Costa Rican Cuisine
I recently took a vacation to Costa Rica for nine days. Amazing does not even begin to describe the trip and the wonderful, diverse sights I was able to see while visiting this country. We booked our trip through Virgin Vacations and decided on an independent (vs. guided), nine-day adventure where we would rent a car and tour the country on our own. We had stops and hotels booked in Arenal (where the volcano is located), Monteverde (the Cloud Forest and the best spot for ziplining) and Guanacaste at Playa Hermosa (beaches!).
It was an incredible adventure with tons of things to see and do, and the food was one of the best parts of the trip! Our first experience with Costa Rican cuisine was on our way from San Jose to Arenal. We stopped at a little restaurant at the side of the road called Los Lagos. My bf had some arroz con pollo (rice with chicken)! The flavors were intense- you could tell this is a dish that is well-seasoned and takes awhile to prepare.
I selected the traditional national dish of Costa Rica called a casado. It comes with rice, black beans (served separately not mixed), plantains, tortilla, a salad, and then a main dish usually chicken, beef, or fish. Mine was also served with a mixture of diced potatoes, peppers, onions and a tomato-based sauce. Delicious!
In Arenal, we stayed at the Hotel Arenal Manoa which had an on-site restaurant that was rated pretty high on Trip Advisor called La Saca. We were still nervous since it was a hotel restaurant and they can be overpriced, but the ingredients were fresh, the dishes well-prepared, and the ambiance incredible. You could hear the sounds of the wild since the restaurant is completely open.
Also popular throughout our stay in Costa Rica, was an appetizer of ceviche (which also happens to be a dining “trend” for 2012 haha).
I loved the presentation in the margarita glass and after this trip I’m so addicted to ceviche! It was served with some fried plantain strips.
We ordered the tenderloin served with potatoes and grilled vegetables:
The bf also ordered the grilled mahi-mahi served with a pineapple/mango spiced glaze (chutney almost) over yuca or cassava. This also became one of our favorite things we found in Costa Rica- it’s almost potato-like, but thicker and has more flavor.
In Arenal, the main town is called La Fortuna. So we ventured there to eat at the top-rated restaurant La Choza de Laurel. They serve authentic Costa Rican food in gigantic proportions and also have full chickens cooking over fire spits, but you have to wait for 45 minutes if you come around the time they put on a new batch.
We started with fried yuca, having no idea how much would be on this “appetizer”:
I opted for the tenderloin again (I guess I was craving red meat??) and the bf went with a casado served with chicken:
We pretty much had to roll ourselves home after the meal hahaha. After Arenal, it was on to Monteverde, which by the way- prepare yourselves for a crazy drive on windy, unpaved roads that make you feel like you’re going nowhere! The main town in Monteverde is St. Elena, and we stopped at a popular cafe called Morphos. It’s a really cozy place with a cool interior.
I had a grilled chicken dish for lunch before our ziplining adventure- excellently seasoned and served with the traditional salad with oil and vinegar.
My favorite restaurant by far during our trip is of course one where I did not take any pictures! Restaurante Sabor Espanol boasts a five-star rating on Trip Advisor and is located a bit outside the main town of St. Elena. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside features a modern table setting, relaxing music, and an open kitchen. It is owned by a Spanish couple who relocated to Costa Rica about four years ago. We were immediately greeted with a welcome glass of sangria and the menu has touches of Mediterranean, Latin, and Spanish cuisine. I had chicken kabobs with banana-wrapped bacon (to die for!!) and apparently their seafood paella is excellent. Artwork hangs the walls for customers to purchase and Barcelona football flags fly high. It’s a great find with a wonderful atmosphere!
After Monteverde, we traveled to Playa Hermosa in Guanacaste where the temperatures changed from a cool 60 to hot 90 degrees and seafood becomes the main focus of the cuisine. We stayed at the Hotel Playa Hermosa Bosque del Mar which had pretty decent food for a hotel. The main source of nightlife is Playa Coco. We watched some of the NFL playoffs at this bar called Coco Nutz. If you’re missing America, it is an obnoxious sports bar in Costa Rica owned by a guy who “came to Costa Rica to go diving, got drunk and bought a bar.” As far as I know there’s really only one owner left now, Dan, and I’m pretty jealous of this man, not going to lie. The bar is crowded, full of life, and Dan was there both nights making sure people were helped and felt welcome. We ordered burgers there one night and it made us feel right at home!
Our last night we dined in Playa Hermosa. At first, we were a bit bummed that we weren’t able to experience Ginger (apparently the best restaurant in the area). Ginger happened to be closed that night so we stopped in at the Bistro Restaurant in the Hotel La Finesterra. It was incredibly romantic with excellent cuisine and we were so glad we had a chance to experience this place! The hotel is located way up in the hills so the view is incredible. The service was attentive and gracious. I had a delicious gazpacho and for my main course had jumbo shrimp served with three sauces (amazing, fresh pesto; spicy chipotle; and garlic aioli). Great experience and the perfect way to end our vacation!
Foodies should consider Costa Rica as a destination for travel. The country overall is friendly, waiting to be explored, and in many areas, establishments have focused on perfecting amenities (including cuisine) to attract more tourists. I fell in love with this country over the course of our trip and the local cuisine. I even miss having rice and beans for breakfast every day! Book a trip as soon as you can- it’s an adventure you won’t ever forget.