Small family run restaurants in Costa Rica are called "sodas". As common as a McDonalds in America, these little restaurants offer the majority of food options when dining out. Typically, they will be very small places, with maybe 5 tables, sometimes attached or next to the owners home.
Dining out in Costa Rica is not at all like in the States. You will not have an hour wait or be given a pager for when your table is ready. Depending on what time of day you arrive, you may be the only patrons in the place or there might be a table or two of other diners. There is usually no menu. This can be frightening to first timers, so let me explain.
The "casado" is usually the only thing available at a soda. A casado, which means "married man" is a typical home cooked meal that a married man would eat with his family. It usually contains a choice of meat - carne (beef), pescado (fish) or pollo (chicken) and the meats are usually slow cooked in a delicious sauce. Along side the meat is usually frijoles and arroz (rice and beans) and a raw salad with a light dressing, and fried platanos (fried plantains). The meal is usually served with a fresh blended fruit juice, called a refresco, mixed with your choice of leche (milk) or water.
A casado typically runs about 2,000 colones which is about $4. The soda ambiance is very homey and it's a lot like having a home cooked meal from grandma, there's a lot of love in these dishes! Even though the meal is basically the same, the meals at various soda's all taste different, due to each family using their own traditional passed down recipes. They are muy delicioso!
Costa Ricans differ from Americans when it comes to food. They are not obsessed with labels like "diet", "low carb" and "fat free". Their portions are smaller and although the meals are not all low carb or low fat, they are very balanced nutritionally. Rice, beans, fruits and vegetables are the main component of most of the meals cooked at home. Costa Rica has a bounty of local exotic fruits, many that you can pick and eat right from the trees...for free. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day and most families in Costa Rica eat very little meat and dairy products. Costa Ricans also tend to have a very active lifestyle, hard physical work and the love of being outdoors keeps everyone moving, so obesity is low here. Most American expats report losing 10 lbs effortlessly within the first few months of living here. The Pura Vida diet?
There are many other food options available throughout Costa Rica, depending on what area you live in. Larger towns, like nearby Tamarindo, offer Mexican, Sushi, Italian, and even American favorites like BBQ. The bigger cities, like Liberia and San Jose, do have some fast food places, like McDonalds, although I have yet to eat at one since living here. I will take a casado over fast food, anyday.
My favorite part about eating in Costa Rica is that meal time here is sacred. Meals are slow cooked and really enjoyed, a time for celebration, conversation and precious time spent with friends and loved ones. Meals here can last hours and hours. When dining out in a soda or any restaurant in Costa Rica...a check will never be brought to your table after the plates are cleared away. You will never be rushed out of a restaurant so the table can be "turned over". You will be given as much time as you'd like to linger after a meal and the bill will only be brought to you after saying the magic words
"La cuenta, por favor" (the check please)...
Comida, just another wonderful part of la pura vida!