Until recently, there wasn’t a food scene in Costa Rica. But that’s all changing with a bunch of innovative and creative chefs and restaurants turning San Jose into a foodie’s delight. And the best way to check out what’s going on is to take a tour.
After four years in the culinary capital of the Americas, Lima, Peru, I had low expectations for the foodie experiences awaiting me in San Jose, Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is famous for many things – beaches, white-water rafting, surfing, and zip-lining – but no one ever spoke about its must-try cuisine.
Over my first few months, I tried all the local dishes, most of which involved rice and beans in some combination. Sure there were a few decent chifrijos and some tasty gallo pintos and casados. There was even a scrumptious Caribbean rondón!
But it didn’t blow me away.
Not after remembering the full sensory eating experiences at restaurants all around Lima.
But then I found Adriana and her Foodie Tour Costa Rica.
Foodie Tour Costa Rica does what it says on the tin. They offer gastronomy tours around a country not known for its gastronomy.
I opted for the Essential Gastronomy Experience in San Jose’s trendy Barrio Escalante.
San José is a gritty capital, a stark contrast to Costa Rica’s beautiful beaches and national parks. But, as we’ve seen urban renewal and gentrification of neglected neighbourhoods around the world, the city is changing.
And it nowhere is that change more obvious than Barrio Escalante.
A coffee plantation back in the day, Escalante is now home to Instagram-worthy street art and a few too many man-bun adorned hipsters. It’s also ground zero for a culinary revolution that’s bringing back sweet and savoury local ingredients to the forefront of menus.
The impetus for this revolution is a strong desire by up-and-coming chefs to rethink traditional Costa Rican recipes and embrace local ingredients.
Our tour began in Luna Roja, a restaurant dedicated to recognizing the contributions of Costa Rica’s indigenous cultures.
Part of the Luz de Luna hotel, Luna Roja hopes to create an awareness of the Costa Rica’s culinary culture and history.
They draw textures and flavours from Costa Rica’s indigenous groups like the Boruca, Maleku, and others to create modern gastronomical experiences. Even the classic sopa negra (black bean soup) is presented more like food-art than the version enjoyed at a Costa Rican grandmother’s house.
Stand-outs included well-seasoned, bold-flavoured duck chorizo skewers and lightly fried crispy yuca balls oozing out melted aromatic local cheese.
Afterwards, we wandered the barrio, en route to Al Mercat which means “to the market” in Catalan.
Al Mercat Chef José Pablo González selects all the ingredients from the restaurant’s own farm and local farmers’ markets. With them he composes tasty culinary dishes with a distinct Tico touch.
The menu rotates to adapt to seasonal changes. We were lucky enough to enjoy tuna two ways – a succulent and citrusy lime and mango tuna ceviche (my favourite since leaving Peru) and seared tuna steak with creamy avocado salad.
And for dessert, a rich chocolate ganache topped with a Costa Rican craft beer caramel sauce.
No foodie adventure in Costa Rica would be complete without a coffee at the end of the meal.
Costa Rica has some of the world’s best coffee and our foodie guide led us to the Underground Brew Cafe. Juan the barista is passionate about coffee and went the distance to give us a unique coffee-tasting experience.
Now caffeinated, there was time for a final stop at one of Escalante’s popular gastro-pubs, Agüizotes.
Our mixologist combined Centenario rum with tonic water, basil, and macerated strawberries for a refreshing finish to the foodie tour.
We were too full to try their food, but the waiters seemed busy delivering impressive-looking tacos to other customers.
Year-long growing seasons + fertile land + oceans, lakes and rivers = Culinary Paradise
So while Costa Rica’s lush natural resources may be awe-inspiring for travelers, they’re more than a pretty backdrop. Year-round they provide a rich variety of fruits and vegetables, not to mention the world’s finest coffee and cacao.
And with two oceans and lots of fresh water, there are fantastic fresh fish and seafood options.
In this culinary paradise, it’s no surprise Costa Rica’s chefs are turning heads with their new takes on classic local dishes.
Adriana’s tour now has me looking for other innovative restaurants in San Jose.
Just on my own I’ve already found Silvestre in Barrio Amon and Maza Bistro.
She recently started a blog about the unique ingredients and innovative trends improving the foodie scene in Costa Rica.
So forget about rice and beans. Get into the new food scene in Costa Rica. Try her food tour, or sign up for the blog to know where and what you should savour next.
Buen Provecho and pura vida!
Nuala Lawlor is a sometimes-Canadian diplomat, full-time mom/wife, and wannabe journalist living in San Jose, Costa Rica.