Costa Rica Food Culture: 11 Popular Dishes You Must Try

typical costa rica food
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Although not typically thought of as a destination for gourmands, the home of Pura Vida has a surprising depth to its cooking and offers delicious dishes that are well worth sampling. As you’ll quickly notice, Costa Rica food culture is largely centered on the combo of rice and beans, along with farmed chicken or beef, and a whole load of freshly caught fish courtesy of the Pacific and the Caribbean Sea.

Yep, diners in this corner of Latin America can enjoy unique dishes like gallo pinto, casado, and hearty soups and stews. There are also seafood BBQs and a heavy use of earthy fruit and veg like avocados and tomatoes. What’s more, as Costa Rican food isn’t spicy like in Mexico, it’s easy for all sorts of visitors to fall in love with the refreshing and flavorful dishes without getting and overload of spice on their tongue!

For the best local food, be sure to head to a soda (local diner). They are plentiful around Costa Rica and offer cheap and nutritious meals for less. The menus are likely to be in Spanish, so it’s best to learn a little of the local lingo, and to know a touch about Costa Rica food culture, before you arrive. That’s where this guide comes in…

Gallo pinto

Gallo pinto, costa rica food culture
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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 could possibly be complete without the iconic gallo pinto. So much so that there’s even a saying: “mas tico que el gallo pinto,” which means “more Costa Rican than spotted rooster.” Mhmm…gallo pinto is quintessential Costa Rican cooking. Even so, there is a long-standing debate as to whether the dish was invented in Costa Rica or Nicaragua – we aren’t getting involved!

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 and tanginess. 

When all these 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 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, simply, pico.

Casado

casado, classic costa rica food culture
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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 Rica food culture is the casado. Meaning ‘marriage’ in Spanish, it’s considered a marriage of foods that the locals say create one perfect meal. In 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 down with, at least in most sodas.

Depending on the region of Costa Rica you’re in and the time of the year, the 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, but that changes daily depending on what the local fishermen bring in. At the end of the rainy season, around November, you’ll find that most are coupled with fresh vegetables. This is when farmers harvest their crops, and farmer’s markets will be teeming with freshly picked produce.

Finding a casado is easy. Simply head into any soda for lunch or dinner. You won’t even need to check the menu. You can guarantee they’ll have it at hand. And it hardly costs a dime too!

Patacones

patacones, fried plantains
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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, and 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 eat. To turn patacones into a meal, some local diners will pile high refried beans, shredded beef, chicken, or pork, and a shredded cabbage salad to boot. 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 recipe originated. Either way, they’ve found their way into Ticos’ hearts and are an absolute must-try if you’re visiting.

Olla de carne

hearty olla de carne, costa rica food
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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 all but guaranteed that you’ll discern the rich smells of olla de carne (beef and vegetable stew) coming out of local Tico houses and taverns. Slow-cooked during the day, this is classic comfort food at its finest – especially during the cooler days 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 then 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 for partiers in Tamarindo today, Costa Ricans still love this weekend comfort food with a passion.

Chifrijo

chifrijo, costa rica food culture
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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 the chicharron and chimichurri “chi” with the 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, while chimichurri is used to give the dish its fresh flavor, and the frijoles are just good old beans. Combine these three. Bingo: 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, all capped off by a topping of 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 a bomb of flavor. Depending on the place you’re eating, 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 that’s actually made of tortilla chips itself!

For such a well-loved dish, chifrijos are relatively young. Being invented only in the 1990s at Cordero’s bar, they quickly became popular and word spread fast, becoming a new addition to Costa Rica food culture.

Tamal

boiling tamales, costa rica food culture
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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, though. 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. Finally, 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.

Copo

Copos
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Cost: <$1 for a single copo

Where to find: At mobile street vendors, especially in beach towns in Puntarenas.

When the heat’s cranking up at the start of the wet season and the humidity is soaring, there’s nothing for it but a copo (or copos if you want more than one!). A favorite beach snack for sunbathers and strollers in the Pacific beach towns of Costa Rica, these are mishmash of shaved ice, Kola syrup, and condensed milk.

They shouldn’t cost you more than a dollar or so (in fact, the going rate for a copo is 500 CRC, which is just about $0.80!) and are usually sold by vendors pulling mobile carts colored in blue and white. Most copos chefs will also offer a variety of other toppings, including marshmallows and hundreds and thousands, choco flakes and cherry goo.

Perhaps the most famous version of the Costa Rican copos comes from the state of Puntarenas. It’s known as the Churchill copo and it has a dollop of fresh vanilla ice cream that goes right to the base of the cup.

Ceviche

costa rican ceviche
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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 seafood staple all around the world. Originally from Peru, the Costa Rican version is typically served as an appetizer in restaurants and at roadside food carts, and it 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 regional 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 any 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. It usually comes with sliced avocado and salted crackers. However, as it’s easy to make, many families prefer to do their own versions at home. You can, too: Check out this recipe from Pura Vida Moms.

Tres Leches

tres leches cake in costa rica
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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.

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 devoured.

While it might appear that this dish is uniquely Costa Rican, the truth is that tres leches can be found in many Latin American countries. Nicaragua and Mexico both take credit for this decadent dessert, yet other versions 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 adverts back in the 1940s.

Sopa negra

Sopa Negra
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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, but it’s one part of Costa Rica food culture that has stood the test of time and continues to be a staple in households and restaurants across the nation. The beloved black bean is the main 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. Then, chopped bell peppers, onion, garlic, celery, salt, and pepper are added, giving the soup its distinctivly rich flavor. Sopa negra is then 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.

Empanadas

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Cost: $1-2 a pop

Where to find: Everywhere, but especially at street stalls in bigger cities

Empanadas aren’t just a Costa Rican favorite. They’re served all over South America and Latin America, and actually originate in Spanish cuisine, with the first recipes for the casual street dish appearing in a Galician cookbook way back in the 1520s!

Fast forward to today and you’re looking at one of the most popular on-the-go eats that Costa Rica can muster. Made from corn masa dough that’s fried in light oil and turned over in the pan, they are essentially a pastry that can have any number of fillings. Here, that invariably means cheese and beans, potato and even fish. However, there are also sweet versions that come with macerated pineapple and butter and sugar.

Empanadas are usually sold at street-side stalls and holes in the wall and are very popular in the capital of San Jose and in larger towns and cities like Limon and Liberia. They should cost just over a dollar a pop.

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 at some point during the trip.

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 to 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.

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 that the white rice takes on from the beans and the red bell peppers mixed in. What sets the flavor apart from other country’s rice and beans dishes is the iconic Salso Lizano, a sauce that’s 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 be dropped onto the plate.

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