Although not typically thought of as a food destination, Costa Rica food culture has a surprising depth and offers delicious dishes well worth sampling. As you’ll quickly notice, rice and beans make their way into most meals, along with farmed chicken or beef and freshly caught fish.
Being located in Latin American, it’s easy to expect burritos and tacos to be the highlights on most menus. Instead, you’ll enjoy unique dishes like gallo pinto, casado, and hearty soups and stews. As Costa Rican food isn’t spicy, it’s easy for visitors to fall in love with the refreshing and flavorful dishes.
For the best local food, be sure to head to a soda (local diner), which are plentiful around Costa Rica and offer cheap and nutritious meals. The menus are likely to be in Spanish so it’s best to learn about the Costa Rica food culture before finding yourself confused trying to order. Check out below the nine most popular foods in Costa Rica and let your culinary adventure begin.
1. Gallo Pinta
Cost: $3 to $4 on its own, $7 served with eggs and corn tortillas
Where to find: Nearly everywhere that serves food
Meaning ‘spotted rooster,’ no Costa Rica food culture list would be complete without the iconic gallo pinto. So much so, there is even a saying ‘mas tico que el gallo pinto’ which means ‘more Costa Rican than spotted rooster’ – implying the fact that gallo pinto is quintessential Costa Rican. Even so, there is a long-standing debate on if the dish was invented in Costa Rica or Nicaragua.
The ingredients are simple, with white rice and black beans making up the heart of the dish, and cilantro, onions, and red peppers adding to the flavor. Then another ingredient, unique to Costa Rica, is added to give gallo pinto its distinctive taste – Salsa Lizano. A thin brown sauce similar to Worcestershire sauce, it provides gallo pinto the perfect touch of spice.
When all these ingredients are mixed, the white rice takes on coloring from the beans, red peppers, and Salsa Lizano, giving it the well-known red speckled look, aka the spotted rooster. You’ll typically find gallo pinto served for breakfast alongside eggs and homemade corn tortillas. To sound like a local, drop its full name and refer to the dish as pico.
Cost: $6 – $8 in rural areas, around $10 in more touristy locations
Where to find: Any local spot serving lunch or dinner
Bringing together all the favorite staples of Costa Rican food culture is the casado. Meaning ‘marriage’ in Spanish, it’s literally a marriage of foods to create one perfect meal. With every casado, you’ll find rice and beans, along with fish, beef, pork, or chicken. You’ll also be served a large glass of fresh fruit juice to wash it all down.
Then, depending on the region of Costa Rica you’re in and the time of year, the other sides will vary. Options typically include sliced avocado, eggs, homemade flour tortillas, and fried plantains. If you find yourself near the sea, casados may be served with seared mahi mahi, seabass, or grouper and changes daily depending on what the local fishermen bring in. At the end of the rainy season, around November, you’ll find the most options for fresh vegetables. This is when farmers harvest most of their crops, and farmer’s markets will be teeming with freshly picked fruit and vegetables – which then end up on your plate.
Finding a casado is easy; head into any soda for lunch or dinner. You won’t even need to check the menu. You can guarantee they’ll have one.
Cost: $6 with dips, $10 as a main
Where to find: Local sodas, bars and pubs
When Ticos (Costa Rican natives) are in need of a snack, they’ll have one thing on their mind – patacones. The perfect treat to curb any cravings, patacones are made from plantains cut into rounds, boiled, mashed, then fried. This creates a delicious crunch on the outside and a soft inside that keeps you coming back for more.
Again, depending on where you are in Costa Rica, the toppings may differ. They’re usually served with guacamole or chimichurri (chopped tomatoes, onion, cilantro, and lemon juice) for a quick snack. To turn patacones into a meal, some local diners will pile high refried beans, shredded beef, chicken, or pork, and a shredded cabbage salad. Patacones also pair perfectly with the fresh taste of ceviche, and eaten together, make a scrumptious and filling lunch or dinner.
The name patacone comes from the silver coins used in the Colonial Era in Spain and Portugal. However, it remains unknown exactly where the recipes originated. Either way, they’ve found their way into Ticos’ hearts and are an absolute must-try if you’re visiting.
