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Guanacaste, Costa Rica by Joseph Emanuelli

Real information and stories from Guanacaste , Costa Rica. Presneted by a long time expat living and working in Costa Rica
Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Cuisine That Really is Good

Costa Rican cuisine has an unfortunate reputation for being bland, boring and uninspired. A good many Gringos think that Ticos just eat rice and beans, fried chicken and starchy plantains. This is completely wrong and out of touch with reality. Comida típica  or traditional cooking which includes such dishes as olla de carne ( Pot of meat), tortilla aliñada ( cheese tortilla)  and pescado entero ( whole fish grilled or fried), arroz con pollo ( chicken and rice) is not only delicious but quiet filling. The cuisine will slightly vary from location to location throughout the country and some items are just local specialties.

A good way to explore the more interesting and varied side of Costa Rican cooking is to start with bar food or Bocas ( Small bites).These tasty treats can be found in many small establishments around the country. The best part is you don’t even have to commit to a large meal to just try them out. With the great diversity of Costa Rica they are made a little different every place you go, don’t be shy! Be adventurous! This is the way to really learn Costa Rican cuisine and the many different ways of enjoying the local products.

The offerings are endless and varied. Many bar-restaurants offer very complete menus, including half portions of regular meals along with standard side dishes.  Another great way to experience local fare is to drop into a local SODA.  These are local small tipical restaurants that feature various meals of the day as all items are fresh and prepared when available .Following are a few favorites that I think you would like as well.

Chifrijo – In my opinion, chifrijo is the king of Tico bar food. A good chrifrijo will bring you back time and time again and is a great staple for lunch. This great dish is a layered dish and is  constructed in a bowl as follows: A foundation of white rice is laid down on the bottom of the bowl. Next the rice is topped with a hardy layer of cooked savory beans, sometimes red beans but my favorite is with black beans. The beans are cooked in spices and are the heart of the dish. Next the beans are topped with chicharrón, small cooked pieces of meat mostly marinated pork or crispy fried pork skin. The meat is then smothered in chimichurri, a blend of herbs and garlic and olive oil, kind of like a pesto or pico de gallo, a chopped blend of tomato, cilantro, onion, sweet pepper and lime juice. Sometime both are added to the top. Tortilla chips are served on the side or tucked into the sides of the bowl. I have even had it with sliced avocado on top and spicy fresh chilies.

Ceviche – The standard by which Tico bar food and restaurants are judged by. It is a dish popular over a wide area of the world, especially Central and South America. Perú considers it part of its national heritage and has a holiday in its honor. Costa Ricans are very passionate about their ceviche and it is sold in almost all bars, on the street, at roadside stands and in bulk at seafood outlets. You can even buy ceviche in sealed plastic bags in stores and supermarkets.

The way it is presented can vary widely. Some bars offer a small glass while most serve it in a small bowl shaped like a boat. All are always served with Soda crackers, a type of Saltine cracker, and a bottle of Tabaco sauce. Basically ceviche is chopped up raw fish, usually Mahi Mahi or Dorrado and tossed with sweet and spicy peppers, cilantro and salt and are “cooked”, really pickled in the citric acid of lemon or lime juice. Some chefs and cooks even put a touch of ginger or ginger ale into the mix.

Tacos and Gallos – Tico tacos are hard tacos and almost always use a cor-flour tortilla. They can hold anything in the way of meat, chicken, fish, cheese, beans or whatever is really fresh. Most are made with the tortilla rolled around the fillings and fried and may have an additional topping of ground beans, cheese, sour cream or salad. A boca that generates considerable confusion among visitors is the gallo. This is simply a soft, warm corn tortilla with pieces of chicken or meat inside. Many foreigners make the mistake of thinking that the Costa Rican gallo is a taco. In reality, only one thing that really matters regarding gallos, is that they are delicious!

Patí – Patí is a small savory pastry filled with ground beef, onion, spices and a touch of hot pepper, all cooked in oil, AKA “deep fried”. They are not really very hot, at least not to me as I cannot find spicy enough food here in Costa Rica. You will find them in shapes from half-moons to triangles. They can be very oily and you will see evidence of this if you buy them in wrapped in paper.

