In a country known for healthy food options and whose most well-known staple foods are based on rice and beans, it’s easy to be a vegetarian in Costa Rica.
Breakfast is usually gallo pinto, which often consists of rice, beans, and Salsa Lizano, the national sauce of Costa Rica.
Restaurant menus throughout the country offer some version of a casado, a national lunch staple, made of rice, beans, salad, vegetables, potatoes and the protein option of your choice such as cheese, egg, beef, chicken, pork or fish.
Well, yes and no!
One popular dish, picadillo de papas, which are finely chopped potatoes, often include small pieces of ground beef, but to many Costa Ricans (or Ticos), that doesn’t count as meat, so you might get a few strange looks when you push it to the side.
During my very first homestay as a student in Costa Rica, a vegan friend visited me. We agonized over the fact that there weren’t any vegan restaurants in the entire country. As we were strategizing on how to best manage vegan meals, my Tica host mother offered to make vegetarian pasta.
She served the spaghetti with a delicious tomato sauce… with ground beef.
When I awkwardly reminded my host mom that my friend didn’t eat meat, she said, “oh, that’s just tiny pieces, it’s not really meat!”
In that moment, I realized that the whole concept of eating meat was a whole different idea in Costa Rica. That, however, was over 20 years ago. Things have changed radically since then!
Costa Rica gets vegetarian-friendly
Over the last two decades, Costa Rica has gone from blank stares when faced with a request for meat-free dishes, to an abundance of vegetarian restaurants, both in the Central Valley and in the more popular rural and beach areas.
Globalization, health awareness, foreign influence and cultural trends have contributed to making Costa Rica a mecca for foodies of all kinds, offering vegan-friendly, gluten free, fusion, health-conscious and international eateries.
Cultural attitudes towards vegetarian food
When a vegetarian “consciousness” first started to appear on the national radar, it was simple. You would just ask for a casado without the meat. While most people didn’t comprehend the motivation, they were generally respectful of what people requested. However, the older generation, especially those who grew up with scarcity, simply could not understand why anyone would refuse such a treat as meat. And if you happened to be invited to eat at someone’s house and they served meat, it was hard to say no without causing offense.
I remember such an occasion when a host mother that hosts students at my school invited us to a special dinner to thank us for sending her students. She prepared a feast for us. The main dish, or plato fuerte, was the biggest delicacy she could afford, lengua en salsa, which is an entire cow’s tongue in tomato sauce.
I gulped, made appreciative noises, and looked at my friend and business partner, Adelita, who could barely stifle her laughter when she saw the sheer panic written all over my face.
What to do?
Say no and offend my host, or eat it and betray my principles?
As luck would have it, neither option was necessary. The host mother, beloved Doña Ana got up to fetch something she’d forgotten in the kitchen and I quickly scooped the tongue onto Adelita’s plate, disguising the missing tongue with a quick spoonful of salad.
To my immense good fortune, Adelita is a huge fan of lengua en salsa.
I escaped the shame of being an inconsiderate gringa.
Years later, I still remember these potentially mortifying moments, and am so thankful now that being vegetarian is now a fairly normal concept. Nowadays, a number of Ticos, mostly young people, are vegetarians. Also, veganism is becoming more common, although there is a still a way to go before strict veganism becomes truly understood.
The majority of restaurants have vegetarian options, and even in street-food or the most typically Costa Rican venues, there is pretty much always something delicious on the menu that a vegetarian can eat.
So, what should you eat exactly?
If you don’t speak Spanish, making sure your dish doesn’t include meat can be a daunting prospect in those places where English is rare.
In tourist areas, you won’t have this problem, as menus are most often available in English as well as Spanish, but there are places where you will need to know some important vocabulary in Spanish in order to get by.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common items found in vegetarian-friendly restaurants and see what they contain:
Platanos maduros are fried ripe plantains. They are a deliciously sweet dish often accompanied by beans and cheese (frijoles y queso) and usually eaten as an appetizer or bar food.