4. Olla de Carne
Cost: $8 to $10 for a hearty bowl served with rice
Where to find: On weekends at many restaurants, especially in the Central Valley
If it’s the weekend, it’s nearly guaranteed you’ll notice rich smells of olla de carne (beef and vegetable stew) coming out of every house and restaurant. Slow-cooked during the day, this is classic comfort food at its finest – especially during the cooler days or up in Central Valley. The stew itself is relatively simple, with chunks of plantains, potatoes, chayote (squash), and yuca cooked together with beef flank or short ribs. As the meat is left on the bone when cooking, the stew takes on a rich meaty flavor. Not that it’s needed, but the stew is usually served with white rice, beans, or deep-fried plantains to soak up the flavorful broth.
The history, or more so folklore, in this case, is that the stew came about in the days when farmers would ride their horse to the bar. They’d drink a few too many beers, and in the morning, eat the hearty soup made the night before to cure their hangover. The tradition stuck, and even if it’s not the go-to hangover cure today, Costa Rica is still left with this delicious weekend comfort food.
Cost: $6 for a standard chifrijo
Where to find: The original chifrijo can be found at Cordero’s bar, and takes on it can be found at many sodas around the country
Combine chicharron and chimichurri ‘chi’ with frijoles ‘fri, and you get chifrijo. A local favorite often served in bars; it’s the perfect food to eat alongside a cold Imperial – Costa Rica’s national beer. If you’re not familiar, chicharrones are fried pork rinds or fried pork belly, chimichurri is used to give the dish its fresh flavor, and frijoles are beans. Combine these three, and you have a flavorful and filling snack.
The order the ingredients are placed in the bowl is quite important, with white rice forming the base, then beans, followed by pork rinds, and then topped with pico de gallo, avocado, and the bar’s signature hot sauce. This allows the juices and broth to seep down into the rice, making every bite packed with flavor. Depending on the bar, the dish might be made with red beans, kidney beans, or black beans, and it’s either served in a bowl with tortilla chips on the side, or if you’re lucky, a bowl made of tortilla chips.
For such a well-loved dish, chifrijos are relatively young. Being invented only in the 1990s by Cordero’s bar, the tasty dish quickly spread by word of mouth and is now a favorite feature in Costa Rica food culture.
Cost: $5 per tamal
Where to find: At family homes, restaurants and sodas – especially around Christmas
Christmas is all about the tamal in Costa Rica. Every family gathers around the kitchen to craft their own version of these tremendous treats, with memorized recipes passed down from generation to generation. Unlike the Mexican tamale, which most of the world is familiar with, the Costa Rican tamal is softer and uses less spice.
The making is nearly the same in both Mexico and Costa Rica. The dough is made of cornflour and ground cornmeal mixed with stock to form a paste. This paste is then used to enclose meat, rice, and vegetables that have been seasoned to the cook’s liking. Then, the filled dough is wrapped in a banana leaf and boiled for 2 hours in seasoned water.
Thought to date back to the pre-Columbian times, when corn was a symbol of the sun god, tamales have been a staple of Christmas in Costa Rica for some time. However, even if you’re not visiting during the holiday months, you’re not out of luck. Now, many restaurants will offer the dish as a special throughout the week. You’ll also find tamales at markets and street food stalls.
Cost: $4 for a bocas (appetiser)
Where to find: Most restaurants and sodas, especially in towns near the sea
This dish hardly needs an introduction. With many Latin American countries having their own take on ceviche, it’s become a popular dish all around the world. Originally from Peru, the Costa Rican version is typically served as an appetizer in restaurants and roadside food carts and can be found all around the country.
In Costa Rica food culture, ceviche is typically made from tilapia, croaker, octopus, or prawns and is relatively simple compared to other recipes. First, raw fish is cut into small cubes and soaked in lemon or lime juice for at least three hours. The acid from the lemon and lime essentially cooks the fish without using heat. Then, chopped onion, minced bell pepper, celery, cilantro, salt, and cracked pepper are added, creating a fresh and spiced flavor.
You can order ceviche at most restaurants as a bocas, which is the Ticos word for small dishes or appetizers and comes with sliced avocado and salted crackers. However, as it’s easy to make, many families prefer to make it at home. If you’d like to give it a try, check out this recipe from Pura Vida Moms.