Vigorón – Vigorón is a dish is based on a mound of cabbage salad. The cabbage sliced very thin and is dressed with fresh tomatoes, onions, cilantro and lime juice. Salt, pepper, sugar and cumin may be added to the dressing as well. Served with it are usually long pieces of cooked yucca (cassava) and chicharrón crocante, or crispy pork rinds. This salad dish is also used often, without the yucca and pork rinds, as a side salad with traditional Casado plate.

Chalupas – This is a messy delight that you should not attack using fingers, fork and knife will serve you better and have plenty napkins ready. This dish is also well known in Tex/Mex cuisine.  The base of a chalupa is a crispy, fried corn tortilla, topped with a hearty layer of ground beans, refried beans, red or black, in Gringo/Mexican food-speak. The beans are followed by a layer of seasoned ground beef, shredded pork or chicken. Then this great dish is crowned by a big pile of lettuce or shredded cabbage, and it will likely be slathered with ketchup and mayo. The first time I had this dish, being a novice at that time, I thought the sauce on top was sour cream or natilla as it is called here. Boy was I mistaken on the first bite, but needless to say it is still a great dish to eat.

For some back up information, the term “refried beans” is a mistaken translation, one that will never be remedied thanks to chain restaurants and marketers and manufactures of this food product . In fact, the beans are only fried once in the process. The prefix re- in Spanish means a repetition, just as in English. However, the word re is a modifier that means very or well. The proper translation from Mexican Spanish for frijoles re fritos (three words) is really well-fried beans. This really is no big deal because here in Costa Rica they are called frijoles molidos or ground beans.

Morcilla – Morcilla is type of blood sausage, blood pudding (British), moronga (Mexican) or blutwurst (German, older German-American). It is not as popular in Costa Rica as in Spain or Mexico, but you will find it on some bar boca menus. Tico morcilla is milder in taste and less aromatic than other varieties, but still very good. It is usually served chopped up and fried with onions, sweet peppers and other flavorings. You can have it served on rice or in gallos. Many people cringe at the thought of eating blood, but that is part of the excitement of traveling and experiencing different cultures and cuisines. Besides it cannot be any worse than what goes into hot dogs, if you only knew you would never eat another one!

Yuca – Yuca, or cassava, is a common component of bar food, as it is in vigorón. However, it could be just the thing you might need or want a little yucca in your system will help you make it through the toughest night out drinking local beers like Imperial or Pilsen. Yuca frita is simply small chunks of yucca, deep fried. It does not take up the oil like French fries and sits very comfortably in your stomach. It is also far tastier, and a small plate can easily be shared by two or more people. Usually severs with tomato ketchup and mayonnaise mixed with fresh lime juice.

Patacones - also known as tostones , are fried green plantain slices, and unlike chifles – very thin green bananas or green plantain chips. Patacones are thicker and are always made with green plantains (unlike chifles which can be made with green bananas) and are usaully serverd warmed. The typical way to make patacones is to cut the plantain in ½ to ¾ inch slices and fry them once untill they start to brown, then remove them and smash them with a wood mortar and pestle to flatten them.  Then fry them again until crispy and cooked thru. Patacones are usually served with frijoles molidos and fresh pico de gallo for dipping and are a great snack to have with cold beer sitting at beach side bar.

Burritos – A burrito is a grilled wheat tortilla stuffed with beans, meat, cheese, chicken, chicharrón, or whatever is on hand. It can be a bit dry as it is not like the Mexican version topped with cheese and all sorts of things, but makes a good medium-level snack. Often you will have to satisfy a burrito craving from a stand near the bar.

Condiments – Mayonnaise and ketchup are universally offered and used, liberally, on almost everything. Two things to remember: The yellow squeeze bottle is mayo, not mustard; Costa Rican ketchup is much sweeter than the U.S. version and comes in different thicknesses.  Homemade chilera is common, a mixture of marinated chili, onions, carrots and sometimes broccoli and cauliflower in vinegar. Tabasco sauce and Chilero (hot sauce) is often available as well. Salsa Lizano is a great table sauce that is made from “natural spices and vegetables” according to a secret family recipe. Lizano has a sweet side to it and sometimes compared to Worcestershire but thicker and has a hint of curry to it as well.

Costa Rica may never have the reputation for its small dishes that Spain does for tapas, but it’s time for Tico bocas to step out of the shadows and let the world know how good they really are.

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