Gluten Free Travel: Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
After taking the bus across the border from Panama, a place that I didn’t find as knowledgeable about a gluten free diet, Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica, was the complete opposite. While in theory it’s pretty easy to eat gluten free almost anywhere, eating gluten free along the Caribbean coast is a breeze. Fresh fish with rice and beans and some fried plantains, yes please! Before arriving in Puerto Viejo, I took a little look into the gluten free options and immediately I was impressed with what I saw. This feeling only grew after arriving. While it’s a small hippie surfer town, it has a bustling tourism scene which may be why the concept of gluten free has hit it hard. Not only did places have a lot of gluten free options, but they were advertising it on signs and as a reason to visit the restaurant – something as a celiac we love to see! This being said, after a week spent in Puerto Viejo, here are my recommendations!
Just a quick warning, this post is a long one – so, buckle up and get excited because the options for gluten free eating are (almost) endless!
Bread & Chocolate
I’d say one of the best ways to eat while traveling is by taking locals advise. With that said, Bread & Chocolate is a favorite breakfast and lunch spot among the locals which is why I needed to check it out. While I did see an online google review noting that they had gluten free bread available for their sandwiches, I’m sad to report they did not have some when I was there. Honestly, it’s probably for the best because instead I had an avocado “toast” which has “toast” made of plantains. Topped with pickled red onions and fresh cherry tomatoes, this dish was the definition of simplicity at its finest, but filled with flavor. As always, where there is an abundance of fresh tropical fruit, a fresh fruit smoothie is a must, and something that shouldn’t be missed here.
The one thing that I regret about my visit to Bread & Chocolate is not trying a dessert. I simply wasn’t hungry for one and wish that I had time to go back. The pastry chef at Bread & Chocolate actually owns a cacao farm and makes chocolate from bean to bar. (You can find their chocolate for sale at Choco!) While this alone impressed me, they had two cakes chocolate cakes available that were gluten free, as well as, various chocolates and a gluten free cookie. If I could go back in time to try some, I would!
While in Puerto Viejo, we attended Spanish courses. Our teacher, a local Costa Rican, told us her two favorite places for Caribbean food were Tamara and Lidia’s Place (below), so as you know, we had to check both out. Tamara was an awesome restaurant located on the main street in Puerto Viejo that has become a staple in the town. Fill with afro-Caribbean flare, the menu features extremely fresh local cuisine that bursting with flavor. I chose to have the grilled pescado (fish) with salsa Caribbean (coconut milk, curry, and tomato), which came with salad, rice & beans, and fried plantains. This place was absolutely delicious and almost everything on the menu is naturally or can be modified to be gluten free.
What I love about places like Tamara’s is that the menu simply lists “pescado”. It’s the kind of restaurant where they are going to the local fishes, grabbing whatever is the best option and cooking it up that evening. Isn’t this what we are all looking for in a restaurant. While I’ve tried my fair share of rice & beans, this was by far the best. It was so fresh and steaming on my plate. It was packed with flavor and even though it was delicious on its own, mixing in the extra salsa Caribbean left over from the fish was just wow! While many may walk past this place as it isn’t “fancy”, the food is fantastic, chill reggae tunes are playing in the background, and it’s a great place to eat and feel like a local in a town that’s become a bit more touristy. If you go, be sure to order a fresh tamarind juice!
Restaurante Lidia’s Place
As mentioned above, Lidia’s Place was the second recommendation for local Caribbean food given to us by our Spanish teacher. Slightly off the beaten path (and by that, just not on the main drag), this place is colorful, clean, and extremely relaxed. While I had a pretty similar dish that I had to Tamara (grilled fish with curry, rice & beans, salad, and plantains, if I had to compare the two the one at Tamara reigned supreme. Maybe I should have ordered it with the Caribbean salsa instead of the curry sauce, but I just found the dish at Tamara to be more flavorful. With this said, my husband had the chicken with Caribbean salsa and was loving it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with preferring one dish over another, but this place is still worth the visit if you have time. It’s much more relaxed the Tamara, you can feel the love that was put into the food, and the staff were extremely friendly and chatty with us (especially though our broken Spanish)!
Como En Mi Casa – Art Café
A vegan & vegetarian spot that advertises its gluten free options right out front… I had to try it – and I’m glad that I did! I stopped by Como En Mi Casa for lunch and had a gluten free wrap with the #1 option, filled with roasted vegetables and humus. While it wasn’t exactly the type of wrap that you pick up and eat with your hands, with a fork and knife the wrap added the perfect texture to hold in the fresh veggies inside. Made from mostly chickpeas, the gluten free wraps were made in house and had great texture and flavor. While the vegetables inside were good, on their own they lacked the bit of pizazz I was ultimately looking for. A simple fix for that though is ordering a big of their spicy salsa on the side. Add a little spoonful of that into the wrap and its suddenly bursting with flavor!
