Empanadas at the Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort, Costa Rica. (Photo: Laura Begley Bloom)
Ask anyone who loves Costa Rica for one complaint, and they will universally tell you — the food is boring. The problem is that too many hotels in the country cater to gringo tastebuds. So when I stayed at the Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort, Costa Rica last week, I was pleasantly surprised to taste mouthwatering traditional dishes, from empanadas to sopaipillas. My favorite meal was at the Andaz’s open-air Chao Pescao, which serves bite-sized bocas, the local word for tapas.
The experience made me want to delve deeper into the country’s food scene. So I asked the resort to introduce me to someone who could take me to the spots where Ticos (as Costa Ricans are called) eat. I think they were surprised that I wanted to go to the sodas, the down-and-dirty little restaurants where lunch — the main meal of the day — will cost you $6. But the best way to access a culture is through its food, so away I went with Erick Wiessel Soto, from Tropical Comfort Tours.
Destination: Liberia, also known as the White City, with a population around 60,000. Normally, most travelers just fly into its international airport then head off to resorts in the area. But they are missing a charming town with an interesting food scene.
One of the owners of Los Comales. (Photo: Laura Begley Bloom)
Arroz con mais and a glass of resbaladera at Los Comales. (Photo: Laura Begley Bloom)
Restaurante Los Comales
According to Soto, the whitewashed little Los Comales is the top soda in town for typical Costa Rican food. A cooperative of 21 local women joined together to open the restaurant, which serves classic dishes like arroz de mais — popular for reunions, graduations, and birthday parties. (Curiously, while it has “arroz” in the name, there’s no rice in the dish; just corn with chicken.) Wash it down with a glass of resbaladera, a sweet drink similar to Mexico’s horchata and made from rice and barley.
Calle Central between Avenidas 7 and 5; 506-2666-0105
There I am, trying the tamales at Soda El Viajero. (Courtesy: Laura Begley Bloom)
The tamales at Soda El Viajero. (Photo: Laura Begley Bloom)
Soda El Viajero
Hidden away in the town market is this hole-in-the-wall soda that serves some mean pork tamales. Try them with chilero hot sauce, served in plastic containers — if you dare. After you eat, take a stroll around the market, which is a crossroads of commerce (from toy shops to barbers) and cultures (Soto pointed out one of the area’s top real estate developers ordering meat from the butcher).
Liberia market; no phone
The interior of Café Liberia. (Photo: Laura Begley Bloom)
The local cakemaker at Café Liberia. (Photo: Laura Begley Bloom)
On Calle Real Antigua, the oldest street in town, Café Liberia is worth visiting for the building alone, a 160-year-old mansion with frescoed ceilings and a stable out back. But the food is pretty good, too: the tattooed French owner Sébastien Devenelle puts an international spin on regional dishes like ceviche (his version has mango and passionfruit). Save room for a slice of the 45 Spice Cake, made by a local gentleman who bakes at his house just down the road and drops off his creations every afternoon.
Calle Real Antigua; 506-2665-1660
Café Liberia owner Sébastien Devenelle, with Costa Rica’s motto tattooed on his arm. (Photo: Laura Begley Bloom)
Carniceria La Ermita
One of the main dishes in Costa Rica is the casado, which translates as “marriage,” and typically comes con carne (beef), con pollo (chicken), or con pescado (fish), along with rice, beans, veggies, and sweet plantains. Try it at Carniceria La Ermita, which is like a small museum, with historic artifacts and black-and-white photos of old Liberia hanging on the walls. Food here is served buffet style; if you don’t know Spanish, take our advice and avoid the lengua (tongue!).
La Ermita — like a mini history museum. (Photo: Laura Begley Bloom)
Bar La Selegna
From the poorest residents to the wealthiest, everyone gathers at La Selegna — angeles, or angel, spelled backward — and has the best bocas in town. Bargoers cram into the tiny space for the addictive chifrijo, made from chicharrón (fried pork skin), frijoles (beans), rice, and tomato.
Avenida 6; 506-2666-0029
Bar La Selegna, the place for bocas (snacks) in Liberia. (Photo: Laura Begley Bloom)
You might not think of coming to Costa Rica for pizza, but if you want to go where the locals go, this is one of the top spots. At Pizza Pronto, the perfectly blistered pies are baked in a wood oven outside the 19th century adobe mansion. What to order? The shrimp-covered Diabla — and it is pretty sinful, indeed.
Corner Avenida 4 and Calle 1; 506-2666-2098
Liberia’s Pizza Pronto, where pies are made in the outside oven. (Photo: Laura Begley Bloom)
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