Chifrijo (Costa Rican Taco Bowls)

By Ann Fulton

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In Costa Rica, these adaptable bowls are often enjoyed with tortilla chips and an Imperial beer and offer a delicious way to reinvent leftovers.


¡Pura Vida! Directly translated, these two words mean “pure life,” but in Costa Rica, the phrase has become a national motto used to say hello, goodbye, and pretty much everything in between. Essentially, it means “live life to the fullest.”

As my family and I enjoyed our final hours of a recent trip to Costa Rica, I inquired about everyone’s most memorable moment.  Seeing their 83-year-old grandfather zipline far above the treetops and their 74-year-old grandmother soar on a Tarzan swing made a lasting impression on my kids (and everyone else, no doubt!).

Ready to zipline and rappel!

Tied with the extreme sports, however, was the indelible mark made on us by the people of Costa Rica. Each person we met was extraordinarily welcoming, positive, and so willing to share the history and customs of his or her beautiful country.

The after photo — everyone is still smiling!

Early in our trip, one local told me two reasons for the country’s ranking as the happiest place on earth: no snow and no desert.  Situated near the equator, bordered by two oceans, and intersected by mountains, rivers, rainforests, and volcanoes, the lush landscape is home to extensive flora and fauna.

We were really THIS close to an adorable sloth!

Significantly, the geographical distinctions within this small Central American country create a wide variety of microclimates, which allow for agriculture that extends far beyond the expected assortment of tropical fruits.  Along with tourism, agriculture sustains the Costa Rican economy.

Arabica coffee bush

Cattle, cacao and sugar cane farms line the countryside and make way for coffee plantations at the higher elevations.  Free-range chickens yield eggs with yolks as golden as the enormous pineapples that grow nearby, and plantains are as prolific as bananas.

As with many countries, however, generally low wages make inexpensive rice and beans a foundation of nearly every meal.  Speckled with fresh herbs and salsas, we enjoyed delicious iterations of these staples throughout our stay, and the rich history that so often accompanied the humble fare was every bit as flavorful.

I know a little Spanish, so I occasionally inquired about the names of various dishes, which sometimes suggested deeper meaning.  Casado, for example, means “married” but is also a traditional plate consisting of rice, beans, salad, yucca, and a small piece of meat.

One animated taxi driver explained that for many generations this was the customary lunch of married men who rose early to spend long days picking coffee beans.  In the absence of modern-day Tupperware and lunch boxes, the food was wrapped in a plantain leaf and pocketed for the midday meal.  Single men without a wife to prepare the lunch went without, hence the name.

Gallo pinto is perhaps the most quintessential of Costa Rican fare and claims a colorful name of its own.  Translated as “painted rooster,” this dish is a breakfast staple but is frequently eaten throughout the day thanks to its simplicity and affordability.

Essentially a simple plate of rice and beans, gallo pinto has as many local and regional interpretations as families who enjoy it.  When the rice and beans are mixed, the resulting dish’s speckled appearance resembles the feathers of a common rooster.

Additionally, Costa Ricans use the word gallo instead of taco, and the mixture is frequently stuffed into a tortilla and eaten by hand.  Hints of color provided by options such as cilantro and bell pepper reinforce the reference to paint.

The following recipe is quintessential Costa Rican bar food and exemplifies yet another way Costa Ricans regularly enjoy rice and beans. Invented years ago by bar owner Miguel Cordero as a heartier option to tapas for his beer-drinking patrons, Chifrijo is basically a bowl of rice, beans, pico de gallo, fried pork, and guacamole, often served with a side of tortilla chips. The name is a hybrid of the Spanish words for the fried pork and beans and was trademarked by Cordero.

In Costa Rica, these adaptable bowls are often enjoyed with tortilla chips and an Imperial beer and offer a delicious way to reinvent leftovers.

Chifrijo may not always be on the menu—or may be called something else thanks to recent enforcement of the trademark—but you can always order it. Because it relies on leftover rice and beans, it’s extra easy to prepare. For a quicker option to “chicharrones,” the fried pork traditionally used in these bowls, I have substituted bacon or leftover pork carnitas. Optionally, chicken or steak could be used. That said, the beans provide enough protein and staying power to make a meatless version an excellent vegetarian option.

