From the print edition
By Jack Donnelly | Special to The Tico Times
Costa Rican cuisine has an unfortunate reputation for being bland, boring and uninspired. Some Gringos think that Tico food is just rice and beans, fried chicken and starchy plantains. This is unjustified and unfortunate, and in fact, there are many traditional dishes that are unique and enjoyable. Comida típica (traditional cooking) which includes such dishes as olla de carne, tortilla aliñada and pescado entero (pot of meat, cheese tortilla and whole fish) is not only delicious, but also intriguing. These typical foods are more laborious to prepare and are not as commonly found on menus. They may also be suffering from competition with Gringo fast food.
A good way to explore the more interesting and varied side of Costa Rican cooking is to start with bar food. Tantalizing and unusual, small dishes (bocas) are there for the tasting in countless small establishments around the country. You don’t even have to commit to a large meal to try them out. Remember that part of the fun is that they are a little different every place you go: Be adventuresome! You should consider your research into this topic a service to culture and humanity.
The offerings are endless and varied. Many bar-restaurants offer very complete menus, including half portions of regular meals along with standard side dishes. Following are a few of my favorite bocas:
Chifrijo – In my humble opinion, chifrijo is the king of Tico bar food. A good chrifrijo will attract a steady crowd of eager patrons. Even confirmed teetotalers will sneak into a disreputable gin mill to enjoy the culinary delights of this dish.
It is the only boca that I am aware of that has had a patent taken out by its inventor, Miguel Ángel Cordero. He developed this heavenly recipe in the 1990s at his bar and restaurant (Cordero’s) in Tibás, just north of San José. Chifrijo is uniquely Costa Rican.
The name was suggested by one of the first customers to try it and is a composite of “chi” and “frijo,” the first three letters of three ingredients (chicharrón, chile and chimichurri) and frijo, from frijol.
It is a layered dish, so proportion and structure are important. Harmony among the component layers is critical. Chifrijo is constructed in a bowl as follows:
A foundation of white rice is laid down on the bottom of the bowl.
Next comes a thick layer of cooked savory beans. Originally frijoles tiernos, or red beans, were used, but frijoles cubaces (large beans) are sometimes used as well. The beans are cooked in spices and are the heart of the dish.
The beans are crowned with a portion of chicharrón. Commonly, this is the Costa Rican version of chicharrón, small, cooked pieces of meat (chicharrón de posta). Chicharrón crocante (or chicharrón de pellejo) is the crispy pork skin which may also be used.
The meat is then smothered in chimichurri or pico de gallo, a chopped blend of tomato, cilantro, onion, sweet pepper and lime juice.
Tortilla chips are served on the side or tucked into the sides of the bowl.
Additionally, there may be a topping of jalapeño pepper or slices of avocado. Along with this plate, you will invariably be offered a chilera. This is a homemade concoction of chopped hot peppers, carrots, cauliflower, onions, green beans and sweet peppers that have been pickled in vinegar for several weeks. Don’t let an unattractive, well-used container put you off this treat. Use the spoon in the jar to scoop out some chunks of spicy vegetables. Tabasco sauce is also commonly used. Chifrijo itself is not picante (spicy hot), but you are free to turn up the temperature.
As with all bar food, variety in ingredients, size and presentation is the norm. Commonly, a bar will offer two sizes of chifrijo, a smaller bowl as a boca and a larger version that makes a decent light dinner.
Ceviche – Chifrijo may be king, but ceviche is the standard by which Tico bar food is judged. 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 liquor stores and supermarkets. If you find yourself in an establishment that does not offer it, you may want to reconsider your choice of watering holes.
The serving dishes and portions vary widely. Some places offer a small glass while most serve it in a small bowl. Some even have the option of a medium-sized dish that, with chips or crackers, will prove a heartier snack.
Essentially, ceviche is chopped up raw fish and spices that are “cooked” or pickled in the citric acid of lemon or lime juice. A rough standard recipe:
Cut fresh white fish into small cubes. Many species are used including sea bass, tilapia, marlin, shark, etc. A variety of shrimp, octopus, squid, clams and other seafood can also be added making it mixto. Ceviche made of just shrimp is also popular.
Mince some onion (red is elegant), sweet pepper, cilantro and garlic.
Combine the ingredients and cover them with lemon or lime juice. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and keep refrigerated for at least two hours, longer for mixto.
Ceviche is served with tortilla chips or soda crackers. For picante lovers who usually do not like the vinegar base of Tabasco, this is an exception: the vinegar blends wonderfully with the citric base.
Tacos and Gallos – Tico tacos are hard tacos and almost always use a wheat-flour tortilla. They can hold anything in the way of meat, chicken, fish, cheese, beans, etc. Most are made with the tortilla completely rolled around the contents, while others are partially open like taco shells. They are generally fried along with the filling and may have an additional topping of ground beans, cheese, sour cream or salad. Some bars offer fried mini-tacos using corn tortilla wrappers. If you are not a big ketchup and mayo fan, you should stipulate that you would like them on the side.