In addition to the gluten free wraps, the menu also featured gluten free pancakes for breakfast and an abundance of tasty looking salads, breakfast dishes, and smoothies! Our waitress recommended a banana, coconut milk, and cacao smoothie – and while this would not have been my first choice – oh, baby I’m glad we took the recommendation. It was probably the best thing we had at Como en mi Casa. Something else to note: I both read and heard from other guests at the restaurant that the magic muffin, which was both gluten free and vegan, was to die for, unfortunately this was another time when I opted out of having dessert. I wanted to make sure to list it here though, because if you have a bit of a sweet tooth, give this a try!
La Ventana de Ely or Dolly’s Kitchen
While the bigger attraction here are the Jamaican pies (which my husband went back for 3 times), these unfortunately are not gluten free. Coming out of a little cart placed in front of their house, this is a family run business which started with Dolly and is now run by two sisters. Born and raised in Costa Rica, these lovely ladies were born to Jamaican parents and have been based in Puerto Viejo for quite a while. On certain nights of the week, the gates next to the little cart open up and reveals a few tables. The menu was hand written on a board and the only two options available when we ate there were chicken with rice and beans or soup.
This is the kind of place where you can just tell the food is cooked from the soul. Naturally gluten free, this chicken was beyond flavorful and falling off the bone. The sauce was so finger lickin’ good that you’ll be glad you have the rice to soak up any extras. In addition, I loved having some sweet plantains served with the dish, an exciting chance to the crispy ones which are usually served. Mixed with the savory dish, the sweet plantains add a certain complexity to this simple home-cooked meal. Alongside the dish, there were a few options for homemade juices. I opted for the hibiscus ginger, which I learned is traditionally drank on Christmas. Getting to speak to the sisters and learn a bit about their history really made me feel like I was sitting inside their kitchen. If you notice their gates open, be sure to stop by for a meal! If they aren’t, ask at the cart when they will be open for a meal. It doesn’t get more authentic and cozier than this!
A great quick stop for a smoothie or smoothie bowl, Berry Matcha has been open for just over a year and features a simple menu. The owner has an infectious smile and is always up for a chat. With additional seating in the back, this is the perfect place to grab a quick and healthy breakfast to either sit and enjoy or take to go. While she has a few different options of bowls, you are able to switch up the toppings for anything that you like, as long as she as it, of course. I had an acai bowl with uchuva (golden gooseberries), strawberries, cacao nibs, and peanut butter. While I didn’t inquire if the granola was gluten free, everything else is made from fresh and natural ingredients which are all gluten free. Be sure to check out this little spot!
Cho.co isn’t exactly a restaurant but it’s a place I couldn’t recommend more. Cho.co started as a place to sell locally made chocolate bars that at first couldn’t be purchased anywhere but the farms they were produced at. Today, it is not only a chocolate shop, but a place to learn about the local chocolate producers, a place to try and sample the chocolates, and even sip on a cup of coffee, chocolate tea, or wine & beer. What I love about this place is that next to each set of chocolates you will find some information about the cacao farm where it is produced.
What I love most about this shop is that you can do either a chocolate tasting or a chocolate pairing. The pairing can be done with either wine, beer, or rum, but we decided to try the chocolate tasting plate and order a glass of wine on the side. With the tasting plate, you not only get the chance to try a bar from each of the nine producers represented in the shop, but you also get a detailed explanation of what makes each chocolate unique. Not only did I learn a lot about these local producers, but the chocolate was absolutely delicious – and bonus points – naturally gluten free! With the chance to try chocolate that is unique and locally made paired with the chance to chat and learn from extremely friendly and knowledgeable staff, in my opinion, this is a great stop for all travelers, not only those who are gluten free!
If you’re looking to switch things up and have something a bit different than the usual Caribbean cuisine, why not go for some authentic Italian at Pizzeria Dalili. By authentic I mean true Italians whipping up some pizza and pasta in Costa Rica! Due to being a few minutes’ walk away from most of the main restaurants, this place was never crowded when I passed by. I will say, however, that the first time I stumbled upon it I noticed that they served gluten free pizza. It was only after it was recommended by other locals that I decided I must head there for dinner one night. The most important thing to know about this place is that you need to request the gluten free dough in advance (at least 2 hours, but ideally longer). You can do this by either stopping by or sending a WhatsApp message, but it is so they have enough time to make the gluten free dough.
While I have had better gluten free pizza, it absolutely hit the spot. It was extremely fresh, flavorful, and had great texture. It may seem annoying or inconvenient that you need to order the GF dough in advance, but it’s actually something that I like about the place. You know if that they are making the dough specifically because it was ordered that you’re going to be getting the good stuff. Some things take time – especially a fresh, homemade pizza dough that has to rise. Don’t be deterred if this place is a bit quiet, it’s a great meal with a staff that puts a lot of care and effort into what they are doing!