Costa Ricans usually add a squeeze of fresh lime and a drizzle of Salsa Lizano. The latter is popular in Costa Rica and can best be described as a mild but flavorful alternative to hot sauce. I haven’t been able to locate it here, but don’t worry. When topped with salsa and other fixings of choice, these filling bowls are still quite tasty.

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Fun Facts from Costa Rica:

  • Sloths are commonly seen in the rainforest of Costa Rica and, contrary to popular belief, they are not the laziest animals in the world. That honor goes to the koala bear, which sleeps 22-23 hours a day.
  • Costa Rica is known for its coffee, and there are two dominant types, arabica and robusta. Arabica beans are more expensive but better quality because they thrive in higher, cooler elevations where the beans take nearly twice as long to mature on the branch and develop their flavor.
  • It is the length of time that coffee is in contact with water, not the type of roast, which determines caffeine content.
  • Costa Rica has no army. It was constitutionally abolished in 1949.
  • The average life expectancy of 77 years in Costa Rica is one of the highest in the world.
  • Costa Rica is the top exporter of pineapples in the world, and they are thought to be the biggest and the sweetest.

Our new friends Oscar and Nano took us for a fun (and wet!) ride. 

Chifrijo (Costa Rican Taco Bowls)
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 2 servings
In Costa Rica, these adaptable bowls are often enjoyed with tortilla chips and an Imperial beer and provide a delicious way to reinvent leftovers.
  • 1/4 pound sliced center cut or slab bacon, cubed or diced (may substitute pork belly or any leftover cooked meat, chopped into small cubes plus 2 tablespoons olive oil)
  • 1/2 a medium onion, diced
  • 1/2 a red bell pepper (or color of choice)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 2 cups cooked white rice (leftover works well)
  • 1 cup cooked kidney beans (may use rinsed and drained canned beans)
  • Salt and pepper
  • For serving: chopped avocado or guacamole, your favorite salsa, chopped fresh cilantro, lime wedges for squeezing, hot sauce, and/or tortilla chips

In a large skillet, cook the bacon over medium heat until crisp. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels and reserve the drippings. (Alternatively, you may drain the grease and coat the skillet with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. If using the cooked meat option, add the olive oil to the pan.)

Sauté the onion until softened and beginning to turn golden, about 4-5 minutes. Add the bell pepper and sauté to soften, 1-2 minutes more, and then add the cumin, cooking for 1 minute or until fragrant.

Add the rice and beans to the skillet, tossing to incorporate the onion mixture and to warm through, sprinkling with salt and pepper to taste. (I use about 1/2 teaspoon, plus a pinch or two, of kosher salt and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper.) Transfer the rice mixture to bowls for serving.

Evenly distribute the reserved bacon over top, and then add toppings of choice to taste. Serve with lime wedges for squeezing and a side of tortilla chips, using the chips to scoop the Chifrijo, if desired, or crumbling a few over the top of the bowls for a hint of crunch.

  • Chifrijo is often enjoyed with a drizzle of Salsa Lizano, which is best described as a very mild yet flavorful hot sauce. (While visiting I learned that, generally speaking, Costa Ricans aren’t big fans of spicy food.) I like to sprinkle a few drops of hot sauce over the finished bowls, but it may certainly be omitted.
  • Cheese is not typical of these bowls, but feel free to add some if you enjoy it.
  • For ease, I use my favorite salsa in place of the traditional pico de gallo or salsa fresca. If inclined, feel free to make your own when good tomatoes are available.
  • Long grain white rice and kidney beans are traditional, but you may use brown rice and/or black beans if preferred.
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    1. Ann Post author

      Hi Jamie, You can make the bowls in about 30 minutes, or a little bit less if you have cooked rice on hand and chop the onion and pepper while the bacon or pork is cooking.

    1. Ann Post author

      Hi Vidal, I explain Chifrijo in detail in the accompanying writeup. I used the parenthetical taco bowl reference as a way for readers in the States and elsewhere to have some sort of comparison. Thank you for your insight. It is a delicious meal!

  1. Megan

    I lived in Costa Rica for two years and this was one of my favorite foods! Great reminder that I can make it at home–thanks for sharing!

  2. Bill Post author

    I saw this in the newspaper this morning and had everything to make it for dinner, including leftover rice. It was extremely satisfying and my kids enjoyed how they could choose their favorite toppings. This will be a regular meal in our house for sure!