8. Tres Leches
Cost: $3 to $4 for a slice, can make an entire cake for around $8
Where to find: Most restaurants and sodas
Amongst all the rice and beans on this list, there’s one dish that steers clear – tres leches. Meaning three milk cake, this dish puts Costa Rican dessert on the map. With other offerings like flan, vanilla ice cream, and fruit cocktails to choose from, tres leches goes above and beyond to deliver a dessert we can all get on board with.
Made from vanilla sponge cake soaked in condensed milk, evaporated milk, and whole milk then topped with heavy whipping cream, it’s certainly not for the lactose intolerant. To make the dessert even more exciting, many Ticos will add some rum to the mixture and then top the whipped cream with fruit. After being refrigerated for a few hours, the moist and dense cake is ready to be eaten.
While it might appear this dish is uniquely Costa Rican, the truth is that tres leches can be found in many Latin American countries. Nicaragua and Mexico especially take credit for this decadent dessert, yet versions of the dessert can be dated back to medieval Europe. One thing that can be agreed upon is the fact that tres leches took off when Nestle Company, the maker of evaporated and condensed milk cans, started putting the recipe on their cans in the 1940s.
9. Sopa Negra
Cost: $6 to $8 for a large bowl
Where to find: Restaurants in the cooler regions of Costa Rica, especially Central Valley
Sopa Negra (black bean soup) comes last on this list, as we understand it can be hard to get excited about such a simple dish. However, this is one part of Costa Rica food culture that has stood the test of time and continues to be a staple in households and restaurants. The beloved black bean is the feature of this soup, showing up both blended and whole.
To start, black beans are cooked in a pot of water along with cilantro and oregano. Once tender, some of the beans are mashed or blended to add thickness to the soup. From here, chopped bell peppers, onion, garlic, celery, salt, and pepper are added, giving the soup its distinctive rich flavor. Sopa negra is then always served with slices of boiled eggs and white rice.
It may sound counterintuitive that a hot soup is so loved in a relatively hot country. However, it’s easy to forget that the mountain regions in the Central Valley can become chilly. As soon as the temperature drops, you’ll smell wafts of sopa negra coming out of every household. Even in the heat, sopa negra appears on menus, and if you’re feeling sick, there’s no doubt a bowl will end up being served to you.
Costa Rica Food Culture: FAQ’s
What is the most popular food in Costa Rica?
Rice and beans are found in nearly every Costa Rican dish and are, without a doubt, the most popular foods in Costa Rica. They’re found mixed together in the popular dish of gallo pinto, served alongside other traditional foods in a casado, and rice comes as a side to many Costa Rican soups and stews such as sopa negra and olla de carne. No matter the time of day and what you order, rice and beans will undoubtedly end up on your plate.
What is a typical breakfast in Costa Rica?
Costa Ricans enjoy a hearty breakfast every day of the week, with gallo pinto being the top choice for many. Made from rice and beans, gallo pinto provides a great companion for scrambled eggs, homemade corn tortillas, natilla (sour cream), and fried plantains. Served with coffee and fresh juice, it’s the perfect meal to leave you satisfied and ready for the day without slowing you down.
What is Costa Rica’s national dish?
To no surprise, the national dish of Costa Rica is gallo pinto. While it’s technically deemed a breakfast food, gallo pinto is eaten throughout the day and is a go-to for a quick, cheap meal. The name means ‘painted rooster,’ which is a reflection of the speckled color the white rice takes on from the beans and red bell peppers mixed in. What sets the flavor apart from other country’s rice and beans dishes is the iconic Salso Lizano added generously to the dish.
What food is Costa Rica famous for?
Well-loved by both locals and tourists, casado is the most famous food of Costa Rica. Since it’s not a specific type of food, each restaurant will have its own take on this classic, and it can be eaten for lunch or dinner, and in some cases, even breakfast. The main staples of a casado are white rice and beans, then depending on what’s available and what’s in season, meat, salad, fried plantains, and other sides will also be served on the plate. With such variety, the meal tends to be healthy and full of nutrients, especially as it’s usually served with a glass of fresh fruit juice.