Costa Rican cuisine: what to eat and where

Part of the joy of traveling is sampling local cuisine. Relatively compact Costa Rica is nevertheless home to several regions clearly defined by their traditional dishes. Here is our guide to food and where to eat it in Costa Rica.
Gallo pinto. Photo: Shutterstock
Gallo pinto. Photo: Shutterstock

Country-wide traditions 

Costa Ricans typically season their food with a mixture of dry spices known as condimentos mixtos: coriander, paprika and a pinch of chilli. These are traditionally blended with garlic and onion to create sauces that are prepared nationwide. This mix is often used to season favourite dishes including lengua (cow’s tongue) and mondongo (tripe). While tongue is tender and often delicious, mondongo has a strong taste and unusual texture that might not be to your liking. There is, however, only one way to find out...

The ubiquitous accompaniment to most meals is plantains – a relative of the banana. They can be sweet (maduro) or green, but are always cooked before eating: cut into slices and deep-fried in oil.

Restaurant Gems in San Jose

Although San Jose doesn’t have its own regional cooking style, the capital offers diverse dining options. For upscale Latin contemporary cuisine, try Restaurante Silvestre in downtown San José. The knowledgeable waiters, furnished with the backstory of every dish, can enhance memorable culinary experiences in the restaurant's airy dining room. Head to Restaurante Machu Picchu (Calle 32, San José) when you’re hankering after mouthwatering seafood. A creative menu offers tempting options combining Peruvian cooking and premium Costa Rican produce. 

For an evening of outstanding gastronomy, the elegant Park Café (Calle 48, San José) near Sabana Park, serves crafted, innovative European-inspired dishes in an intimate courtyard furnished with imported antique furnishings. While in the central Barrio Escalante, Sofia Mediterraneo (Calle 33, San José) serves an excellent menu of Mediterranean cuisine featuring tuna carpaccio, authentic hummus, succulent lamb and delicious grilled fish dishes.

Traditional Costa Rican casado meal with rice, beans, plantains and fish. Photo: ShutterstockTraditional Costa Rican casado meal with rice, beans, fish and plantains. Photo: Shutterstock

Gallo pinto in Guanacaste 

In the north west of the country, the Guanacaste province has pre-Columbian traditions in cooking that are still very much alive. The classic Costa Rican dish of gallo pinto (literally, painted rooster) comprising rice and black or red beans seasoned with onion, coriander, garlic and finely chopped bell peppers originated here. While predominantly a breakfast dish in the nation’s cities, rural Costa Ricans eat gallo pinto up to three times a day, accompanied by home-made corn tortillas. 

For breakfast it is served with scrambled or fried eggs and sour cream, while for lunch, office workers, students and farmers alike often dine on a casado – a hearty combination including rice, beans, cabbage salad, fried sweet plantains, and sauced chicken, fish or beef. 

Since cattle farming is one of Guanacaste’s main resources, premium quality dairy products are plentiful in the province. Cuajadas (fresh cheese balls) are usually served at breakfast, accompanied by hot tortillas. Ajiaco and bajo, rich stews made with a mixture of meats and vegetables, are regional specialities that embody the country’s African influence. Sample tasty traditional dishes in Guanacaste as part of Insight Guides' Coast to Coast trip.

Coconut concoctions in Limón

Stretching along the country’s Caribbean coastline, the Limón province is home to cuisine influenced by African and West Indian cooking and coconut is a key ingredient. Coconut oil and milk are used generously in many recipes, including the traditional rice and beans. Rice cooked in a pot filled with red beans, coconut milk, and aromatic herbs is the regional variation of the traditional gallo pinto. Another favourite local dish is rondón, a slow-cooked spicy fish and root vegetable stew.

From their African heritage, the Limonenses have the tradition of using tubers, such as yams in cooking, and adding green leaves to soups and stews. From their slave ancestors who worked in the sugar plantations of the West Indies, the Limonenses have inherited many foodstuffs: breadfruit, salt cod, mangoes, cassava, plantains, and a wide variety of tropical fruits. And from the demands and preferences of their British former masters, they have retained several recipes for cakes, pastries, and breads, including pan bon, rich rum-flavoured fruit cake.

Costa Rican fried fish with plantains and salad. Photo: ShutterstockCosta Rican fried fish with plantains and salad. Photo: Shutterstock

Seafood on the Pacific coast

On the Pacific coast, Puntarenas specialises in seafood dishes, such as guiso de cambute (conch stew) and various shellfish specialities featuring different combinations of fresh shrimp, lobster, and chuchecas (black clams). 

For a tasty alternative, try arroz con mariscos (rice with seafood) which is served throughout the region. Another local culinary tradition is serving bocas (small bites) with drinks, similar to Spanish tapas. Favourite dishes include ceviche (raw fish marinated in lemon juice), carne en salsa (meat stewed in a tomato sauce), fried cassava and fried chicken. Beer, rum and guaro (a sugar cane alcoholic drink) are popular local tipples typically drank as accompaniment to these delicious morsels.  

Ready to try regional cuisine on a trip to Costa Rica?

Our local experts can create tailor-made trips to Costa Rica for you. Simply get in touch with us tell us when you'd like to go, along with your ideas for the trip and travel preferences, and we will create the perfect travel itinerary for you. Alternatively, browse our existing Costa Rica trips for more inspiration. And remember, all of our itineraries are fully customisable – all you have to do is ask!