When navigating Costa Rica, landmarks are your main guide. Though street and house numbers definitely exist, the country has never fully developed a nationwide address system. Instead, you find places according to their proximity to other places: houses that belonged to famous historical figures, government buildings, statues, restaurants, and even trees are all possible reference points. If it’s a well-known spot, it’s bound to be used in an address. And the Mercado Central is the best-known of them all.
Established in 1880 and located in the heart of downtown San José, the Mercado Central is the city’s main market and spans more than an entire block of the Avenida Central. It’s a winding labyrinth of alleys and narrow corridors overcrowded with herbal remedies, flowers, local handicrafts, leather goods, spices and, of course, food.
“People here like to think of it as Costa Rica’s first mall,” says Roberto Campos, the administrator of the Mercado Central. But to describe it as a mall would be underselling its cultural importance. The Mercado’s role in Costa Rican society is vast and nebulous; this is where home remedies, staple recipes, local crafts, and traditions have lived on for more than a hundred years. The building was formally declared a cultural patrimony (a designated place of cultural importance) in 1995.
One of the most enduring parts of the market’s charm are the sodas — small restaurant stalls and cafeterias — many of which have been operating with the same menus for more than a century. These casual eateries are where you can find some of the best traditional Costa Rican cooking from all over the country. But without much in the way of signage, finding the best sodas takes a little work: Ask other customers or vendors and follow the crowds.
In fact, it is said there are two things that will happen to anyone visiting the Mercado, regardless of whether you’re a regular or a first-time customer: you will get lost, and you’ll get distracted. The way the Mercado is organized is the result of organic growth over time rather than careful planning, which might explain why you’ll find a soda selling empanadas next to a jewelry shop, and a flower shop plunked in front of a spice stall. Some of the sodas are easy to spot and others a bit hidden, so it’s best to ask around if you’re looking for something specific. Better yet, explore.
At the time of writing, the COVID-19 regulations issued by the Costa Rican Ministry of Health still require all bars and cantinas to remain closed, including those at the Mercado Central. But the food stalls and other businesses are open as usual, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. Some stalls accept cards and dollars, but Costa Rican colones are best. Here, then, is what to seek out for the ultimate taste of the Mercado Central.
The best-known breakfast dish — or possibly any dish — in Costa Rica is the gallo pinto, a magical concoction of rice and beans mixed together until the bean broth is completely absorbed by the rice. A typical gallo pinto breakfast is served with fried plantains, corn tortillas, slices of fresh cheese or a dollop of sour cream, and a protein of some sort: maybe bacon, sausage, a couple of fried eggs, fried cheese, or a steak.
At the Mercado Central, almost every soda offers its own take on the classic. Soda Tapia, a famous diner founded in 1893, serves a gallo pinto with plenty of olores (the Costa Rican version of the sofrito, with onion, cilantro, and sweet bell peppers) and optional sides including fried eggs, fried cheese, and slices of buttered bread.
Soda Tala serves another version of the gallo pinto known as the Talapinto: a thin egg omelet with chives at the base, a hefty portion of pinto, and a couple of slices of fried salchichón (sausage) on top. Natalia Cervantes (known as “Tala”) created the Talapinto at the behest of her customers, and it’s become so popular she’s trademarked the term.
Another popular breakfast dish here is the tortilla con queso or tortilla aliñada. Soda San Martín, founded in 1910, has two versions of this dish: the regular tortilla, which mixes fresh cheese into the white corn masa, and the tortilla rellena, a decadent riff stuffed with copious amounts of aged cheese and served with sour cream.
Gallos and Other Small Bites
A gallo, as defined by Costa Rican food historian Marjorie Ross, is something that can be wrapped up in a corn tortilla. That means just about anything can be a gallo, and virtually everything tastes better as one. One gallo is meant to be an appetizer; a couple make for a satisfying lunch, and you’ll find gallos at virtually every soda in the Mercado. Just pick your favorite filling.
At Soda San Bosco, which is right next to Soda San José, you can have a gallo de chile relleno (fried beef-stuffed peppers served over a couple of corn tortillas) or a gallo de barbudos (green beans, battered and fried). There’s even a gallo de canelón, which is a fried cannelloni filled with minced beef.
Gallos are also the perfect way to enjoy a good picadillo. The mixture of finely minced beef, vegetables, and spices is a requisite at any Costa Rican meal. Try the potato and chorizo version from Soda Flor del Carmen. The earthiness of the achiote, a red-hued spice commonly used throughout Central and South America, accentuates the heat of the chorizo.
And then, of course, there’s the almighty empanada, that stuffed-and-fried pocket of white corn masa that’s a ubiquitous street snack throughout Costa Rica, and much of Latin America. Recipes vary by region, and many are represented at the Mercado. The empanadas from Soda Puntarenas are considered some of the best in San José, perfectly spiced and crispy. The empanadas at Soda San Martín are known for their crunchy, herbed masa that goes great with cheese. The ones from Soda Flor del Carmen feature inventive fillings, like the pizza-flavored empanada and potato picadillo.
Lunch and Bigger Plates
Virtually every soda at the Mercado Central has its own twist on the Costa Rican casado, a combo plate of rice, beans, a protein of any kind (usually grilled or breaded chicken, pork chop, steak and onion, or fish) and salad. The formula is basic, but how each soda interprets it is what’s fascinating.
At Soda San José, the casado includes an option of chicken in tomato sauce or breaded fish, served alongside starchy sides including parboiled potatoes and spaghetti. The owner, doña Tere, always asks if you want an additional side of salad or tortillas. Soda Cristal’s casado, on the other hand, includes either breaded chicken or fish with accompaniments like a riff on Russian beet salad, spaghetti, tortilla chips, and picadillo, and a bowl of beef broth called sustancia.
Soda San Martín, which also offers casados, is known for another traditional Costa Rican dish — the olla de carne, a beef-and-vegetable stew boiled for several hours until the meat is soft and flaky. This version comes in three separate bowls: one with clear beef broth, another with meat and vegetables, and a third with plain white rice. You could try each bowl separately, but the idea is to gradually add the rice and vegetables to the broth, mixing them all together.
The Mercado Central is a point of confluence for many regional cuisines, and few are featured as prominently as the marisquerías, or fish shops, from the Pacific Coast. Seek out the arroz con camarones (stir-fried rice with shrimp) at the Marisquería Costa Rica, fish soup at Marisquería San José, or fried sea bass at Soda Cristal.
Coffee and Dessert
In a country known for incredible brews, a quick stop at Cafetería Central for a cup of coffee is mandatory before leaving the market. Ask for a café chorreado, a pour-over method specific to Costa Rica that uses a wooden stand fitted with a cotton sack in lieu of a paper filter.
For something sweet, La Sorbetera de Lolo Mora offers helado de sorbetera, or artisanal ice cream. “Sorbetera” is the Costa Rican Spanish word for the hand-crank ice cream maker. There’s only one flavor here, but it’s the only one you need: a delicately spiced vanilla ice cream with hints of nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove. It’s been made the same way by the Mora family for more than a century.
But if variety is your thing, try the specialty scoops at Soda Tapia in flavors like cas (a relative of the guava) and soursop, topped with chopped tropical fruits and heaps of cherry gelatin.
Sofía González is a Costa Rican food, culture, and technology writer living in San José.