One of the best experiences of traveling is exploring the local cuisine. Food has the ability to connect us emotionally to the places we visit and serve as reminders of a time we were in a foreign place.
In Costa Rica, there are traditional dishes that we think you should definitely try. You can find them at most sodas, or affordable Costa Rican eateries. We included 20 of our favorite Costa Rican dishes that you should fit into your itinerary. Keep an eye out for these Costa Rican dishes.
Composed of whatever the cook can “run down.” Rondon is a Carribean dish that is composed of a spicy and rich coconut milk soup with fish and veggies like corn, yuca, Panamanian peppers and potato. You’ll typically find a fish head and assorted catches of the day. Rondon is simmered in coconut milk for hours over an open wood flame that imparts a smoky flavor to the soup.
#2 Naturales or Refrescos
Wherever you are in Costa Rica, you’ll see stands dedicated to juicing tropical fruits. Many establishments will allow you up to two to three flavors per beverage. Mango, orange, pineapple, blackberry, melon, rice (horchata) and banana are the usual favorites.
Picadillo is a common side dish in many Costa Rican meals. Picadillo is a blend of diced vegetables that include onions, carrots, garlic, black beans, and sometimes a little ground meat. Picadillo is typically served in a casado plate.
#4 Gallo Pinto
Gallo pinto translates to “painted rooster.” Gallo pinto is similar to but not the same as picadillo. Gallo pinto is a mix of rice-and-beans and is considered the national dish of Costa Rica. At a hotel in Costa Rica, gallo pinto was served for breakfast with scrambled or fried eggs, a slice of cheese and corn tortilla. However, you can eat gallo pinto any time of the day.
Chifrijo is an addicting dish that is similar to a rice bowl but ten times better. The name is a portmanteau (a word made from two different words) and combines chicharrones (fried pork rinds) and frijoles (beans). It’s typically served as an appetizer or snack food and pairs great with a Costa Rican beer. It’s comprised of black beans, rice, chicharonnes, pico de gallo, avocado slices and eaten with crispy tortilla chips. You can even eat your chifrijo as a meal.
Chifrijo is commonly found in sodas and almost every Costa Rican restaurant.
Endulge in this cold treat when you’re at the beach. You’ll find the Granizado man pushing a wooden cart down the sand shouting ¡Granizados! Watch the vendor shave a solid block of ice, and layer it with powdered milk, condensed milk, and your choice of flavored syrup. It’s like an shave ice that will help you survive the hot Costa Rican heat. Classic flavors include cherry, grape, strawberry and mango. We recommend mixing the flavors so you get something unique!
#7 Ceviche Tico
Ceviche Tico is a light and refreshing blend of fish, lime juice, minced red onions, red pepper and cilantro. The acid in the lemon juice cooks the meat. It’s typically served with tortilla chips or fried plantains. This raw dish should be eaten early in the day when the fish is very fresh. Fresca.
Dos Pinos, a national dairy company, makes these amazing ice cream sandwiches. A heaping portion of vanilla ice cream is sandwiched between two cookies that taste like graham crackers. They’re sold at almost every local corner store.
This traditional lunch plates includes a combination of different elements. Casado literally translates to “married” in Spanish. Casados will typically include cooked rice and beans, green salad, fried plantains, tortillas, and if desired, a meat such as fillet of grilled fish, chicken, pork, or beef.
#10 Agua de Sapo
Agua de sapo translates to “toad water.” It’s a refreshing beverage made with brown sugar and ginger. Some restaurants offer a carbonated version of this thirst quencher.
#11 Coffee or Café
You can’t go to Costa Rica and not enjoy a cup of locally harvested and roasted coffee. Costa Rican coffee is ranked as some of the best in the world due to the rich volcanic soil and high altitude lends them their characteristic silky body. The taste of the beans range from crisp fruitiness to smoky chocolate and every profile is different based on where it’s grown and harvested in Costa Rica.
#12 Olla de Carne
This hearty beef stew is typically eaten over the weekend. You can easily find Olla de Carne at most sodas. Ingredients can include carrots, cassava, corn, plantains, taro root, and sometimes beef. Some people prefer their Olla de Carne with a side of rice and beans.
Plantains look like big green bananas but they definitely have a different taste. They’re starchier, not sweet and are simple to prepare in Costa Rican cuisine. Plantains are usually sliced, smashed and then fried until the rind is crispy. They’re also usually served as a side dish in a casado or gallo pinto. Plaintains that are twice fried are called tostones. They’re super crispy and can be compared to fries.
Patacones are smashed and deep fried plantains. Some restaurants will serve patacones with toppings (similar to a bruschetta) or a dipping sauce such as guacamole, pico de gallo or beans.
Learn how to make Corn Pancakes
Chorreadas are crunchy corn pancakes that are fried and then eaten as a snack or for breakfast. They’re usually topped with natilla, a type of sour cream and consumed with coffee.
Churchills are desserts made with ice cream, condensed milk, syrup, fruit toppings and served in a cup. They’re usually found in beach towns and in most cities. McDonalds even has their own pink version of the Churchill. Learn about the history of the Churchill here.
Chilera is the Costa Rican version of pickled vegetables. They’re found in nearly all sodas and if it’s not on your table, the restaurant may have some in the back to complete your meal. Chilera is usually made in-house so they’re different at every establishment. If you like pickles and tangy vinegar flavors, you’ll love eating chilera. A chilera is typically made with sliced onions, cucumbers, cauliflower, carrots, cauliflower and Panamanian chilies.
#18 Momon Chinos
These furry tropical fruits are typically sold on the sides of the road. A 3 pound bag can be purchased for only $2 USD. In the US, a 3 pound bag would typically cost five times that. When eating momon, peel back the shell with your fingers and chew the translucent pulpy meat off the seed. Most stands will have already washed their momon before taking them to the roads to sell. Take advantage of this tropical treat, especially if you’re doing a lot of driving.
#19 Sopa Negra
Learn how to make Sopa Negra
Sopa Negra is a traditional warm black bean soup that is simple yet packed with flavor. It’s served when people are sick and in colder climates. Sopa negra is usually served with hard boiled eggs, a cup of rice, and warmed corn tortillas.
#20 Tamal or Tamale
Photo credit: Jon Sullivan
A Costa Rican tamal is totally different from a Mexican tamal. The fillings may look the same, but the preparation is different. A Costa Rican tamal will have a heavy dose of garlic and is prepared in a banana leaf. Mexican tamales are made with corn husks and will usually have more spices and even be spicy. In Costa Rica, tamal is served with beans and often served during breakfast.