I am not an expert, but based on several trips to Guanacaste since 2008, here is my comments and advice. Also, even in Canada and the USA, there is a huge variety of differences. because of that, here is some info so you can understand my biases:
- I come from a place that is a near desert (just North of Calgary Alberta Canada), we can leave a bag of chips open for a week and most times they are still crisp and crunchy and fresh.
- Fish have to walk over several mountain ranges to get to the place where they can throw themselves on my plate.
- We have the best beef in the world (probably tied with Argentina), grain and pasture fed, no corn.
- I have eaten food in about 17 countries in the world. I LIKE to eat ‘local’ food. I avoid ‘Canada/US food’ when I’m in another country.
- I like a very wide range of food. I have often said: “That is one of my 5000 favorite foods.”
- I like sweet foods (even ‘sickeningly sweet’), tart, spicy, fragrant, acidic, astringent, bitter-sweet, robust, savoury, seasoned, sharp, sour, sweet and sour … Well you get the idea … I like most food. Bitter … It depends, sometimes yes, sometimes no, I don’t like most coffee for this reason. I don’t like tannic acid flavour. (Think cheap quality wine.)
- 30 years ago, counting fish as 3 types of meat (white, pink, dark), I had eaten 75 different kinds of meat. That day it became 76 when I ate goat. I like meat. Recently my family learned how to cook Muscovy correctly – it is one of my 3 favorites now.
- I’m an omnivore. I like to eat vegan and vegetarian food too – but that is because I like almost every food that God gave me to eat.
- There are only 2 foods I refuse to eat (anything animal that is alive at the time of consumption, and small rodents like mice and rats) and there are probably less than 5 foods I’ve had that I don’t particularly like to eat.'
- I like flavor. As a result I love spicy foods – not because they are hot and spicy and burn my tongue, but because most spicy foods have very strong flavor.
- But I also like rice and beans and bread and potatoes and salad.
So with that perspective … Here are my highly biased comments on food in Costa Rica:
Don’t trust Google maps to find all, or even most of the restaurants in Costa Rica. From my research, they have less than 33% shown. And it isn’t just minor ones that are missing, Pollolandia, a large chain, doesn’t show up in Samara even though the restaurant has been there a long time. And if you like Canadian/US KFC but find it too greasy … Try the Pollolandia pollo, see if you like it even better, it is much less greasy but admittedly a little less flavor.
Costa Rica has two oceans, so order fish (Pescado)
\ Guanacaste pollo is ok, but not as great as I’m used to.
\ Costa Rico “beef” is mostly Sabo (not cow but close) and it depends on whether you normally suffer through corn fed beef or whether you normally eat Alberta or Argentinian or a few other grain/grass fed cows whether the grass fed Sabo is better than the beef you are used to.
So let’s talk meat in more detail. I come from Alberta Canada. We have the privilege of, along with Argentina, having the best beef in the world. Our beef is grain/pasture fed – no corn in their diet. This makes our beef tender, juicy and hard to cook badly unless you really overcook it. Around the world I have seen in high end restaurants that they advertise that they have Alberta or Argentinian beef – not often I know, but when they get our beef, they brag rightly that they are serving the best in the world. (I once had a waiter in a high end Quebec restaurant brag that ‘today’ they were serving Alberta beef – he went into great detail about how and why Alberta beef was the best in the world. I responded “I know, I come from Alberta, even McDonalds serve’s Alberta beef there.” … He got me the special of the day from the day before, it was wonderful.) I have also once, in the US, eaten good beef – it was in a rural home and they grain/pasture raised the cow themselves, then let it hang 21 days before butchering it.
So, I find the Costa Rica beef to be a slightly unpleasant experience to eat (though I admit – it has nice flavour, not like horrible Corn fed beef found in the rest of Canada and the USA – this is because Sabo are typically ‘grass’ fed so Costa Rica does get the best Sabo you can get, and maybe I’m lucky – maybe some or a lot of Sabo is corn fed.)
To be fair … I met a traveller and his wife from Philly who found the Sabo/Carne to be ‘tender’ but of course they have spent their life eating corn fed beef.
Updated: I did eat at an Argentinian restaurant in Escuaza, next door to San Jose, in 2019- they had grain fed real Angus cow, not sabo, and it tasted wonderful to my taste.
So … if you are used to good quality green/grass fed beef, I recommend you stay away from the Sabo and stick to the Pescado (a bit about Pollo in a minute.) But if you have suffered your whole life eating Corn feed beef 🙂 I guess you should try the Sabo – and if you like it – someday travel to Alberta Canada or Argentina and try beef the way God designed it.
At my house, in Canada, we grow our own chicken and we buy the factory raised chicken from our local stores and in general in Canada, I find Chicken to be a ‘tender’ juicy meat. I tried Chicken in Guanacaste several times, and I found it to be unappetizing. Hard, perhaps over cooked – or perhaps their very pretty chickens just don’t have as good of meat. Not sure which. So .. If you want, try the chicken (pollo) a couple times.
