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Costa Rican food is not especially memorable. Although some of the exotic fruits and vegetables served up, certainly are. Moreover, creative chefs using fresh local ingredients have livened up the dining scene in San José and at most of the major tourist destinations. A few are even serving up creative takes on traditional Costa Rican classics.

Outside of the capital and the major tourist destinations, your options get very limited very fast. In fact, many destinations are so remote that you have no choice but to eat in the hotel's restaurant. At remote jungle lodges, the food is usually served buffet- or family-style and can range from bland to inspired, depending on who's doing the cooking, and turnover is high.

If you see a restaurant billing itself as a mirador, it means it has a view. If you are driving around the country, don't miss an opportunity to dine with a view at some little roadside restaurant. The food might not be all that great, but the view and scenery will be.

At even the more expensive restaurants, it's hard to spend more than $50 per person unless you really splurge on drinks. It gets even cheaper outside the city and high-end hotels. However, if you really want to save money, Costa Rican, or típico, food is always the cheapest nourishment available. It's primarily served in sodas, Costa Rica's equivalent of diners. At a soda, you'll have lots of choices: rice and beans with steak, rice and beans with fish, rice and beans with chicken, or, for vegetarians, rice and beans. You get the picture.

I have separated restaurant listings throughout this guide into three price categories, based on the average cost of a meal per person, including tax and service charge. The categories are Expensive, more than $25; Moderate, $10 to $25; and Inexpensive, less than $10. (Note, however, that individual items in the listings -- entrees, for instance -- do not include the sales or service taxes.) Keep in mind that an additional 13% sales tax applies, as well as a 10% service charge. Ticos rarely tip, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't. If the service was particularly good and attentive, you should probably leave a little extra.

Meals & Dining Customs

Rice and beans are the bases of Costa Rican meals -- all three of them. At breakfast, they're called gallo pinto and come with everything from eggs to steak to seafood. At lunch or dinner, rice and beans are an integral part of a casado (which translates as "married" and is the name for the local version of a blue-plate special). A casado usually consists of cabbage-and-tomato salad, fried plantains (a starchy, banana-like fruit), and a chicken, fish, or meat dish of some sort. On the Caribbean coast, rice and beans are called "rice 'n' beans," and are cooked in coconut milk.

Dining hours in Costa Rica are flexible but generally follow North American customs. Some downtown restaurants in San José are open 24 hours; however, expensive restaurants tend to be open for lunch between 11am and 3pm and for dinner between 6 and 11pm.

Appetizers -- Known as bocas in Costa Rica, appetizers are served with drinks in most bars. Often the bocas are free, but even if they aren't, they're very inexpensive. Popular bocas include gallos (tortillas piled with meat, chicken, cheese, or beans), ceviche (a marinated seafood salad), tamales (stuffed cornmeal patties wrapped and steamed inside banana leaves), patacones (fried green plantain chips), and fried yuca.

Sandwiches & Snacks -- Ticos love to snack, and a large variety of tasty little sandwiches and snacks are available on the street, at snack bars, and in sodas. Arreglados are little meat-filled sandwiches, as are tortas, which are served on little rolls with a bit of salad tucked into them. Tacos, tamales, gallos, and empanadas (turnovers) also are quite common.

Meat -- Costa Rica is beef country, having converted much of its rainforest land to pastures for raising beef cattle. Consequently, beef is cheap and plentiful, although it might be a bit tougher -- and cut and served thinner -- than it is back home. One typical local dish is called olla de carne, a bowl of beef broth with large chunks of meat, local tubers, and corn. Spit-roasted chicken is also very popular here and is surprisingly tender.

Seafood -- Costa Rica has two coasts, and, as you'd expect, plenty of seafood is available everywhere in the country. Corvina (sea bass) is the most commonly served fish and is prepared innumerable ways, including as ceviche. (Be careful: In many cheaper restaurants, particularly in San José, shark meat is often sold as corvina.) You should also come across pargo (red snapper), dorado (mahimahi), and tuna on some menus, especially along the coasts. Although Costa Rica is a major exporter of shrimp and lobster, both are relatively expensive and in short supply here.

Vegetables -- On the whole, you'll find vegetables surprisingly lacking in the meals you're served in Costa Rica -- usually nothing more than a little pile of shredded cabbage topped with a slice or two of tomato. For a much more satisfying and filling salad, order palmito (hearts of palm salad). The heart (actually the stalk or trunk of these small palms) is first boiled and then chopped into circular pieces and served with other fresh vegetables, with salad dressing on top. If you want something more than this, you'll have to order a side dish such as picadillo, a stew or purée of vegetables with a bit of meat in it.

