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Costa Rica may lack the distinctive cuisine of a Mexico or Peru, but it makes up for it with ingredients — it’s difficult to improve on grilled mahi mahi or a ripe mango right off the tree. A steady flow of transplants from around the world have picked up the slack and taken these fresh ingredients to exciting new places (without forgetting the ubiquitous beans and rice). Here are five of Forbes Travel Guide’s editors’ favorite places to eat in Costa Rica.
1. Restaurante Colbert. Authentic French cuisine may be one of the last things you expect to find in the foothills of a Central American volcano, but Restaurante Colbert is a welcome surprise. It’s probably the only place in Costa Rica where you’ll be greeted at your table by an actual French chef (owner Joël Suire), and it’s easy to make a wonderful lunch out of no more than their fresh bread, paté and preserves, all made by hand in their kitchen. Add in a bottle of wine and some mousse for dessert and it’s a perfect post-crater feast.
2. The Falls Garden Café. Manuel Antonio offers some of the best dining in the country, with its close proximity to the fishing town of Quepos bringing in fresh seafood each morning. While it’s hard to go wrong with the fresh tuna at nearly any restaurant along the road to the park, The Falls has continually impressed us every time we’ve dined there. Located in the front of the resort that shares its name, its open atmosphere is elegant enough for date night, but still maintains a certain beach town charm. Their fusion menu blends Thai, Caribbean and European flavors without forgetting to put fresh Costa Rican ingredients at the forefront — especially the fish.
3. Plaza España. The affluent canton of Escazú spreads up the mountains southwest of San Jose, and contains a disproportionate amount of the Central Valley’s best dining, from the tipico Casona de Laly to the wood-fired pizza at Bar Cerro’s. However, our favorite is a small tapas restaurant on the outskirts of San Antonio, a small town famous for its yearly oxcart festival. Located in a renovated house with a sweeping view of the central valley, Plaza España boasts a fantastic menu of Spanish favorites in small-plate and entrée portions. Call ahead for their fantastic paella, or just show up and debate what to dip your bread into first — their creamy gazpacho or sizzling garlic sautéed shrimp.
4. Maxi’s. The nature of Costa Rican food changes the closer you get to its Caribbean coast — the spices get stronger, the flavors bolder and sweet coconut milk begins to appear in everything, even the classic rice and beans. The area’s large amount of Jamaican immigrants gives the Limon province its own unique cuisine, and Maxi’s is the best place around to sample its island zest. Located in the center of the small beachfront town of Manzanillo, Maxi’s is literally the end of the road — try and go any further south, and you’ll end up in the forest surrounding the Panamanian border. Here the dining is deeply casual, with a menu to match its ocean view: lobster, red snapper (grilled or fried whole) and on weekends, ‘Rondon’ — a rich seafood stew made with coconut milk and a mix of starchy vegetables. The portions are huge, but be sure to save room for their coconut flan at the end.
5. Mercado Central. At the heart of authentic Costa Rican food is the soda — the small homestyle restaurants, often staffed by one person, that can be found on nearly every street corner. Menus are the exception, rather than the rule, with many simply serving one specific dish a day, but nearly all offer some variation on the casado, a ‘marriage’ of rice, beans, meat, plantains and salad. Everyone has an opinion on which soda to visit for the best casado, but for the adventurous tourist, it’s best to head to the source. Mercado Central, in the heart of San Jose, is a sprawling, dense maze of vendors hawking spices, souvenirs, fresh fish and more over an entire city block. It’s been active since the 1800s, and inside you’ll also find a huge selection of sodas among the market’s clamor, all competing for your lunchtime business. Start with something simple, like arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), or just dive straight into the olla de lengua (beef tongue stew) if you’re feeling particularly bold — it doesn’t get much more authentic than eating meat next to peddlers selling it by the kilo.