Have you ever eaten Gallo Pinto? What about a casado? These are just two Costa Rican traditional foods that we highly suggest trying while visiting the country.
The food in Costa Rica tends to be simple but added spices, citrus, and herbs are what really make the cuisine here stand out. Expect to eat a lot of rice, beans, meats, and vegetables while visiting.
Now on to our list of must-try traditional foods in Costa Rica…..
Gallo pinto directly translated means “spotted rooster”. However, no roosters are harmed in the making of gallo pinto. Instead, it is literally just a mix of rice and beans.
It may sound simple, but it is incredibly tasty. Every person and area in the country does gallo pinto a little bit differently by adding different spices and things such as cilantro, bell peppers, onions, etc.
This food is typically eaten for breakfast with eggs, fried plantains, a piece of cheese, fresh fruit, corn tortillas, and coffee or fruit juice.
If you see “desayuno tipico” on a menu, this is the breakfast you need to order to get gallo pinto with eggs.
Typically this meal will cost between $5 and $10.
Ceviche is made by soaking raw fish pieces in lime juice along with minced onions, cilantro, and minced bell peppers. The lime juice cooks the fish.
It sounds a bit weird, but it actually pretty good and definitely worth a try.
Usually, you are served soda crackers on the side. I typically eat it as is but I’ve also seen locals add ketchup and mayonnaise to their ceviche before eating.
Ceviche is not usually big enough to eat as a whole meal, but it is the perfect appetizer or small lunch item.
Just be warned that if you have a shellfish allergy you need to check before you order this. Some are made of purely fish and others include seafood as well.
Chifrijo is the perfect bar food. It is simply a mix of rice, beans, meat and a tomato salsa. Usually, the meat is fried pork meat or pork skins. Tortilla chips are always served with it for dipping.
I suggest getting this as a snack during happy hour with some beers.
I love love tamales and I think you will as well. This is simple comfort food at its finest.
In some countries, tamales are made in corn husks, but in Costa Rica they are made in banana leaves.
To make Costa Rican tamales, banana leaves are filled with corn meal, chicken or pork, and whatever else the chef chooses. Sometimes there is potato inside. Sometimes you’ll find some rice. No matter what, I’ve never had a bad tamale!
Just a warning, you do not eat the banana leaf. This is just used to hold the filling inside a little pocket. This may seem obvious to some of you, but we have heard of travelers thinking they are supposed to eat the banana leaf.
We usually buy tamales at our local grocery store as a simple and cheap dinner, but they are also fairly easy to make if you are feeling creative.
Tamales are usually eaten as a Christmas meal or when families gather.
This is our go-to appetizer when we have dinner at a traditional restaurant. Patacones are smashed plantains that are then fried into these tasty tortilla type things.
They are usually served with salsa and sometimes various other kinds of dip.
Chorreada is basically unsweet pancakes made of corn flower. Usually, they are topped with Natilla (a sour cream type dip that we talk about later in this article).
This is not a food item you will see at restaurants usually, but rather at any place where street venders are selling food.
We sometimes get one as a little breakfast when we go to our local farmers market.
This is definitely Thomas’s favorite meal at restaurants here. Pescado entero literally means “whole fish.” Many restaurants on the Pacific coast will offer red snapper as the whole fish option.
Just a warning, this is often one of the most expensive things you will find on a menu, but it is a delicious treat!
A casado is the typical lunch or dinner food here in Costa Rica. Directly translated the word casadao means “married.” But, in Costa Rica it is used to describe the simple meal of the day at a restaurant.
Usually, you will get some type of meat, rice, beans, and some type of vegetable. It’s simple food but it’s filling and ridiulously affordable.
You can enjoy a casado at any soda (the name for small local restaurants). Typically you can expect to pay between $5 and $10 for a huge plate of food.
Tres Leches Cake
Just a warning, Costa Ricans like there desserts with way more sugar content than I find necessary. So, if you are not a huge sweet person, watch out!
Tres Leches is basically a white sheet cake which is then stabbed with a fork to make holes throughout the whole cake.
Condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heavy cream are poured onto the cake until they are completely soaked up.
It is every lactose intolerant person’s worst nightmare.
I find it to be way too sweet, but it is really popular here and I think you should definitely at least try it out.
You can find it on the dessert menu of almost every restaurant.
Arroz con Leche
Arroz con leche directly translated means “rice with milk.”. It is a dessert you may have had before. It is basically just rice mixed with milk with cinnamon and sugar added.
