Culinary Travels in Costa Rica: Part 2

Categories: Travel Hog
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One of Costa Rica's many beach-side sodas, shaded from the hot coastal sun by an umbrella of tall trees.

Yesterday I talked a little bit about Costa Rica's plato tipical, casado - and more specifically, rice and beans. Now, when you're producing rice and beans in such quantities as to make it the central aspect of a plate, you're bound to have some leftovers. Like cold pizza or breakfast burritos, Costa Ricans adapt these heaps of leftovers into gallo pinto: a saute of black beans and rice along with cilantro, onion, and pepper. It basically becomes a flavorful sort of fried rice, turned black or light brown by the natural sauce of the beans. Gallo pinto is served primarily for desayuno (breakfast), but I did find it later in the day at a few places.

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Gallo pinto shares the plate with scrambled eggs and a fresh link of housemade chorizo. The little sausage burst with juices when I cut into it.

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Whether it's breakfast, lunch or dinner, every restaurant or soda you walk in to is going to have two bottles of salsa on the table. The first is Lizano salsa, a sauce so ubiquitous you have to wonder if there's any alternate uses for it other than consumption. Aside from tasting like a pretty damn interesting (in a good way) mixture of sweet and sour, tabasco, and curry, my guess is the yellow-and-brown-flecked sauce is also used to lubricate car parts, degrease stove tops, and sterilize wounds. Actually, it's quite good on a makeshift breakfast taco constituted by gallo pinto, sour cream, and eggs wrapped inside a corn tortilla. I even poured a bit in corvina ceviche, turning the pearly tiger's milk into an attractive beige. I heard the somewhat dubious claim that Lizano salsa is Costa Rica's most requested export. I couldn't substantiate that, but you can purchase bottles of the stuff from online retailers at a slight cost hike.

The other salsa likely to grace a Costa Rican table is simply a Louisiana-style hot sauce made with tabasco peppers. Unlike Lizano, there's no real standard here, and many sodas you find will even make their own. I tried a wide number of hot sauces -- some super fiery and perhaps inflected with a hotter variety of chili such as scotch bonnet, some thick and syrupy like a colloid, some thin and runny like name brand Tabasco.

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My favorite, though, was a pretty spicy, thick sauce homemade by the proprietor of this beach-side soda outside of Manuel Antonio. It landed somewhere in between Lizano and a hot sauce, but it was so much better than both: tons of garlic, cilantro, and other dried spices; a distinctive West Indies-style curry flavor; a thick base reminiscent of wet-rub jerk sauce, probably the result of pureed onion and scallions. It was amazing stuff; reminded me quite a bit of another stellar, homemade hot sauce I picked up years ago in Carmel, California.

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This place was perhaps my favorite soda I encountered on the trip. God bless that grillin' woman and her amazing sauce.

The gold-toothed senora that ran the soda -- busy manning an outsided grill holding a wide array of chicken, pork ribs, and odd cuts of beef steak -- was reluctant to part with a bottle. But a with a little persuasion, she sold me a 20oz ketchup container filled with the stuff. I've been eating it with my eggs in the morning ever since.

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Sometimes, good things come in mislabeled packages.

Tomorrow: Native fruit and a little more about sodas.

-- John Linn


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