Taste the True Flavor of Costa Rica

When you think back to your hometown, there is probably an eatery that represents the taste of you and your neighbors. Coming from Long Island, I would say it’s the local pizzeria, or a diner or maybe even a local chain restaurant like the Waffle House or Bojangles. In Costa Rica it is undeniably the local soda. Every town or pueblo has a few. They all serve the same fare at reasonable prices. Sodas are where local Ticos go for breakfast or lunch every day, similar to the American cafe. You can count on them serving homestyle typical Costa Rican black bean dishes with an ever-changing collection of side dishes and Tico comfort foods.

It all dates back to the creation of carbonated beverages, with the American tradition of “soda fountains” at the heart of popular refreshment spots. Originally, pharmacists used carbonation and flavoring to soften the flavor of bitter medicines, which patients could drink in prepared mixtures right at the drug store counter. Soon, customers could order food and snacks with their soda fountain drinks on the same premises. Ultimately, health officials outlawed the practice of eating inside pharmacies due to sanitation issues. But that’s how the soda we know today in Costa Rica was born.

Sodas offer their share of comfort food.

Lots of variation in the basics

All sodas serve basically the same dishes, no matter where you are, although the flavors and methods of cooking vary. Some sodas don’t even have menus because they only serve two main dishes, and most have a dish of the day. Breakfast is always gallo pinto (rice and beans cooked together) and any number of side choices. You can add eggs, plantains, fried cheese, tortillas and natilla (sour cream), but also order chicken or beef in sauce. Lunch is a casado (see opposite page). Most sodas are not open for dinner, but those that are, normally have a much more extensive menu.

typical casado in costa rica

Daily specials can include any number of options. Arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), served with refried black beans and a salad, is not the traditional Latin American recipe but closer to a chicken stir-fry. Arroz con camarones, served with french fries, is a cilantro-kissed rice and shrimp dish that just gets better as you get closer to the ocean. Another classic is pargo entero, a fried whole snapper with eyes and all intact.

To experience true home cooking, arrive at your local soda on a Sunday — chances are they will be serving olla carne. This beef soup takes hours of preparation to cook the rump roast for pulled beef, then copious amounts of root vegetables, corn and plantains. Served with yellow rice, this hearty dish will surely make you think of grandma.

whole fried red snapper

Come for some comfort food

Just like the soda fountain of yesteryear and today’s diner, Costa Rican sodas offer their share of comfort food. On the menu are french fries and the illusive salchipapas: potato fries topped with sliced hot dogs smothered in ketchup, mayonnaise or Salsa Lizano … or all three if you are truly brave. Traditional sodas, such as in Brasilito, serve gallitos — a single corn tortilla with fried sausage, fried cheese or any number of options. Nowadays, sodas often offer Mexican fare as well: nachos, quesadillas and tacos. When ordering a taco, keep in mind it will be like nothing you might expect unless you have actually been to Mexico. The handheld hard taco is not a Mexican invention, but I am sure Texas and California would have a standoff if I declared one of them the rightful inventor! Instead, Mexico’s flauta is a fried corn tortilla in the shape of a flute and containing meat. It is then buried under cabbage and the abovementioned sauces. You have to eat your way through the salad to get to the deliciously fried morsel inside.

In sodas along the coast, you will find locally prepared ceviche made with the local catch of the day. Chifrijo can now be found in many sodas, the name derived from its two main ingredients: chicharron (fried pork) and frijoles (beans, in this case, large red beans).

Casado: Married man on a platter?

The iconic lunch staple on soda menus, casado translates directly as “married man.” In culinary terms, it’s a dish consisting of rice and beans cooked separately, a protein portion of chicken, beef, pork or fish, both a cooked and fresh veggie serving, plus a homemade (“house special”) fruit drink. Your protein option can be asado (grilled), a la plancha (pan cooked with a little oil), frito (fried), en salsa (in gravy or a light tomato sauce) or al ajillo (pan cooked with garlic).

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