Copo or Churchill
This is not actually a dessert item but rather a traditional Costa Rican beach treat.
If you are on the beach you will definitely see locals pushing a cart around the beach. In the cart is a big block of ice.
If you order a copo they will shave off ice for you and put it in a plastic cup. On top of the ice, they will put the syrup of your choice (I recommend strawberry but they have tons of flavors), powdered milk, and then condensed milk.
I know, I know, it sounds rather disgusting, but you’ve got to try it. I find it a bit too sweet for me, but on a hot beach day, it is the perfect treat.
Oh, and the best part is they usually cost no more than $2.
Sometimes they are referred to as “copos” and sometimes as a “churchill”.
I just looked up why they are called churchill’s and apparently the first man that used to ask for these at a restaurant in Puntarenas looked like Winston Churchil, so the name stuck.
Costa Rica Condiments
Natilla is hard to describe. It’s basically sour cream, but better. It doesn’t have the sourness of sour cream.
People in Costa Rica eat natilla on rice and beans, with tamales, and really with everything.
I like to use it to make dips and instead of sour cream with nachos.
This is one of those Costa Rican cuisine items that I will miss terribly if I ever leave the country. I am obsessed with it!
Lizano is a sauce that people in Costa Rica put in almost everything. I don’t know how to really describe it. It is not spicy. I guess the closest thing I can think of to it is Worcester sauce, but even that is not a good comparison.
Try it out on your gallo pinto or in a tamale and let us know what you think!
Also, if you are looking to bring back a nice souvenir for your family and friends, Lizano is a great (and cheap) option. You can find it at every grocery store.
Costa Rican Drinks
Costa Rican Coffee
You can’t visit Costa Rica without having some local coffee! We suggest trying some from local coffee shops. Usually the little shops you’ll find in various towns always have the best coffe.
If you want a unique coffee experience we suggest going on a coffee tour. Check out our complete guide to Costa Rican coffee tours to help you plan that.
Coffee also makes a great souvenir item. We suggest buying this at any local grocery store rather than at souvenir shops. The cost tends to be cheaper at grocery stores.
Pipa fria just means a cold coconut to drink out of. You can find these sold at most beaches by locals. Typically they will cost you no more than a dollar or two.
I like having a pipa fria as a nice treat to cool down on a hot beach day. I always feel extra tropical while drinking one of these on a beautiful Costa Rica beach.
Try an alcoholic pipa fria at a beach bar for an extra special experience.
Our Tips for Food in Costa Rica
– If you are a vegetarian you might have a bit of trouble finding meals at traditional Costa Rican restaurants. Most meals contain some type of meat component or are cooked in meat fat.
– If you have a gluten sensitivity, Costa Rican food will likely be perfect for you! Most traditional foods have a corn component, but wheat flour isn’t as prevalent.
– If you want to save some money eating out, we have a whole post on how to eat on a budget.
– Typically you do not need to make a reservation, but if you would like to eat a higher-end spot, it is best to at least call and ask if you can make a reservation.
– Check out our destination guides for restaurant suggestions for all price points throughout the country.
– Another thing we love in Costa Rica is all the exotic fruits you can try. We have a full post about must-try fruits and where you can buy them.
– Most restaurants here do not have websites. Some have Facebook pages, but even then they don’t always include their menu. I find TripAdvisor to be the best place to get a feel for various restaurants.
– There are pharmacies in every town which carry lactose pills, antihistamines etc. but if you know you have a food sensitivity or allergy, we suggest bringing medicine you typically use from home. They tend to be more expensive here and you never know if they will actually carry the medicine you need.
– Almost all restaurants in tourist areas have their menu in both English and Spanish.
– If you find yourself in San Jose, we highly suggest checking out a food tour. Here are three of our favorites.
– If you would like to try cooking some of these things yourself while in Costa Rica, check out our guide to grocery stores.
– Leaving a tip isn’t required at restaurants in Costa Rica, but it is definitely appreciated and somewhat expected at touristy spots. Check your bill and see if service charge was already included before paying (sometimes it is pre-added).
– This list obviously focuses on just typical Costa Rican foods, but if these items do not appeal to you, don’t worry. Costa Rica has food for all tastes and budgets. There are so many foreigners living in Costa Rica that you will have no problem finding everything from sushi to pizzas.
We hope this guide to traditional food in Costa Rica was helpful! Please let us know if you have any food-related questions in the comment section below. We are always happy to help you out. Also, let us know if you had a favorite food item while you were in Costa Rica.