Patacones are twice cooked green plantains. They are the salty version of fried plantains and look like thick chips. They often come with guacamole, beans or pico de gallo which is a chopped tomato-based salsa with a mild flavor. Like platanos maduros, patacones are also a common appetizer. In other countries, patacones are sometimes known as tostones.
Gallo Pinto, which literally means “spotted rooster,” is the country’s most famous dish. It consists of rice and black beans with onion, bell pepper, cilantro and Salsa Lizano (the ubiquitous national sauce), all fried together to make a delicious breakfast treat.
This complete and hearty lunch meal is a common offering in big restaurants and small mom-and-pop places, called sodas. It is always available in a vegetarian version, whether or not this is specified on the menu. You simply ask for huevo frito, huevo revuelto, or queso (fried egg, scrambled egg or cheese) instead of the standard chicken, meat or fish, and the rest will all be the same.
Arroz con Vegetales
This is a fried up mix of rice and vegetables with local seasoning, and is a great quick meal for vegetarians.
Okay, so pizza might not be truly Costa Rican, but the Italian influence in coastal areas has turned thin-crust pizza into an art form, and you can order it topped with all the veggies you can imagine, like mushrooms, bell pepper, eggplant, zucchini, onion, olives and more.
The owner of this website, Chifrijo Jones, would like me to point out that while his namesake food, chifrijo isn’t vegetarian, his other favorite Tico food is.
Yuca frita, or fried yuca is the root of the cassava tree, which is first boiled to soften it, cut into french fries, and then fried with salt. They are like potato french fries but more dense and healthier.
Though not strictly vegetarian, fish in Costa Rica is often included in this section of the menu. Options are many, and most are fresh-caught from the ocean, and include sea bass, red snapper, tuna, marlin, and many more.
If you do eat fish, make sure you try them in the many varieties available (Caribbean, coconut milk, mango sauce… the possibilities are endless), and you won’t find it any fresher than here!
Natilla, which is a sour-cream like condiment, is used as a great addition to almost anything. Fried plantains, tortillas, gallo pinto, you name it, it all tastes better with a little Natilla on top! And it’s not quite like the sour cream you’ll find in the US. It’s a little less thick, more creamy and with an addictive taste that will leave you hooked.
These have to be sampled, like the delicious Tres Leches (vanilla cake soaked in three types of milk), arroz con leche (rice pudding), flan, or cheesecake with tropical fruit sauce, there is always an amazingly tasty option on the menu to finish off your meal.
Two other vegetarian dishes to look for include:
- Puré de papa, which are mashed potatoes
- Tortilla con queso, which is a fried corn tortilla with a deliciously salty, semi-melted cheese on top.
You may want to study a little basic Spanish pronunciation before you attempt to order in Spanish, or be ready to point to the item to be sure you are being understood. It’s hard to say some of the sounds, like the “ll”, the “rr” or just the “r” (which to many anglo ears sounds like an English “d”), and Ticos are so nice they may not want to correct you, preferring to seem to understand than to embarrass you by asking you to repeat yourself!
Tropical Fruits… Food Envy!
The variety of fruit available in Costa Rica is mind-blowing, and was one of the things that I first fell in love with when I arrived. My introduction to tropical fruit came about through a weekly visit to the central farmer’s market with my host family, where I got to experience the classic Latin street market atmosphere, and try some fruits I had never seen before in my life!
The following are some of my all-time favorites, and I hope you get to try them all!
This tops the list for me. It still makes my mouth water when I remember any of our many trips to the mango plantation nearby, where the owners will allow you to go in and pick mangoes for your own consumption for free, as long as you are not selling them. That’s how abundant mangos are here. In season (February – April-ish), you will see them lining the roads under the mango trees, you’ll see the horses that roam free at the beach reaching up to grab them off the tree and eat them, and you will be able to buy them anywhere and everywhere. When not in season, you can still buy green mango, a sour option, Ticos chop up and eat with lemon and salt.
