Generally, Costa Rican cuisine is not well regarded. The diet is dominated by beans and rice, and in many restaurants, the servings are bland and uninspired. In addition, the meat is often chewy or tough and the salads frequently resemble the lining of a hamster cage. That isn’t to say that Costa Rican food is always bad.
Around the country, a few Costa Rican chefs have worked hard to perfect the national dishes, sometimes adding their own flair to the traditional recipes. Done right, gallo pinto—a breakfast of black beans, white rice, onions, garlic, peppers, cilantro, and fresh fruit—is an absolute pleasure, worthy of being eaten every single morning. Some chefs have also capitalized on the country’s supply of palm trees, which feature with both heart of palm and the pejibaye fruit. And although fruit smoothies and ceviche aren’t exactly traditional dishes, the country excels in their preparation. Pairing them with a customary meal is always a good idea.
In a little mountain town called Cachi lives José Alvarez, a great Tico chef who looks like Richard Gere and serves up palate-blowing Costa Rican dishes at Hotel Quelitales. Although the menu is vast and amazing, the best part is the pejibaye palm fruit, which tastes like a potato-and-squash lovechild. I brought the fruit myself, and Chef Alvarez served me a traditional appetizer of pejibaye halves with mayonnaise, then massive and unforgettable bowl of creamy pejibaye soup that warmed me from the inside.
Tilapia with Heart of Palm Sauce
I’m a sucker anything with heart of palm (referred to in Costa Rica as palmito), but the fish with palmito sauce at Los Potrero’s in San Isidro Heredia stands above all. The steak house is famous for its weekend karaoke sessions, but I go for the flaky and tender sea bass soaked in a velvety white palmito sauce so creamy I just want to swim in it.
Throughout Central American, the Caribbean side wins for food, and especially when it comes to the staple: beans and rice. The east coast has it’s own special dish called rice-n-beans, which is made with kidney beans, rice, thyme and coconut milk. And the best Caribbean place is Selvin’s Restaurant in Punta Uva, which serves the dish with chicken stewed in sweet Caribbean sauce and crispy fried plantains, or patacones.
I did not expect to have the best gallo pinto of my life in an unpretentious old San José bar that’s open 24 hours a day, but it happened. And now, at various hours, I make regular stops at Chelles for their incredible take on the famous dish of beans and rice. Here, it’s heavy on the garlic and onions, and add-ons include buttery eggs and slow-cooked beef.
Casona de Laly is a traditional Costa Rican place with a location in each fancy San José suburb—one in Escazú, one in Santa Ana. The service at these places is uncharacteristically quick, and the casados, or dishes that “marry” a main meat option with—you guessed it— beans and rice and a small salad, are actually quite tasty. My favorite Laly’s casado is the filet mignon wrapped in bacon with mushroom sauce.