The Hungry Traveler: Costa Rica
Costa Rica is known for its lush vegetation, beaches, exotic animals and rain forests. Located close to the equator, it’s tropical climate has plenty to offer for the adventurous traveler and the laid-back beach goer. Both the Pacific and Caribbean coastlines have spectacular beaches with great places to scuba, snorkel relax or take in the wildlife. In between the beaches, you will find mountains, volcanoes and pristine national parks all around the country. Costa Rican cuisine is fairly basic; black beans and rice are usually a part of any meal. You can easily stick to a vegetarian diet by adding salads, which are often a decent size and a typical fresh white cheese. The country also prides itself on grass fed cattle and fresh fish.
Like other Central and South American countries, Costa Rica is predominantly Catholic. However, there are pockets of Jewish communities throughout the country totally about 3,000, and some towns draw a sizable amount of Israelis tourists. Much of the country’s Jewish population are descendants of Jews that fled Europe in the 1920’s and ’30’s. While Jews make up a very small percentage of Costa Rica’s population, the current vice president, Luis Liberman and legislator Luis Fishman are both Jewish.
The very close-knit Jewish community of both native Costa Ricans and expats is mainly focused around San Jose, where you’ll find the greatest variety of kosher eats. The city is home to a Jewish day school, community center and country club. However, if you are on the Pacific coast in Jaco or Santa Teresa, you will find a decently sized community of Israelis — many who are drawn to the area’s surfing. On Friday nights, you can find surfers bringing in Shabbat on the beach.
Best Market: Mercado Central, San Jose
The Central Market is the best place in San Jose to find freshly served food that the Ticos (Costa Ricans) eat. You can weave in and out of stands of fresh fruit and vegetables to flowers, textiles and food. Follow the aromatic smells and you will soon find freshly served “cheese tortillas” (ground corn meal tortillas mixed with cheese, served like a pancake on banana leaves), fresh fruit smoothies and strong coffee roasted behind the counter. Beans and rice are two main staples in Costa Rica. Try a “casado” — a plate of rice, beans, fried plantains, salad and choice of meat or fish. You can opt for a vegetarian casado, which will usually come with more vegetables. There is no shortage of dessert here. Try some helado (ice cream), or pastries from one of the many bakeries.
Mon-Sat 6am-8pm. Avenidas Central and Calles 6/8, San Jose
Best Kosher Meat Meal: Kosher Center
Located in close proximity to the Centro Israelita (Jewish community center), you can dine in the small restaurant or order meals to go. Try the caramelized chicken with almonds or brisket in sweet and sour sauce. Choose from multiple different Israeli salads and sides that include Turkish rice with raisins and almonds, rosemary potatoes and vegetarian chop suey. Make room for a dessert of traditional Costa Rican kosher sweets. Try the sweet cake that looks like a coffee cake, but with very smooth consistency, it’s only lightly sweetened. Alternatively, you can opt for their freshly baked challah, rugelach and cookies.
Open Mon-Thur. 8-6, Fri. 8-4, Sun. 9-4. (506) 2232-2991
Best Kosher Café: Centro Israelita (Jewish Community Center)
Located inside the new Jewish Community Center in Pavas (a suburb of San Jose), is a small Spanish-language museum of Costa Rican Jewry, a large sanctuary and a kosher café. The dairy café has a large selection of pastries, drinks and a small assortment of lunch options. Try the personal pizza with a choice of multiple toppings or the falafel sandwich. If you are in the mood for small nosh, try the café’s coffee and pastry. Because of security, make sure to contact firstname.lastname@example.org at least seven days prior to visiting the community center. They require scanned passport copies before you can enter the center.
Best Vegetarian Meal: Restaurante Vishnu
With a full vegetarian menu to choose from, Vishnu looks like a fast food restaurant at first glance, but with an illustrative menus explain the food choices and the fresh fruit and vegetables that you can see from the counter, it is anything but fast food fare. Try the veggie hamburgers served on a whole grain roll with French fries and a typical Costa Rican fruit smoothie. The meatless burgers are loaded with vegetables and fresh smoothies are made to order. Try the large sized pizza with soy ham and various veggies if you are craving a healthy pizza. If you want to shy away from gluten, try the Special of the Day, which includes brown rice, mixed vegetables, soup, salad and a fruit drink for under $7.
Avenida 1, Calles 1/3 (Vishnu has eight locations around in San Jose and one in Heredia). (506) 250-6063. Open Mon-Sat. 9 -7:30, Sun. 7-9:30
Best Kosher Market: Super Kosher
If you are looking to create your own kosher meals while you are on the road, Super Kosher offers a large selection of certified kosher items. While it is not a supermarket, the small market has enough to stock up on kosher essentials. You will easily be able to construct multiple meals from here including gluten free and vegan options.
A large local chain called Auto Mercado offers a good selection of kosher items in the Pavas area of San Jose as well. At Auto Mercado you will find local coffee, a deli, bakery and fresh fruit and vegetables.
Super Kosher, El Fogoncito, Pavas, San Jose. (506) 222-2174. Mon-Thur. 9-6, Fri. 9-4, Sun. 9-6
Best Israeli Cuisine: Sisso Taste of Jerusalem
Sisso serves up some of the best hummus plates and Israeli cuisine in Costa Rica. Israeli owned, the short drive outside of San Jose is well worth it. While not kosher, Sisso has some of the freshest hummus and slow cooked shwarma. Try the schnitzel — marinated and breaded — or the shish beef, a spiced beef steak grilled with sweet pepper and onion. Nosh on pita and the hummus sabij which comes with sautéed eggplant, parsley and a boiled egg. For dessert, try the baklava or chocolate cake, which is served with ice cream. Sisso also has a large variety of coffee including their signature Turkish coffee with cardamom, espressos and varieties from Costa Rica.