A foodie's guide to eating (and foraging and making chocolate) in Costa Rica
Where to eat in San Jose, Ojochal and our favorite Pacific beach towns
Ceviche, coffee and chocolate aren’t the only things to eat in Costa Rica.
If you go, make sure you have patacones, a casado plate and a papaya shake.
The papaya shake — a smoothie made with ice, papaya and banana — we made at our home-away-from-home in Ojochal, a little expat community along the Southern Pacific Coast of this beautiful Central American country, but everything else you will find at many restaurants and eateries throughout the country.
We were in Costa Rica for the first time last week, but if you’ve read my travel writing before, you know that I spend most of my time on vacation eating, cooking, shopping and thinking about food.
Here are some recommendations and observations about this wonderful country through the lens of what we ate while we were there:
Ceviche is everywhere, not only along the coasts. In fact, some of the best we had was at Agüizotes Gastro Pub in San Jose, where we spent our first night of the trip. Second best? A little palapa bar way off the main road in Parrita called Mar Y Sol. (You might say that restaurant a soda, which is what the Ticos call the family run eateries that serve simple menus at good prices.)
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Most ceviche is served with patacones, the Tican word for twice-fried plantains. (These are called tostones in other Central American countries.) I’d never heard this word until we were at Agüizotes, ordering our first round of ceviche after a long day of travel, and I’m happy to tell you: Patacones are delicious. And a little dangerous.
You can buy them crunchy in a bag, like potato chips, or freshly fried alongside a meal. I probably ate four whole plantains over the first few days before remembering that these are, uh, not helpful for having regular bowel movements. Cue the fish oil tablets. (I’ll be packing those in my Dopp kit next time.)
Casado is the plato mas tipico in Costa Rica. It’s a marriage of beans, rice, vegetables and a protein, and the very best casado plate I had wasn’t at the fancy restaurants of Ojochal (more on those in a minute) but at that Mar Y Sol restaurant in Parrita. I’ll be thinking about those perfectly seasoned black beans and chicken a la parilla for years to come.
If you’re a foodie headed to Costa Rica, take a tour. At least one. We aren’t really “tour” travelers, but we are so glad we booked two food experiences through AirBnBn before we left.
The first was a chocolate-making class with Lucia Montero-Cole and Mauricio Varela-Naranjo, the couple that runs Tapir Chocolates in San Jose, and we had so much fun that I sincerely hope to see them again in this life. She’s an anthropologist; he’s a theater teacher. They care deeply about their country and the plants, animals and history in it.
They walked us through the process of making chocolate, but also how to taste it. We learned how to “taste” through colors, not unlike that scene in “Ratatouille,” when Remi “tastes” the colors of the food dancing above his head.
If you’re going to be in San Jose for any amount of time, book a class with Tapir!
Our second food tour — thanks again to AirBnB — took us to La Argentina, a tiny spot near Sarchi and Grecia, just north of Alajuela, where the San Jose airport is located. A botanist named Daniel Batalla showed us around the agroforestry property, named Finca Madre, which has more than 300 types of fruits and edible plants.
We sampled Surinam cherries, finger limes, dragonfruit, lemon drop mangosteens and several different types of bananas, including the famed Gros Michel. Frank even tried the blue cheese fruit, which was a little too stinky for this adventurous eater. Batalla, who grew up in both Costa Rica and Colorado, helped us feel like a fruit hunter for a day. (You can follow him @_plantdan on Instagram.)
Gallo pinto is the country’s rice-and-beans dish that is often served at breakfast. The best we tried was at a tiny roadside restaurant called Nuestro Pueblo in Quebrada Amarilla. (See photo at the top of this post.) We almost missed our flight home because we stopped for a sit-down breakfast, but the pinto was so good, I almost didn’t mind the rush that followed.
Ojochal is considered a foodie paradise. The community south of Uvita and north of the Osa Peninsula is very rural, and there’s no real “town,” but there are plenty of good places to eat in the area. Heliconia, Exotica, Dos Gatos. All recommended. There are also several places to buy fresh fish along the main highway.
The best meal we had in this food-lovers happy place was probably at Citrus, a new restaurant that serves a modern menu with a few Asian twists on European and Costa Rican staples. Next to Citrus is a French market called L’epicerie, where you can buy more fancy food staples than you could imagine. For breakfast, hit up Pancito Cafe across the road for omelets, fancy toasts and homemade pastries.
In Quepos, we were so happy we stumbled upon this hillside restaurant called Ronny’s Place, which served the best fish I had on the entire trip with a view that was hard to beat.
En route to Nauyaca Waterfalls, one of my top recommendations if you visit this part of Costa Rica, stop by a new restaurant in Uvita called The French Cafe to pick up sandwiches. I especially enjoyed the banh mi.
When you’re headed back from Nauyaca, stop by Fuego Brew Co. for a craft beer. We had several Costa Rican beers, but these were the tops.
If you’re in Dominical and want breakfast (or a souvenir jar of golden milk chai mix), stop by Mono Congo, a breakfast cafe that specializes in plant-based foods.
Now that we are back, I’m trying to make my Tapir Chocolates last as long as I can. (I told founder Lucia Montero-Cole that I would do whatever she needed to help her get their products in Austin stores, especially this date-based “caramel” that we used as a filling in one of the chocolate bars. If she starts shipping to Texas, you’ll be the first to know about it!)
I already bought plantains at the store to try my hand at making patacones and casado-style black beans later this week, and in the meantime, you can find me sipping on that golden milk latte mix made with turmeric, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, star anise, all spice, black pepper and red chile flakes.
It’s earthy and full of flavor and a little bit of spice and not at all traditionally Costa Rican, but it taps into the food memories we made while we were there.
If only I had a bunch of those Gros Michel bananas to go with it…
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Sending lots of “Pura Vida” love to your inboxes today. I’ll leave you with a few more food photos from our culinary adventures.
What a treat to see these foodie pictures of your trip! I can't wait to go!
Gorgeous food pix! Thanks for sharing your adventures and I’m glad you’re home!