Manzana de Agua
It grows on a tree that has the most beautiful bright pink flowers, and it is addictive. Red on the outside, a watery white on the inside, once you find a tree you won’t be able to stop eating them!
This is the lychee fruit, a hard, hairy red outer shell, and a sweet, pulpy white inside with a texture like rhubarb. Sold along all the highways in kilo-size bags, these are great for road trips and snacks any time of day. Be aware that there are two distinct fruits that Ticos call mamón. Just plain mamón, or mamón Tico is a different food.
This delicious hard, purple fruit is also white on the inside, and shaped like segments of a tangerine but also looking like rhubarb. The taste is one of the most delicious I have ever come across!
You’ll find this mostly in the southern part of Costa Rica and only at certain times of the year.
Don’t pass it up if you see it!
This is not to everyone’s taste but some people love it. It is a large fruit that looks like a potato on the outside with a bright orange inside that looks like a papaya. It has a sweet taste and a starchy texture.
There are so many more delicious tropical fruits. Including:
- Pitahaya (dragon fruit)
- capulin (a little red berry)
- granadilla (looks like frog’s eggs!)
- carambola (star fruit)
- piña (pineapple)
- guanábana (soursop)
The list seems almost endless, and many of these don’t even have names in English as they rarely make it to the Anglophone world.
Needless to say, fruit salad is available almost everywhere, and a trip to the market to find the most unusual fruits is worth going out of your way for, wherever you are in the country!
Where to go?
Here some of my personal recommendations, after years of vegetarian eating. I love to share my recommendations, not just for the food, but the atmosphere of each place.
Wherever you go, strike up a conversation with the locals and restaurant staff. You’ll find Ticos who are interested in helping you out or just chatting for a moment. You’ll see a side of the culture that Costa Rica isn’t typically known for, yet is a fascinating part of the national identity.
You’ll discover how many Ticos are animal lovers. There is a huge political movement around animal rights and legal protections and many people are active in the fight against the meat industry and for the ethical treatment of animals.
Here are some of my favorites:
This vegan restaurant started beachfront in Sámara beach and now has locations in the trendy San Pedro/Escalante neighbourhood of San José, as well as Nosara on the Nicoya Peninsula. It has a laid-back atmosphere and 100% vegan menu.
Don’t miss their Coco Bacon Luvburger. It’s the most original and tasty veggie burger that I’ve found!
Tapioca Brazilian Food
You can find this restaurant on Tamarindo Beach. I love Brazilian food, and what could be better than a vegetarian version of everything delicious from the Brazilian culinary scene? They also sell products in the Tamarindo farmers market.
This Vietnamese-tinged restaurant is in the center of San José. It has low prices, great atmosphere, an art gallery, a bookstore, and a progressive-minded staff and owners. In addition to the thoughtful vegetarian and vegan options, you’ll also find great conversations and contacts that will lead you to discover the hidden side of San José’s cultural scene.
The food is amazing, too.
Park Café Antiques and Restaurant
This restaurant is tucked away on a side street with no sign, in the Sabana Norte neighborhood of San José. You have to reserve a table in advance.
The café is inside of a beautiful old house filled with antiques, and a small number of tables in and around the interior garden. I’ve eaten some of the best food that I have ever had in my life at this place.
It’s the pinnacle of creative fusion cuisine. It’s pricey but worth it.
This simple and humble restaurant is located in downtown Heredia, near Alfred Gonzales Flores Park.
The staff is nice and the food is delicious. Try the falafel.
You won’t find any more affordable vegetarian meal.
This bakery is located in the Mercedes Norte neighborhood of Heredia. It’s the best bakery in Costa Rica, in my opinion. They use organic ingredients and serve a delightful pizza. The staff is friendly and efficient and it’s always a pleasure to stop by.
In addition to these places that I’ve mentioned above, there are others including, Arbol de Seda, El buho, Tin Jo, and Silvestre.
Whatever your tastes, you will find it easy to stay vegetarian in Costa Rica, and you will never want for variety in the food options available to you.
Enjoy your trip and dig in!