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Sodas: Traditional Costa Rican restaurants

Sodas: Traditional Costa Rican restaurants

The heart and soul of Costa Rica beats behind the lunch counters and tables of the Costa Rican soda. It's simmering in the salsas, steaming in the rice cooker and sizzling on the grill. It's behind the strength of every construction worker and the constitution of every police officer and it all starts with the rice and beans, or as its known in Costa Rica, gallo pinto.

These days, you're almost as likely to come upon a Burger King, McDonalds, or Subway as you are a soda in Costa Rica. But it's the sodas that preserve the traditions of generations of Costa Ricans and remains a mainstay of the diet. Sodas are the quaint family-owned restaurants that dot the streets of every village, town and city all over Costa Rica. Much like an American-diner, these restaurants are the quintessential Costa Rican restaurant, endemic to the culture; monuments that stand the test of time.

Not only are they affordable, but their food is delicious. Each dish has weathered decades of approval to make it onto the standard menu of a typical soda, and it is a standard menu, you'll find that every soda serves a nearly identical menu with certain regional influences.  Here are a few traditional menu items you are likely to encounter on your next visit to a soda:

  • Casado, $4 to $7, is the staple of the Costa Rican diet. It's made with a choice of meat like a pork chop, steak, chicken breast or tiliapia filet cooked to order and served with rice, beans, fried plantains or fried cassava and a salad. The sides tend to vary depending on where you're at in the country. In Heredia you'll often see casados served with spaghetti while in the Caribbean you'll get patacones (fried green plantains).
  • Olla de Carne, $4 to $5, is a traditional dish that's a favorite for the Sunday special known as the plato del dia. It's a beef stew made with root vegetables like cassava, potato, carrots and yams plus corn, cabbage and other locally-influenced ingredients. Olla de carne is usually served with a side of rice and a squeeze of lemandarine.
  • Empanadas, $.75, are the holy grail of Costa Rican fast food.  These thick, fried, folded corn tortillas are stuffed with all manner of goodies including chicken, beef, pork, cheese and beans.  You'll find them sold on street corners, under heat lamps at the bus station and, of course, at your local soda.
  • Arroz con Pollo, $4 to $6, is simply fried rice with chicken, peppers, onions and whatever else the kitchen decides to add to toss in. Simple, hearty and often served with a side of french fries. Why the fries? It's the Costa Rican way.
  • Gallo Pinto, $2 to $4, is what most of the country is eating for breakfast.  It's basically a mixture of rice, beans, onions and peppers with a little splash of the Costa Rica's traditional condiment, Lizano sauce. You'll find it on the menu served with scrambled eggs and a slice of queso fresco, fresh, white cheese.