Update 2019: I had chicken at a local chain in Samara “Pollolandia” and in several other unrelated chicken places in San Jose, and it was excellent every time despite being a ‘fast food chain’. My above comments were all from ‘local’ restaurants in Guanacaste, but only about 8 different places – so I guess I’ll have to try some more.
Now let’s turn our attention to Fish. For Pescado, remember that I come from Alberta. Fish that wants me to eat it has to climb over several mountain ranges before it can throw itself, tired and badly beaten, onto my plate…. I had a friend from Boston who went to the supermarket to buy fish to cook for us … his comment: ALL the fish in your supermarkets is rotten. He told me the ‘smell’ was horrible – I told him, oh, we call that the normal ‘fishy’ smell.
I found in Costa Rica there were 2 grades of pescado. The ‘fresh’ – catch of the day, was fantastic, the Frozen – well, I guess the way we really get at lot of our better fish in Alberta is it is frozen – so it tasted like Alberta caught fish.
In general though, I dislike fish in Alberta, but I often order pescado in Costa Rica. I understand, if you come from an Ocean state, you might find it to just be ‘average’ and you might want to try the Sabo or even the Chicken. Indeed … since I am not a seafood expert I really have no idea how good the Costa Rica Pescado is compared to other places that have fresh seafood, I just know it is a lot better than what I get normally at home in Alberta.
Those of you that are used to having fresh fish, will know that catch of the day is – well the catch that the fishermen caught ‘today’.
But where I come from ‘catch of the day’ means – whatever they are going to pull out of the freezer to throw into the microwave or deep fat fryer to feed us if we order it.
Anyway, it was a new experience for me to have the waiter come to the table and say: Today we have a Red Snapper that is about 1 kilogram (2.2 lbs) and one about 600 grams and …. He offered to show me if I was unsure.
I ordered one of them (and I guessed the correct size for my hunger level) and I noticed that when he went to the next table, he left that one off his list of choices, and when all the fish of the day had been ordered, he stopped offering anything like that to new patrons.
I do understand that for some of you reading this, this is ‘normal’ and not a surprise, but for those of you that come from an inland state or province, hopefully this is a helpful hint that will result in you having a delightful experience.
If it isn’t ‘catch of the day’: You can ask your waiter whether the fish is fresh or frozen, if frozen, I’ve decided I can eat that at home so I don’t bother. But in general, it seems the frozen fish is a bit better than what I get at home – probably because they have a lot more experience cooking fish than we do, but I really don’t know for sure.
Many meals lunch time or later come with a salad. Well, what Costa Rica calls a salad! Basically chopped lettuce with seasonal trimmings like tomato. No dressing or a vinaigrette. Personally, I like to take the lime that comes with it and sprinkle lime juice on it as my dressing. Tasty and I think healthy – just not what I’m used to.
Salsa. This is not what most people in Canada and the US call Salsa. Costa Rica salsa is essentially what I would make by starting with salsa, then running through a blender to make it the consistency of a thick salad dressing with some small bits left. I really like it – but I wouldn’t call it salsa.
You will find Heinz Ketchup bottles on the table of many restaurants, and I’m sure the bottles are genuine Heinz Ketchup bottles, but don’t expect the contents to be genuine Heinz Ketchup. I will be something similar though, and certainly better than the alternative if you like ketchup on your chips! (And don’t blame Heinz for producing an inferior product – just remember – anyone can fill a Heinz bottle with something else.) Update: I didn’t see a single Ketchup bottle in the San Jose area in 2019 – even when they served fries. So apparently this is a tourist thing in the Guanacaste province.
Fruit – in season. If Guanabana is ‘in season’ (if you ask for what fruits are available for juice) then try it if you never have. Personally it is my favorite fruit drink.
Now, most of the comments above are for Guanacaste, where the Prados del Sol units are.
Let me give a bit more about one other area of the country.
San Jose vrs Escuaza vr Guanacaste
I don’t know the whole country, that would take years. But I have some general insights comparing these three places.
Throughout the province of San Jose (which includes the city of San Jose), you can get ‘typical’ Costa Rica food easily and everywhere. For me it is delicious. But you will find it harder to find in Guanacaste – because Guanacaste is primarily a tourist driven area – and most tourists from the US want USA food, not Costa Rica food. You can find authentic food (Rosi’s in Garza), but it will be harder to find and more expensive. But you will have no problem finding it in San Jose, even at McDonalds. The McPinto – really.
So if you prefer food that is cooked closer to ‘like we have back home’ … avoid the San Jose area and stick to the touristy areas, but if you want to try ‘local’ food, ask around and, if you are staying in our units, check out Rosi’s at least once. You can also buy the supplies easily and make your own like the locals do.
Escuaza is an interesting enclave. This city, directly West of the city of San Jose, has attracted many Canadians and US Citizens. In 2019 I counted 40 recognizable Canadian/USA chain restaurants before I stopped counting. McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Taste of India, TGIF, Tony Roma’s come to mind. I didn’t eat in many of them, well actually, I didn’t eat in any of them. But from what I saw, they are very similar to the US/Canada versions of them, looking at menus, some, like McDonalds, will have a few local dishes thrown in as well as all the normal ones you expect, others will have nothing that is local – all the items on the menu are the same as in Canada/USA.