If you want to experience authentic Costa Rican food, there is no better way than ordering a casado from a roadside soda(café). The word casado literally means ‘married’, and in this case refers to an inexpensive lunch dish with a little bit of everything on the plate. The typical food a married man might come home to on his lunch break.
What exactly constitutes a casado? Well, in addition to a choice of a fillet of chicken, breaded fish or perhaps a pork chop, every casado is defined by that Costa Rican staple, rice and beans, but not gallo pinto style. The rice and beans are served separately; plain white rice and usually a dish of black beans in a rich sauce, perhaps grandma’s handed-down recipe. Maduros (fried plantains) will invariably feature as well, sliced into lengths, sweet and golden brown. A typical Costa Rican salad will garnish the dish- thinly sliced cabbage, tomato, lettuce, carrot and a wedge of the orange fleshed limon mandarina to flavor. You may even get some picadillo – a sort of mixed vegetable accompaniment often made from chayotes. Chayotes are the greenish-yellow heart shaped vegetables that taste of almost nothing, rather like marrows. Their watery composition probably makes them an excellent slimming food!
From the dusty streets of Puerto Viejo to the chilly mists of Santa Elena, I have sampled casados all over the country and there is one place I would go out of my way to return to. The Soda El Tanque lies about ten minutes outside of La Fortuna close to Arenal Airport ( landing strip in a sugar cane field would be a better description). It has, in my opinion, the tastiest and freshest casados to be found anywhere. Soda El Tanque is a humble rustic place, rancho style and nestled on a bend in the river. The nature-loving owners put out hummingbird feeders and fruit for other birds, which provides entertainment while you wait for your delicious casado. A fat resident iguana also gets in on the act and poses for photos.
Recently, I had the opportunity to return to El Tanque with overseas visitors. Having talked up this idyllic place, our mouths were watering and stomachs rumbling in anticipation. Round the bend, just before the bridge and there it was. The joke was on me. Closed on Mondays.
By Stewart Hird