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Costa Ricans like their food straightforward and direct — and once you try their fresh ingredients, you’ll see why. Our Forbes Travel Guide editors’ entire list of the best Costa Rica food experiences features simple pleasures, done right.
1. Batidos/Refrescos Naturales. Order a simple lunch and it’s all but assumed that you also want a Batido, or Refresco — the Costa Rican term for freshly squeezed fruit juice. It’s a testament to the abundance of fresh fruit here that the same raw juice that you splurge for at the gym or Whole Foods is cheaper than soda, not to mention more healthy. It’s hard to go wrong with sandia (watermelon) or piña (pineapple), but be sure to also try some of the flavors you can’t get back home: tamarindo, guanabana and maracuya.
2. Chifrijo. Costa Ricans often joke that they’ll eat anything, as long as it’s rice and beans, but the existence of the chifrijo makes us wonder why they eat anything else. A portmanteau of chicharrones (fried pork belly), frijoles (beans) and arroz (rice), this bowl of hearty goodness is usually topped with pico de gallo salsa and sometimes another scoop of vigorones (fried pork rinds) to boot, with tortilla chips for scooping it all out. The mixture works perfectly, and while fairs and outdoor events are your best bet to catch a bowl in the wild, you can also find it served at roadside stands or as an appetizer in casual restaurants.
3. Fresh fish. The Central Pacific’s abundance of sportfishing, especially near the port town of Quepos, makes it the perfect spot to enjoy fresh-caught fish. The best restaurants serve it direct from that morning’s catch, whether it be red snapper (fried or grilled whole), mahi mahi, corvina or our favorite, fresh tuna. For those accustomed to their tuna coming from round cans or the freezer section, a fresh tuna steak, seared rare, is a near-religious experience. Sushi lovers should do their best to track it down as sashimi, as you’re not likely to find it better, fresher or cheaper anywhere else.
4. Gallo Pinto. Again, we’re back to rice and beans — but this time, as the traditional breakfast of Costa Rica, gallo pinto. Spanish for “spotted rooster,” every family and restaurant has their own specific take on this mix of black beans, white rice and Lizano sauce, a sweet cumin condiment found on nearly every table in the country. Adorned with an over-easy egg or sweet fried plantains, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll take to this most tipico dish.
5. Coffee. If you’re like most, your very first exposure to Costa Rica’s culinary culture has been while standing in line at Starbucks; coffee is still the country’s main export, and its dark green bushes cover much of the country’s landscape. As the demand for high-quality java has increased in recent years, the country has become famous for its gourmet beans, with a focus on organic and single-origin blends. While simply buying a local bag from the market may impress casual drinkers, real coffee connoisseurs will want to catch one of the country’s many coffee tours — from the Central Valley’s Doka Estate to Finca Christina, on the slopes of Irazú Volcano.