Sol de Caribe
Being that we were staying slightly out of town, just above Playa Cocoles, we had our first dinner near our accommodation at Sol de Caribe. Being right across the road from my favorite beach in Puerto Viejo, this is the perfect stop for lunch during your beach visit or dinner after a day lounging in the sun. Sol de Caribe has all of the right beach vibes but also great food. The majority of the menu is gluten free, except for a few fried / breaded items or some that include soy sauce. While they do have some main dishes, what I love about this menu is the ability to create your own dish. They have the option to either create your own plate, curry, or Asian dish – choosing a protein, sauce, and sides. I went with creating my own curry and had shrimp, with the Caribbean (mango?) curry, and rice noodles. It was also filled with a ton of veggies!
While the dish was pretty spicy, it was unique and different than most curries I have had before. While I personally found the spice level pretty high, it was offset by a fruity flavor. I would absolutely recommend making the short trip over to Playa Cocoles and stopping by Sol de Caribe for a meal, or two!
SAGE @ Playa 506
Sage @ Playa 506 is part of a hostel but the best vibe for a beach restaurant that we visited. We even went back two times! The second time, however, was just for a fresh watermelon juice and to do a bit of work because they have fantastic Wi-Fi. When we did eat lunch there though, we shared (what we always get), grilled fish with Caribbean salsa, plantains, and rice & beans and plantain pizzas. Writing this article, it’s becoming clear what I lean towards when ordering… Either way though, this menu was marked with what was gluten free, which is always appreciated, and almost the entire menu is or could be made gluten free. I was really intrigued by the plantain pizzas, which was essentially two small personal pizzas made from a base of plantain topped with sauce and cheese. I would have never thought of plantains to be the perfect base for a gluten free pizza crust, but wow did it work well! The dish was simple and a bit plain, but I love having the chance to think about ingredients in different ways and would recommend giving them a try!
Salsa Brava Restaurante Caribeno
Personally, I’m a huge fan of a place with a story and Salsa Brava is just that. Check out the back of the menu to read all about how this establishment came to be. Whether you’re looking for some food, a bit of a dance, or just a drink, Salsa Brava has a great location, right on the beach. As they bottle their own sodas, I opted for their in-house made hibiscus soda with rum for an after dinner drink for something a bit different!
Puerto Pirata Tiki Bar
An easy and busy spot to stop for a happy hour drink on the beach right in town! Be sure to try the tamarind whisky sour while at Puerto Pirata!
Supermarket – Super Cocles
Wow! Honestly, that’s about all that I have to say about this summer market. Super Cocles is located just a touch outside of town (closer to where my Airbnb is), but it really had everything gluten free that I could have hopped and dreamed of. I must note, however, that it is pretty expensive. Any night that we decided to cook dinner, our bill for groceries was pretty equitant to what we would have spent out at a restaurant. As you can tell there are great places to eat gluten free around town, but if you’re staying in Puerto Viejo for a bit and want a home cooked meal, you won’t go hungry! This place has everything gluten free – pastas, bread, cookie and cake mix, snacks, cookies, Asian sauces, corn tortillas… the list goes on!
While there are other supermarkets in town that had a but of GF, I was blown away by Super Cocles. In addition, if you’re looking for cheaper produce and delicious naturally gluten free food – shop like a local and visit the local fruit and vegetable vendors located all around town!
If you head to Manzanillo stop by Gelato!
This was hands down some of the best ice cream I’ve had for a while. The selection of flavors of course includes the usual suspects like chocolate, which looked great, but I had to opt for local tropical flavors. I got a scoop of coconut and a scoop of tropical, which had passionfruit, papaya, and pineapple. It was so incredibly fresh to the point where the coconut even had bits of shredded coconut. Located right outside of Manzanillo national park, this is a stop you must make either before or after visiting the park. It’s also located right next to the beach – nothing better than sitting on the beach and enjoying some ice cream!
Please note: the cones here are not gluten free, but the ice cream is. The ice cream itself is so unbelievable tasty, I think it’s even better in a cup than a cone. In addition, I personally do not follow a vegan diet, but for those that do – the majority of the flavors were also vegan!
A few extra recommendations!
La Casita de Monli Bar Restaurante
If I had one more night in Puerto Viejo this absolutely would have been my dinner spot. Recommended by a couple we befriended in town, La Casita de Monli is a restaurant featuring Caribbean food with a French flare. It has two Michellin star mentions and from what I heard they deserve it! Oh well, guess I’m just going to have to come back to try it!
La Chilanga Antojitos Mexicanos
Also recommended by some friends in town, this place amazing has absolutely delicious tacos made on corn tortillas.
La Esquina Boruca
I must admit, I know absolutely nothing about this place, but it is located on the main street, has a very local and fast vibe and a sign out front that mentioned gluten free pizza. I easily would have strolled in to try some but had already eaten when I noticed the sign. If you’re looking for a quick meal that’s also gluten free, this could be an easy option!
De Gustibus Bakery
I didn’t personally try De Gustibus Bakery, but reviews on google maps indicate that it has great gluten free options. As always with a bakery, however, be wary of cross contamination if you are sensitive!
Frutas del Caribe
Another smoothie and smoothie bowl joint to check out that only uses fresh fruits!