First, I just want to say, I hope that you and all yours are safe during these crazy times we are living in. When all this mess of the COVID-19 finally passes and you come to Costa Rica you have to try Gallo Pinto. If you don’t try it you have not experienced the true culture of Costa Rica. What is Gallo pinto you ask? Well, it is one of the most cooked and served dishes in Costa Rica. But what is it? Why the title Spotted Rooster? Let me put your mind at ease, you won’t be eating a rooster, although rooster is pretty tasty when roasted on an open fire. Gallo Pinto is one of the national dishes of Costa Rica. There is a small feud between Costa Rica and Nicaragua about who invented Gallo Pinto, but that’s another story.
Let me tell you about my first Gallo Pinto experience. The first time I came to Costa Rica in 1999, I ended up staying in a beachfront hotel in Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste. I arrived late and the restaurant was already closed, as the guard informed me upon check-in. So I just crashed in the room for the night. Upon waking early in the morning to the sound of monkeys in the trees, I rolled over, looked at my watch and crap, it was only 5:30 in the morning. Already fully awake, I wanted to go out and see if I could find those darn monkeys that woke me up. Since I did not get a chance to eat dinner the night before I figured on my way out of the hotel I would see what time the restaurant opens. I was famished, but the restaurant was not open yet, the same guard that checked me in the night before – what only seemed like a few hours earlier – looked fresh and alive. I wondered “did he stay up all night or did he sleep as well?” Anyway, even with my lousy Spanish I was able to find out the restaurant opens at 7:00 am.
I know you are wondering: “What about the Gallo Pinto?” Well keep reading, I am getting to it.
With the hotel being beachfront ( and not being able to find those monkeys) I decided to take a walk on the soft sand of the beach. After walking the beach twice (it is only about a mile long) I decided the water looked just too inviting and decided to jump in for a swim. The water was great – warm, no big waves, perfect for swimming and playing. But I was still hungry and I was wondering is the restaurant open yet, “it has to be”, I thought. The sun is rising fast it’s got to be close to 7:00 AM.
Leaving the clear waters of Hermosa beach I walked back to the hotel to fill my screaming belly with a hearty breakfast. Luis the server greeted me with a big smile and a welcoming “Buenos Dias”. He invited me to take any table that works for me and would be right back with a menu. I was thinking “just let me go in the kitchen and I will whip something up myself”.
Luis came back within minutes with hot coffee and warm milk, a tall glass of orange juice and the menu. He said I will give you a minute to look over the menu, but have you ever tried a traditional Costa Rican breakfast? I did not hesitate for one second. Being a chef at the time, and not really knowing the foods of Costa Rica as it was my first time here, I jumped in. “Sure, I will take your suggestion Luis”, I said, “but I would like to keep the menus just in case”. We both laughed.
Enjoying the freshly brewed coffee with the warmed milk – I assumed was local – I looked at the menu and the first thing I saw was Traditional Costa Rican breakfast. Below was written Gallo Pinto, scrambled eggs, queso, tortillas, natilla, (whatever that is) and fried plantains. Now it had me thinking “what is Gallo Pinto and this thing called natilla?” I knew the rest of the food items but not Gallo pinto and natilla. As I wrote earlier, my Spanish was not that good but I did work with a lot of guys from Cuba, Dominican Republic and Mexico back in New York, so I knew a few words. Gallo, huh, guess I will be eating some kind of chicken?? Not 100% sure, but what the heck, I was now extremely hungry.
Luis returned with my breakfast, placed the plate in front of me and said “Provecho”. I was thinking “this looks pretty good, but where is the Gallo, or at least what I thought would be chicken”? The eggs looked perfect, softly scrambled and fluffy. The plantains cut on a slant and fried to perfection; the tortillas looked to have been a pre-bought variety but they were tossed on the grill to add marks and heated up as well. The cheese, I assume was local, so I would for sure try it . And, there was a small cup of a white substance, I thought it may be mayonnaise until I tasted it ( natilla is sour cream). Then there was this mound of a dark looking rice mixture, with black beans, green and red peppers, onions and what looked like chopped cilantro. Is this Gallo Pinto? It must be!
The first thing I did was grab my fork and dive straight into the rice mixture. I have to tell you, I never tasted anything like it before. No lie, it was delicious. The rice was soft but a little crispy as well, the beans cooked to perfection still holding their shape and not hard. The addition of the peppers onion and cilantro really married well with the rest, but there was a taste I could not quite put my finger on. I ate everything, the plate was so clean it looked like it had been licked by a dog.
Luis returned and asked “Amigo, how was your breakfast”. Great I said, but I have a question? Can I order another side of just the rice and bean dish? With a big smile, he said: “Oh you liked the Gallo Pinto”! I responded with a resounding YES it was great but there is a flavor in it I can not tell what it is. It has almost a little curry flavor to it. Luis smiled that big smile again and said I’ll be right back. Upon his return he has a small plate with more Gallo Pinto and a very small cup with this brownish/greenish stuff it in. I looked at it, then looked at him, and took one more look at the small cup and said “what is this”?
At this point, you could tell Luis was very proud to share the secret ingredient. He said “try it first before I tell you, dip your fork in it”, and of course I did! What a wonderful surprise, a burst of flavor across my lips and on my tongue and there was a soft, somewhat curry flavor. I did not hesitate one second, I took the small cup and proceeded to pour what was in it on the Gallo Pinto, just a few drops at first, of course, I did not want to ruin it. As I looked up Luis was gone but I could see him close to the kitchen with a bottle in his hand. As he returned, he showed me the magic juice. Salsa Lizano, the Costa Rican condiment of choice.
Needless to say, that first time experience of Gallo Pinto was great. After Breakfast I got in the car to find the closest grocery store to stock up on bottles to bring back to the US.
I enjoy it now almost every day, minus the natilla (sour cream). Living here in Costa Rica for over 12 years now, I could almost (again I emphasize ALMOST) be called a “Tico”. When you come to Costa Rica, and you will – if not you are really missing out – be sure your first breakfast is a “tipico” breakfast. I am sure there will be Gallo Pinto on the plate. Enjoy!
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