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Culinary Travels in Costa Rica: Part 2

One of Costa Rica's many beach-side sodas, shaded from the hot coastal sun by an umbrella of tall trees.

Yesterday I talked a little bit about Costa Rica's plato tipical, casado - and more specifically, rice and beans. Now, when you're producing rice and beans in such quantities as to make it the central aspect of a plate, you're bound to have some leftovers. Like cold pizza or breakfast burritos, Costa Ricans adapt these heaps of leftovers into gallo pinto: a saute of black beans and rice along with cilantro, onion, and pepper. It basically becomes a flavorful sort of fried rice, turned black or light brown by the natural sauce of the beans. Gallo pinto is served primarily for desayuno (breakfast), but I did find it later in the day at a few places.

Gallo pinto shares the plate with scrambled eggs and a fresh link of housemade chorizo. The little sausage burst with juices when I cut into it.

Whether it's breakfast, lunch or dinner, every restaurant or soda you walk in to is going to have two bottles of salsa on the table. The first is Lizano salsa, a sauce so ubiquitous you have to wonder if there's any alternate uses for it other than consumption. Aside from tasting like a pretty damn interesting (in a good way) mixture of sweet and sour, tabasco, and curry, my guess is the yellow-and-brown-flecked sauce is also used to lubricate car parts, degrease stove tops, and sterilize wounds. Actually, it's quite good on a makeshift breakfast taco constituted by gallo pinto, sour cream, and eggs wrapped inside a corn tortilla. I even poured a bit in corvina ceviche, turning the pearly tiger's milk into an attractive beige. I heard the somewhat dubious claim that Lizano salsa is Costa Rica's most requested export. I couldn't substantiate that, but you can purchase bottles of the stuff from online retailers at a slight cost hike.

The other salsa likely to grace a Costa Rican table is simply a Louisiana-style hot sauce made with tabasco peppers. Unlike Lizano, there's no real standard here, and many sodas you find will even make their own. I tried a wide number of hot sauces -- some super fiery and perhaps inflected with a hotter variety of chili such as scotch bonnet, some thick and syrupy like a colloid, some thin and runny like name brand Tabasco.

My favorite, though, was a pretty spicy, thick sauce homemade by the proprietor of this beach-side soda outside of Manuel Antonio. It landed somewhere in between Lizano and a hot sauce, but it was so much better than both: tons of garlic, cilantro, and other dried spices; a distinctive West Indies-style curry flavor; a thick base reminiscent of wet-rub jerk sauce, probably the result of pureed onion and scallions. It was amazing stuff; reminded me quite a bit of another stellar, homemade hot sauce I picked up years ago in Carmel, California.

This place was perhaps my favorite soda I encountered on the trip. God bless that grillin' woman and her amazing sauce.

The gold-toothed senora that ran the soda -- busy manning an outsided grill holding a wide array of chicken, pork ribs, and odd cuts of beef steak -- was reluctant to part with a bottle. But a with a little persuasion, she sold me a 20oz ketchup container filled with the stuff. I've been eating it with my eggs in the morning ever since.

Sometimes, good things come in mislabeled packages.

Tomorrow: Native fruit and a little more about sodas.

-- John Linn

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John Linn

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