By Fly&Dine Contributor Nate Federman
Before traveling to Costa Rica, I repeatedly heard three things about the food there: it’s lots of rice and beans (true!), bland (false!), and expensive (only partially true). Yes, there are plenty of restaurants catering to tourists. If you eat at them, you’ll pay US prices for unspectacular food. Or… you can eat like a local, which is to say pretty damn well and often for less than $20 a day.
For breakfast, you’ll definitely want to hit up a soda. Not the beverage, but a small café popular with locals, because they offer large portions at cheap prices. In La Fortuna, try Soda La Horminga, where you can get gallo pinto (a mixture of rice and beans and arguably the national dish of Costa rica), fried eggs, fried plantains, and either a coffee or agua fresca for 2,500 colóns (about $4). Don’t be afraid to ask for some hot sauce. If you ask nicely, the owner might forgo the bottle and give you a little bit of his homemade salsa, which helps make this breakfast not only a terrific value, but a deliciously spicy way to start your morning.
After spotting sloths in their natural habitat on the Bogarin Trail, try hitting up Panaderia La Reina, which is about a 1km walk way. They have a wide variety of baguettes, buns, and pan dulce, but for lunch, nothing beats a freshly baked empanada. For 2,500 colóns you can get a large, flaky empanada filled with a spicy potato mixture, and wash it down with a large passion fruit smoothie.
If you’re the kind of person who likes to supplement your meals with snacks, stay away from the supermarkets that sell Oreo cookies and blister packs of imported grapes for $10 each. Instead, stop at a roadside fruit stand and pick up a kilo (a little over two pounds) of rambutans (mamóns) for 1,000 colóns (about $1.60). These spiky-looking fruits travel well, peel easily, and have a sweet flavor similar to a lychee.
If you’re still in La Fortuna, try Restaurante Tiquicia for dinner, where you can get a fantastic casado (rice, beans, salad, plantains, and a grilled filet of tilapia) for just under $6. Having pinched your colons throughout the day, treat yourself to puntas de solomo—sirloin tips in a cilantro sauce, served with fried plantains, corn on the cob, and a fantastic papaya hash, all for 6,200 colóns (just under $10). Another great option is the whole locally-caught tilapia, deep fried to crispy perfection and served with beans, rice, and fried plantains at La Caribeña, for 7,500 colóns ($12). Or if you find yourself in Playa Panama dining with others, split the seafood platter at Hacienda Blu. For 30,000 colóns (about $48) you get a taste of the entire ocean with grilled mahi mahi, octopus, tuna, prawns, grilled veggies, potato wedges, salad, and a whole fried snapper, all over a bed of rice. It’s enough food to feed four adults. You’ll devour it and then take a little time when you’re finished to laugh at the people who told you that Costa Rican food was expensive and bland.