritual as fundamental as enjoying the food — you come to appreciate a country's culture. You come to realize, as we did, the hospitality of the Costa Rican people, the family dynamic, the ease, and the pura vida, all of which are beautifully exemplified through the soda. The Soda are not only places to eat but places to feel entirely nourished.

Mini-Lexicon for Costa Rican Cuisine


Hello: ¡Hola!, Bueno
Thank you (very much): (Muchas) gracias
Please: Por favor
Do you have a table for 2: ¿Tienes una mesa para dos (2) personas?  
I'd like a [ — ], please: Quiero una [ — ], por favor  
May I have the menu? : El menu por favor?
I’d like...: Quiero...
A little more: Un poco mas
One beer please: Una cerveza por favor
Glass of water: Un vaso de aqua
The bill please: La cuenta por favor
Breakfast: El desayuno
Lunch: El almuerzo
Dinner: La comida (la cena)
A generous plate of any combination of rice, beans, plantain, salad, noodles and fish or meat: Casado

Typical Food/ Drink:

Drinks: Frescos, refrescos
Fresh juice: Jugos naturales
Blackberries: Mora
Pineapples: Piña
Tiny arrow-shaped black seeds in a thick translucent thick translucent juice: Chan
Tamarind: Tamarindo
Soursop: Guanabana
Mango: Mango, manga
Sour Guava: Cas
Fresh juice with milk: Un fresco con leche
Beverages : Bebidas
Drink made with cornmeal and cinnamon: Horchata
Black coffee: Café negro
Coffee with milk: Café con leche.
Water: Agua mineral


Minced chayote, potatoes, carrots or other vegetables combined with ground beef: Picadillo
Plantain: Plátanos
Cassava: Yuca
Seafood marinated in acidic juice such as lime and eaten raw: Ceviche
A brown sauce made of vegetables and spices: Salsa Lizano
Rice and beans; literally spotted rooster: Gallo pinto
Thick corn tortillas: Chorreados
Sour Cream: Natilla
Long finger-like doughnuts filled with caramel and sprinkled with sugar: Dulce de leche churros
Fudge: Cajeta
Dessert of grated dried coconut, condensed milk and cookie crumbs, lightly fried in butter: Bolitas de coco

Meat and Seafood:

Beef broth with large chunks of meat, local tubers, and corn: Olla de carne
Chicken: Pollo
Sea bass: Corvina
Shrimp: Camarones
Lobster: Langosta
Beef: Carne


Cafeteria los Chespiritos

Location: San Gerardo de Dota

This is the very last stop before the mountains, so be sure to eat to your heart's content. The large cafeteria/soda has a broad range of Tico specialties including olla de carne, chorreados and fried fish.

Soda La Parada

Location: La Fortuna

Obliquely opposite the park, this soda is open 24 hours a day. We enjoyed a large pizza, rice and beans, and lemon Fresca for less than US$20 for five people. This is a wonderful place for people watching, as La Parada is located on a bustling street. The evening we visited, there were several young couples and families that came for nachos or a quick bite.

Soda La Casa de Ara

Location: La Fortuna

When we were leaving this soda, the owner came out to personally thank us for visiting. This busy soda is a good lunchtime spot on the way to or from Arenal volcano. This was our first introduction to the wondrous chan. Their casado selections make a filling meal, and the soda makes their own Lizano sauce.

Bar Restaurant Selva Tropical

Location: between Baulio Carillo Park and Caño Blanco

Just off the highway on the way to Tortuguero, this quaint soda/restaurant is home to a small butterfly garden — you may even catch a glimpse of the miniscule poison dart frogs. This soda is definitely a worthwhile stop if only for the fried yucca. They also serve good coffee. The friendly staff will be sure to make you feel at home.

Other Useful Information provides a nearly exhaustive listing of all of the soda and restaurants in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica Tour offers customized tours of Costa Rica and are one great option to experience the country. Small or large groups can be accommodated and the guides speak excellent English. Everything from hotels to excursions and meals can be reserved, and the entire staff is incredibly knowledgeable and helpful.

Related Topics
Travel to Eat
Living in Costa Rica: Articles and Resources

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