All About Restaurants & Sodas in Costa Rica


I know, fascinating topic, right? Well, for the vacationer to Costa Rica, it will actually enhance the overall experience to know the difference and can explain some rather bewildering events that can occur in one’s vacation to this second-world country (is there such a thing?)

There are 2 basic types of eating establishments in Costa Rica: restaurants and sodas. A restaurant is what you think it is Рa place to order  and be served the food of your choice from a menu.

A Soda differs slightly from this, and in your travels through Costa Rica it is helpful to know the difference. It is at this point dear reader that I’m going to put a link to the rest of this information about the difference between a restaurant and a Soda, primarily due to the fact that you may have simply come to this page looking for a directory of restaurants in the Dominical area.

Throughout Latin America there exist various versions of what in Costa Rica is known as a Soda. In Panama they are called “Kioskos” and the other countries have their own handles.

When I arrived in Costa Rica in 1999, Sodas were perhaps the most common of eating establishments, at least they were in my experience here in San Isidro and the Dominical area. It may have been different, even back then in and around San Jose. But here, if you were to go out to eat, it is likely you’d go to a Soda.

Now I think that things have changed and restaurants are the more common and likely to be visited by vacationers to the area. Your vacation will be enhanced by seeking out a Soda.

The Costa Rican Casado

Casado Costa Rica style. This is the fish filet al ajillo (with garlic).

A Soda serves what is known as “typico” or the typical Costa Rica cuisine. The basic plate is called a “casado” which literally translates to “marriage”, and so it is. There is a “marriage” of rice, beans, a salad (usually with a base of cabbage) and then a meat of your choice. The Soda you visit may do their own variations such as adding a fried mature plantain, some picadillo (small chopped vegetable, salad like thing, usually ayote or potato with herbs & spices. Sometimes mashed potatoes & maybe a fried egg.)

Here’s the scenario: In Costa Rica, you are a foreigner. I know, you may not be used to the term “foreigner” as applying to you. In your experience, it has likely always been applied to someone else. But, in International Travel, this is what you are. You enter an eating establishment. In your country of origin you are accustomed to a ryhthm of things – the way things are done in your home country.

There you sit at your table. First thing: you may notice that the chairs are not so comfortable. Here in Costa Rica the chair makers have not yet discovered the principle of “butt cheek scoops” and your chair is a straight-backed, flat platformed affair. Welcome to Costa Rica! Now, if you have entered a “restaurant”, this may not be the case. There may actually be butt-cheek-scoops, or there may be cushions. But if you are in a Soda, you’ll likely find yourself scootching your butt around during the meal. Not a deal breaker, just a point to take note of.

The server approaches you and welcomes you with a friendly Spanish greeting – and then looks at you in such a way as to indicate that it is your move. This is where the rhythm starts to differ from that to which you are likely accustomed. You expect that the server will provide you with menus and ask if you’d like something to drink. Not so in a Soda. All sodas, for the most part, have the same menu, and as such, don’t provide you with one. Granted, with the prevalence of tourism now, and with the amount of time that foreigners have been visiting Costa Rica, many Sodas have made some adjustments. Many now provide menus, and if

Typical shrimp plate in Costa Rican sodas.

Rice and Shrimp (arroz con camarones).

not, they may have a chalk board up somewhere that has the menu. But if you happen to find yourself in a true, Costa Rican Soda, this is what happens.

So, it being “your move”, you say “have you a menu?” (tiene menu?). “No, no tenemos menu. Tenemos pollo a la plancha, pollo en salsa, chuleta, filet, carne en salsa, arroz con camaron, arroz con pollo, bifstek”, to which you will now want to demonstrate that you are a seasoned traveler (with the help of having read this article you can pull this off.) You really don’t have any idea what the Spanish tirade means that he/she just blasted you with, but you know now what you want, and so you thoughtfully select from the above mentioned menu.

  • pollo a la plancha = grilled chicken
  • pollo en salsa = chicken in sauce, usually a red sauce
  • chuleta = pork chop
  • filet = usually a fish filet. You can order this “empanizado” (breaded), “al ajillo” (in butter and garlic), “a la plancha” (grilled)
  • carne en salsa = beef in a gravy-like sauce
  • arroz con camaron = rice with shrimp
  • arroz con pollo = rice with chicken
  • bifstek = a beaf steak of sorts. The standard “cuts” of meat in your homeland may not apply here so this is some cut of beef. (a word of caution – Costa Rica is gradually coming to understand how to butcher meats and prepare them so that they are tender, but not always. Due to my early years here I have essentially sworn off ever ordering a cut of beef. I simply did not possess the jaw-power necessary to consume it.)

This is the Soda experience. You will find the Soda prices to be appealing. If you are not a speaker of Spanish, I think that you’ll find the personnel’s willingness to try and communicate with you despite the limitations worth the price of admission – sore butt-cheeks – deviation from the comfortable¬† rhythm of sit, peruse the menu, order drinks, order menu selections etc…

Life Enriching Tip: you may have noticed that in Latin America there is considerably more eye contact made from people you don’t know than what you may be accustomed to in your homeland. My kids used to ask me “Dad, why do they stare?” When you enter an eating establishment, you may “connect” with someone, or you may even have a whole table of diners look up at you as you pass. Say this: “buen provecho”, pronounced as it is spelled. You are saying “good eating to you” or “happy dining” (honestly I’ve never figured out if there is a common English equivalent. It means essentially “good appetite”). This will add to the general good feeling between resident & visitor and will enrich your meal.

Enjoy your visit!

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