Though they are giant relatives of bananas and are technically considered a fruit, plátanos (plantains) are really more like vegetables and require cooking before they can be eaten. Green plantains have a very starchy flavor and consistency, but they become as sweet as candy as they ripen. Fried plátanos are one of my favorite dishes. Yuca (manioc root or cassava in English) is another starchy staple root vegetable in Costa Rica.

One more vegetable worth mentioning is the pejibaye, a form of palm fruit that looks like a miniature orange coconut. Boiled pejibayes are frequently sold from carts on the streets of San José. When cut in half, a pejibaye reveals a large seed surrounded by soft, fibrous flesh. You can eat it plain, but it's usually topped with a dollop of mayonnaise.

Fruits -- Costa Rica has a wealth of delicious tropical fruits. The most common are mangoes (the season begins in May), papayas, pineapples, melons, and bananas. Other fruits include marañón, which is the fruit of the cashew tree and has orange or yellow glossy skin; granadilla or maracuyá (passion fruit); mamón chino, which Asian travelers will immediately recognize as rambutan; and carambola (star fruit).

Desserts -- Queque seco, literally "dry cake," is the same as pound cake. Tres leches cake, on the other hand, is so moist that you almost need to eat it with a spoon. Flan is a typical custard dessert. It often comes as either flan de caramelo (caramel) or flan de coco (coconut). Numerous other sweets are available, many of which are made with condensed milk and raw sugar. Cajetas are popular handmade candies, made from sugar and various mixes of evaporated, condensed, and powdered milk. They are sold in differing-size bits and chunks at most pulperías (general stores) and streetside food stands.

Coconut, Straight Up -- Throughout Costa Rica (particularly on the coastal road btw. Limón and Cahuita), keep your eye out for roadside stands selling fresh, green coconuts, or pipas in Spanish. Green coconuts have very little meat, but are filled with copious amounts of a slightly sweet, clear liquid that is amazingly refreshing. According to local legend, this liquid is pure enough to be used as plasma in an emergency situation. Armed with a machete, the pipa seller will cut out the top and stick in a straw. In the best of cases, the pipa will have been cooled over ice. The entire thing should cost $1 or less.

Beverages

Frescos, refrescos, and jugos naturales are my favorite drinks in Costa Rica. They are usually made with fresh fruit and milk or water. Among the more common fruits used are mangoes, papayas, blackberries, and pineapples. You'll also come across maracuyá (passion fruit) and carambola (star fruit). Some of the more unusual frescos are horchata (made with rice flour and a lot of cinnamon) and chan (made with the seed of a plant found mostly in Guanacaste -- definitely an acquired taste). The former is wonderful; the latter requires an open mind (it's reputed to be good for the digestive system). Order un fresco con leche sin hielo (a fresco with milk but without ice) if you're avoiding untreated water.

If you're a coffee drinker, you might be disappointed here. Most of the best coffee has traditionally been targeted for export, and Ticos tend to prefer theirs weak and sugary. Better hotels and restaurants are starting to cater to gringo and European tastes and are serving up superior blends. If you want black coffee, ask for café negro; if you want it with milk, order café con leche.

For something different for your morning beverage, ask for agua dulce, a warm drink made from melted sugar cane and served either with milk or lemon, or straight.

Water -- Although water in most of Costa Rica is safe to drink, bottled water is readily available and is a good option if you're worried about an upset stomach. Agua mineral, or simply soda, is sparkling water in Costa Rica. If you like your water without bubbles, request aqua mineral sin gas, or agua en botella.

Beer, Wine & Liquor -- The German presence in Costa Rica over the years has produced several fine beers, which are fairly inexpensive. Most Costa Rican beers are light pilsners. The most popular brands are Bavaria, Imperial, and Pilsen. I personally can't tell much of a difference between any of them. Licensed local versions of Heineken and Rock Ice are also available.

You can find imported wines at reasonable prices in the better restaurants throughout the country. You can usually save money by ordering a Chilean wine over a Californian or European one.

Costa Rica distills a wide variety of liquors, and you'll save money by ordering these over imported brands. The national liquor is guaro, a crude cane liquor that's often combined with a soft drink or tonic. When drinking it straight, it's customary to follow a shot with a bite into a fresh lime covered in salt. If you want to try guaro, stick to the Cacique brand.

