Costa Rica: San Jose’s Mercado Central

By Jane Sigal

Published on May 17, 2012

Most visitors to Costa Rica zip through the capital city, San Jose, on their way to beaches or jungles. But I like to linger there, if only to spend a morning at Mercado Central, a block-long covered market built in 1880 that contains a warren of produce stalls, sodas (small, family-run eateries), bric-a-brac counters, and cafes.

After ogling the spiky red mamon (rambutan) and giant green guanabana (soursop) at the fruit stands, I slake my thirst with a refresco at Soda Los Angeles (506/2223-2606), on the market's southwest side, where freshly squeezed juices such as cas (sour guava), and mora (raspberries) are mixed with water or milk and sugar.

If I'm hungry, I go for olla de carne (the local pot-au-feu, made with beef short ribs) or a casado (a heaping plate of rice, beans, fried plantains, and salad, with chicken, meat, or seafood), dishes that emerge from the upstairs kitchen at Soda Cristal (506/2223-5002), in the market's center.

For dessert, there's La Sorbetera de Lolo Mora (506/2256-5000), near the main entrance. This 111-year-old ice cream parlor makes one flavor only: a heady mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and vanilla with a granita-like texture.

I top off the roving meal on the market's northeast end at Cafeteria y Cafe Central (506/2222-1769). The local arabica variety here—brewed using mild peaberry beans—is prepared as a cafe chorreado; hot water is poured into a coffee-filled sock that's set over an aluminum pot called a chorreador, resulting in a fresh, bright cup. Sometimes I stop by Souvenirs Midey (506/2233-4660), at the southeast end, to pick up one of these cute pots to take to someone back home.

For a potent end to my visit, there's El Gran Vicio (506/2223-5976). At this 130-year-old cantina, shots of Costa Rican sugarcane brandy are spiked with red sirope de kola (kola nut syrup)—a bittersweet San Jose tradition.

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