From pejibayes, a strange but addictive snack served with coffee, to artisan goat cheese and a seafood cocktail that's also the world's best hangover cure, here are eight Costa Rican foods you have to try.
Costa Rica is well known for its lush rainforests, epic surf spots, and cuddly three-toed sloths, but its food scene is also worthy of attention. Costa Rica’s rich culinary culture is strongly influenced by the dizzying array of fruits and veggies made possible by the same biodiversity and microclimates that make it a destination for nature lovers. The country’s modern food scene is also thriving. Here are the dishes not to miss when you visit.
In Costa Rica, rice and beans go hand in hand, nowhere more so than in its most popular menu option, a casado, which, fittingly, translates to “married” in English. Casados are complete lunches composed of black beans, rice, and a choice of protein. You can find these dishes at humble Costa Rican sodas (family-run stands, sort of like a diner) or gussied up at some of the fancier hotels, but the folks at Santa Juana Lodge do a fantastic casado with tilapia that they raise on the property’s sustainable fish farm. On the Caribbean side of the country, you’ll find a similar, Jamaican-inspired dish called “rice and beans,” whose name is said in English rather than Spanish, prepared using coconut milk and oil. Another rice-and-beans dish is gallo pinto, a typical breakfast that’s made with black beans and rice cooked together and flavored with cilantro and bell pepper.
Sandwiches served on rolls made with masa, arreglados are stuffed with all sorts of goodies, depending on the chef, but they always contain cheese. The sisters at family-owned Soda Tapia at the Mercado Central in San José have been making their version for 121 years. There, the family offers other typical dishes, too, like the aforementioned casado and gallo pinto, as well as chan, a health drink made with chia seeds that’s popular among native Costa Ricans.
One staple of daily culture in Costa Rica is pejibayes (peach palm fruit), a slightly savory, almost artichoke-tasting fruit from a palm tree that’s traditionally boiled with a bit of salt, topped with a smattering of mayonnaise, and snacked on alongside a cup of coffee. New restaurants are also putting a modern spin on the orange-colored pejibayes, whipping them into purées with cream as they do at the fine-dining restaurant Chateau 1525 in San Jose, or blending the cooked fruit into a silken soup.
Costa Ricans take their coffee very seriously; in fact, the only varietal of coffee that can be grown legally is arabica—its lower-quality cousin, robusta, is strictly forbidden. You’ll find chorreadores, a wooden pour-over apparatus, in every home, and even the simplest bars and restaurants have properly maintained espresso machines. Taza Amarilla, an excellent local roaster and cafe that can be found at San Jose’s Feria Verde farmers’ market, serves shoppers organic coffee made from beans grown on small farms in some of the country’s best regions, like Terrazu and Alajuela.
Gallitos de Picadillo
Gallitos are corn tortillas served with various toppings, such as a small brunoise of local vegetables like chayote squash, arracache (a root vegetable), or green beans, or picadillo, ground beef sautéed with onions and peppers. On weekend mornings at the aforementioned Feria Verde, local twenty-somethings cure their hangovers with orders of gallitos de picadillo topped with a fried farm egg and spicy red salsa.
In addition to the many traditional artisans in Costa Rica, there’s been a new wave of specialty producers, including craft beer brewers and small-batch artisan cheese makers like the farmsteaders at Monte Azul, who blend traditional goat cheesemaking techniques with their own Costa Rican spin. One of the best spots to get a taste of is at San Jose’s Furca, a farm-to-table restaurant where chef Marco Leiva serves a cornucopia of local cheeses on a massive slate smattered with nuts and preserves.
Vuelve a la Vida
The name of the dish vuelve a la vida, a Costa Rican seafood cocktail, translates “returning to life,” which is what locals believe the ceviche helps them do after a night of drinking too much guaro, a sugar cane liquor that is Costa Rica’s national spirit. At Studio Hotel, vuelve a la vida is presented as a trio of octopus, shrimp, and snapper combined with red bell pepper, citrus juices, and chiles (thankfully, the Tico tradition of adding a splash of Sprite is not observed here), and served alongside crisp, lightly salted yucca and plantain chips.
Helados de Sorbetera
You’ll find tropical-fruit flavored paletas (popsicles) and batidos (shakes) all over Costa Rica, but one thing not to be missed is the helados de sorbetera, a custard-style ice cream that’s spiked with warm spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves and somewhat reminiscent of creme brûlée. The folks at La Sorbetera de Lolo Mora have been making their killer version since 1901, but beware: you’re going to want seconds.
Krista Simmons is a culinary travel writer and native Angeleno; she covers the Southern California beat for Travel + Leisure. You can follow her adventures bite-by-bite on Instagram.