let’s talk about Costa Rican food

by Tom Lee

Though maybe we shouldn’t. Emily and I just got back from a week-long vacation in Costa Rica, but I’m not entirely sure we got an accurate sense of the country’s food. We were quick to order things with tipico in their titles, but we didn’t stop by any roadside sodas. I’d guess that the most authentic meals we ate came during a stay at a small rural hotel, which had a catering arrangement with the family that lived across the road.

So maybe it’s just my own lazy-tourist blinders that account for the seeming homogeneity of Costa Rican cuisine, but I left with the impression that there’s only really one national meal: beans and rice, fried plantains, a salad of some sort, some simply- but well-prepared chicken or fish or eggs, some fresh fruit, and maybe a tortilla or roll. Occasionally you’d also run into a slab of rustic, large-curd cheese with the texture of cheap feta but much less salt and tanginess. From what I’ve read the protein is overrepresented on tourists’ plates, but otherwise variations on this single meal can be found at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

As you might imagine, individual preparations can be distinctive — everyone seems to have their own version of gallo pinto — but any visitors expecting to find wide-ranging traditional menus are likely to be disappointed. The local dishes end quickly, giving way to imports like pizza. These latter options, perhaps unsurprisingly, seemed to be much less consistent in their quality — we had a pretty okay pizza one night, and we also had one of the worst pizzas I’ve ever been served. Try to imagine a pie with no browning. Of any sort. It was like it had been deliberately avoided as some sort of science experiment. Also: fork-pricks all over the dough, like they thought they were making a baked potato. Just bizarre. At least that bad meal came in a beautiful setting.

But though I may not have gotten an accurate perspective on the food, the beverages were simple enough to evaluate:

Coffee

The Costa Ricans are quick to point out the quality of their coffee, and are not wrong to do so. It’s good! In fact, it’s some of the most coffee-like coffee I’ve ever had. Really, if you want a clean, bright cup of joe, a quick plane ride is all it will take. Not sour, not bitter… also, not that interesting. I only had one cup during our time in CR that made me think, “Wow! That’s good!” I think it’s my own fault: I’m kind of a sucker for swampier, sulfuric Sumatran coffees. Still, Costa Rican coffee is indisputably good. My only real gripe is that they seem to only expect you to drink one cup of it at a time.

Beer

At this point, things go downhill. The beer situation in Costa Rica is fairly homogenous, and not very good. The absence of global brands like Guinness was surprising to me — there’s a Heineken brewery in the country, but I can only imagine that some sort of trade barrier keeps out the other usual suspects.

I won’t claim to be much of an expert on tropical-climate beer, but the options in Costa Rica certainly compare unfavorably to Puerto Rico’s Medalla or the various non-Corona beers of Mexico. You can find a good overview of the options here. As the author says, Imperial is the default, and at first it’ll remind you of Budweiser. Here, though, I begin to disagree with the linked account: after a day or two you start to realize that Imperial is missing the Beechwood or rice or superbowl branding or whatever it is that somehow elevates Bud (however slightly). At that point it’s time to try Pilsen, which is a bit better — detectable hops! — but still pretty boring. Then you try Bavaria Dark, maybe, but it just doesn’t feel like a good-faith effort. At that point Emily and I went back to drinking Imperial, solely because the bird on its label looks so awesomely furious.

The upshot: I should’ve spent more time drinking guaro.

7 responses to “let’s talk about Costa Rican food

  1. Pingback: thoughts on Costa Rican food « Manifest Density

  2. Costa Rican food is famously boring. Mexican and Salvadoran friends have confirmed this reputation, and my trip there seemed the same as your, food-wise. I don’t think it does the food world any good to try and be relativist about food. Some cultures (French, Japanese) just have better food than others.

  3. You pretty much nailed in on the head with Costa Rican food. As for the impression that there is one national dish – un cassado – you again are right on. In fact so right on you can read that in just about any travel guide book on Costa Rica. The place is not really for culinary tourism anyways as you probably gathered.

    The best food I eat when I go is the fresh fish we catch ourselves. We usually go deep sea fishing on our first day and come back with an unlimited supply of Mahi Mahi and Red Snapper. I also know a lobster fisherman where I get spiney tail Pacific lobster for the equivalent of about $7/lb.

    As for the beer, I have to disagree. There is nothing better than a cold Imperial, which most bars tend to keep amazingly cold, on a hot and muggy afternoon. I can’t imagine wanting to drink a Guiness in that heat.

    As a Tico friend once told me, two things Ticos know better than anyone else – smoothies and real estate.

  4. Well, that’s a fair point with respect to the Guinness. I mostly wanted to use it as an example — I agree, I’d much rather have an Imperial when sitting on the beach. But I’d much rather have a good pilsner than either.

    You’re right, of course, that I’ve seen travel guides discuss the prominence of cassado. I was trying to hedge my bets, though — some additional research revealed a somewhat broader cuisine, with things like black bean soups and even an occasional stuffed vegetable. None of that was in evidence while we were there, but I figured that perhaps it just wasn’t made available to tourists like myself.

  5. most.ignorant.review.ever

  6. very informative post to read.

  7. Maria Pia Lopez

    Hi Tom. I’d have to agree with ‘H’ here, about the ignorance of this review. If you’re doing a travel blog, you have to go to the essence of the place you’re in. You can’t pretend to try a national cuisine inside a hotel or fancy restaurant. The cuisine comes from the people’s homes or small authentic restaurants…like in any other country. We are very well based with rice, beans, plantains and whatever else you mention…however, we usually use them as bases for our plates. If you ever get the chance of coming back, be sure to try Arroz con Palmito, Garbanzos con Puerco, Sopa Negra, Arroz con Camarones, Pejibayes (with mayonnaise), Pozol, Tortilla Aliñada, Pan de Elote, Chorreada (con natilla), Chifrijo, different arrangements of Picadillo (de papa, de plátano, etc.)…and I could keep going. As for the beers, we’ve actually had our beers very well reviewed internationally, it’s very easy to check now-a-days with the internet…you’re just a click away. We don’t feel the need of having Guiness (although, once again if you were a real ‘travel blogger’, or just plain curious, you would have found lots of places to find Guinness) or fancy international beers, because we value our own. So if you ever plan on coming back, be sure to do some research before you leave, and I can assure you you’ll find many many pleasures in this small country. And one more thing, you can’t ever write about Costa Rican food (and most specially if you’re writing negatively about it), without knowing that we have a vast amount of fruits and vegetables grown here, and probably the best you’ll ever taste because of their freshness and natural flavors.

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