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. Any Tico will quickly set you straight that the tortilla used in a taco wraps all the way around and overlaps itself, while the tortilla in a gallo folds like a slice of bread; the edges come together evenly and must be held upright between the thumb and the forefinger. It resembles a tortilla hammock or sling. If you have a fondness for losing arguments, try telling a local that it’s really a taco. In truth, only one thing matters regarding gallos: they’re delicious.
Huevo de Tortuga – The consumption of huevo de tortuga or turtle egg is controversial. There is a legal harvest of Olive Ridley turtle eggs on the Pacific coast. Only the early nests are raided on the premise that these eggs do not survive the heat of dry season and subsequent waves of nesting females. Another argument for this practice is that it reduces the price of turtle eggs and discourages poaching. It provides income for local residents and has contributed to town improvements.
In fact, demand far exceeds the legal supply and there is a thriving black market for poached eggs. Recently, there was an armed robbery of eggs from a turtle conservation station on the Caribbean coast, where all harvesting is illegal. There are regular reports of poachers being caught transporting large quantities of contraband eggs.
Turtle eggs are traditionally seen as enhancing male virility, so they are consumed almost exclusively by men. The main market also seems to be the Central Valley. Normally, they are served raw with sangrita, a tomato-based drink that may also include orange juice, hot pepper, other fruit or ginger ale. The egg is then swallowed in one gulp.
My opinion: buying illicit drugs supports cartels and terrorism; buying turtle eggs promotes illegal poaching and threatens turtle survival. Until they are truly regulated, I will not partake of the leathery little globes.
Patí – Patí is a small pastry filled with a mixture of ground beef, onion, spices and a touch of hot pepper, often the hot Panama chile, all cooked in oil. It is not really very hot, at least not to my picante-loving mouth. You will find them in rectangular and half-round shapes. They are very oily and you will quickly see evidence of this if you buy them in paper.
Patí is another snack like enyucados and burritos that you may have to find near a bar, rather than inside. They are very common street food on the Caribbean coast and you can find them there well into the evening, in small stands with glass cases. Any festival in Limón province will have multiple patí venders. Central Valley bakeries also sell them, usually in small paper bags of two.
Vigorón – Vigorón is a dish centered around a mound of cabbage salad. The cabbage is dressed with a sauce of tomatoes, onions, cilantro and lime juice. Salt, pepper, sugar and cumin may be added to the dressing as well. Arranged around it, usually in a nice star pattern, are long pieces of cooked yuca (cassava) and chicharrón crocante, or crispy pork rinds.
This is a very different plate that can make a fairly good meal. In some countries it is used as a late dinner or a very early breakfast.
Chalupas – This is a messy delight that you should attack with fingers, fork, knife and several reserve napkins. The foundation of a chalupa is a crispy, fried corn tortilla. The superstructure is varied, but often consists of a hearty first layer of ground beans, refried beans in Gringo-speak. The beans are followed by a tier of meat, chicken, cheese or chicharrón. This is crowned by a big pile of lettuce or shredded cabbage, and it will likely be slathered with ketchup and mayo.
Interestingly, the term “refried beans” is a mistaken translation, one that will never be remedied. 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 problem is moot in Costa Rica as here they are called frijoles molidos or ground beans.
Morcilla – Morcilla is 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 many bar boca menus. Any source of blood can be used, but pig is by far the most common.
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. It is a rich, dark mixture that makes for a comforting and filling meal.
Many people cringe at the thought of eating blood, but travel eating is supposed to be an adventure: Try splitting a plate with a companion or ask for a very small serving. It cannot possibly be worse than the unmentionables that go into hot dogs.
Yuca – Yuca, or cassava, is a common component of bar bocas, as it is in vigorón. However, it warrants some special attention as probably the best belly ballast for imbibing you can find. A little yuca in your system will help you soldier through the toughest pub crawl.
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.
Enyucados are not always sold inside bars, but can often be found nearby in small sodas or stands with glass cases on the street, even well into the evening. This is a fried ball of cassava dough that may have a meaty center. It’s not very greasy and is quite substantial. This delicacy gets my vote for the best street snack or finger food in Costa Rica.
Burritos – A burrito is a fried envelope or packet of wheat tortilla stuffed with beans, meat, cheese, chicken, chicharrón, etc. It can be a bit greasy, but makes a good medium-level snack. Often you will have to satisfy a burrito craving from a stand near the bar of the same sort that sells enyucados.
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. Homemade chilera is common, as is Tabasco sauce. Chilero (hot sauce) is often available as well. Salsa Lizano is a ubiquitous table sauce that is made from “natural spices and vegetables” according to a secret family recipe. Lizano is a little sweet and sometimes compared to Worcestershire. You may have to request salt or pepper.
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.