Several brands and styles of coffee-based liqueurs are also produced in Costa Rica. Café Rica is similar to Kahlúa, and you can find several types of coffee cream liqueurs. The folks at Café Britt produce their own line of coffee liqueurs which are quite good and available in most supermarkets, liquor stores, and tourist shops.

Costa Ricans also drink a lot of rum. The premier Costa Rican rum is Centenario, but I recommend that you opt for the Nicaraguan Flor de Caña  or Cuban Havana Clu, both of which are far superior rums. Note: Because of the trade embargo, it is illegal to bring Havana Club into the United States.

Fish

Almejas -- Clams

Atún -- Tuna

Bacalao -- Cod

Calamares -- Squid

Camarones -- Shrimp

Cangrejo -- Crab

Ceviche -- Marinated seafood salad

Dorado -- Dolphin or mahimahi

Langosta -- Lobster

Lenguado -- Sole

Mejillones -- Mussels

Ostras -- Oysters

Pargo -- Snapper

Pulpo -- Octopus

Trucha -- Trout

Meats

Albóndigas -- Meatballs

Bistec -- Beefsteak

Cerdo -- Pork

Chicharrones -- Fried pork rinds

Chorizo -- Sausage

Chuleta -- Literally chop, usually pork chop

Cordero -- Lamb

Costillas -- Ribs

Delmonico -- Rib-eye

Jamón -- Ham

Lengua -- Tongue

Lomo -- Sirloin

Lomito -- Tenderloin

Pato -- Duck

Pavo -- Turkey

Pollo -- Chicken

Salchichas -- Hot dogs, but sometimes refers to any sausage

Vegetables

Aceitunas -- Olives

Alcachofa -- Artichoke

Berenjena -- Eggplant

Cebolla -- Onion

Elote -- Corn on the cob

Ensalada -- Salad

Espinacas -- Spinach

Frijoles -- Beans

Lechuga -- Lettuce

Maíz -- Corn

Palmito -- Heart of palm

Papa -- Potato

Pepino -- Cucumber

Tomate -- Tomato

Yuca -- Yucca, cassava, or manioc

Zanahoria -- Carrot

Fruits

Aguacate -- Avocado

Banano -- Banana

Carambola -- Star fruit

Cereza -- Cherry

Ciruela -- Plum

Durazno -- Peach

Frambuesa -- Raspberry

Fresa -- Strawberry

Granadilla -- Sweet passion fruit

Limón -- Lemon or lime

Mango -- Mango

Manzana -- Apple

Maracuya -- Tart passion fruit

Melón -- Melon

Mora -- Blackberry

Naranja -- Orange

Papaya -- Papaya

Piña -- Pineapple

Plátano -- Plantain

Sandía -- Watermelon

Toronja -- Grapefruit

Basics

Aceite -- Oil

Ajo -- Garlic

Arreglado -- Small meat sandwich

Azúcar -- Sugar

Casado -- Plate of the day

Gallo -- Corn tortilla topped with meat or chicken

Gallo pinto -- Rice and beans

Hielo -- Ice

Mantequilla -- Butter

Miel -- Honey

Mostaza -- Mustard

Natilla -- Sour cream

Olla de carne -- Meat and vegetable soup

Pan -- Bread

Patacones -- Fried plantain chips

Picadillo -- Chopped vegetable side dish

Pimienta -- Pepper

Queso -- Cheese

Sal -- Salt

Tamal -- Filled cornmeal pastry

Tortilla -- Flat corn pancake

Drinks

Agua purificada -- Purified water

Agua con gas -- Sparkling water

Agua sin gas -- Plain water

Bebida -- Drink

Café -- Coffee

Café con leche -- Coffee with milk

Cerveza -- Beer

Chocolate caliente -- Hot chocolate

Jugo -- Juice

Leche -- Milk

Natural -- Fruit juice

Natural con leche -- Milkshake

Refresco -- Soft drink

Ron -- Rum

-- Tea

Trago -- Alcoholic drink

Other Restaurant Terms

Al grill -- Grilled

Al horno -- Oven-baked

Al vapor -- Steamed

Asado -- Roasted

Caliente -- Hot

Cambio or vuelto -- Change

Cocido -- Cooked

Comida -- Food

Congelado -- Frozen

Crudo -- Raw

El baño -- Toilet

Frío -- Cold

Frito -- Fried

Grande -- Big or large

La cuenta -- The check

Medio -- Medium

Medio rojo -- Medium rare

Muy cocido -- Well-done

Pequeño -- Small

Poco cocido or rojo -- Rare

Tres cuartos -- Medium-well-done

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.