Some recipes make a restaurant famous. Others become representative of a city or a region. Only a few have the ability to shift the axis of a country’s gastronomic culture, becoming not only ubiquitous across menus but galvanizing diners in the process. In Costa Rica, that dish is the caldosa, a national phenomenon launched by a child.
Caldosas (literally “brothy”) consist of a bag of Picaritas — a rectangular-shaped, barbecue-flavored commercial corn chip — heaped with scoops of local ceviche, shaken a little, and served with a spoon. Caldosas are the Costa Rican answer to Texas’ Frito Pie or Mexico’s Dorilocos, and they are absolutely everywhere.
Although the dish was allegedly invented outside Zaragoza, in the Northwest province of Palmares de Alajuela, caldosas can be found on the beaches of Puntarenas on the Pacific Coast, in the tourist villages of the Costa Rican Caribbean, and at almost every stall in San José’s Mercado Central. On the road that leads to Santa Teresa (one of the most visited destinations in the country), dozens of food stands blanket the sidewalks with plastic tables, chairs, and signs advertising “caldosas here.” The dish is equally at home sold from the trunk of a car and at the country’s finest dining establishments.
Where did caldosas come from?
The story starts in the mid-1990s, when an unknown schoolboy stepped into Fory Fay, a traditional bar and restaurant specializing in seafood and ceviche. The kid asked the owner if he could pour some caldo de ceviche (ceviche juice) into his Picaritas bag, lending the taste of ceviche without the price of a full order. “In the following days, he kept returning, then bringing his friends,” explains Juan Miguel Pacheco, who has been heading this family-run venue for over two decades.
The Pacheco family saw an immediate opportunity. The restaurant could repurpose the juice at the bottom of the ceviche, which it used to throw away at the end of the day. Juan adds, “The combination became famous, and we started calling it caldosa,” a reference to the caldo that went into the first bag. Today, the restaurant attracts locals and tourists alike. Pacheco says the business sells over 2,000 bags of Picaritas a week at the Palmares venue alone, and the snack has helped Fory Fay expand with cevicherias in Zaragoza and San Ramón nearby.
What makes ceviche and Picaritas chips so good together?
At Fory Fay, caldosas come in glasses with Picaritas mixed in, almost like cereal in a bowl of milk. The ceviche broth includes tiny scraps of white marlin, plus purple onion, cilantro, green chile, and pico de gallo. In Costa Rica, ceviche is usually a bit sweeter than in neighboring countries, so it’s common to add tomato sauce, ketchup, or even ginger ale to the recipe. Fory Fay serves mayonnaise and ketchup sachets alongside caldosas, allowing customers to doctor the mix as they please. For to-go orders, Pacheco continues to serve the recipe like the original, scooped into a bag of chips.
The sweet and acidic broth enhances the barbecue flavor of the chips. But it’s the texture that really sells the mixture. The broth softens some chips, while leaving others crunchy, creating a dynamic flurry in the mouth. But there is some technique to the perfect ratio of broth to chips. The chips soak up the liquid voraciously, so it’s best to add the caldo little by little to prevent them from becoming too soggy too quickly. Stir the mixture energetically to break the chips into smaller pieces, which will help maintain some crunch and make everything easier to scoop up with the small spoon usually supplied alongside. Some people prefer to break the chips by crushing the bag before opening it.
Why are caldosas everywhere in Costa Rica?
Many Ticos love fish and seafood dishes, including ceviche. But the dish is often too pricey for an everyday indulgence, even in a country with plentiful ingredients from an enormous coast. “Caldosas became an affordable answer,” says Miguel Barboza Retana, a local journalist and food writer. Caldo de ceviche, a byproduct that could otherwise go to waste, is a lot cheaper than the fish that makes up the bulk of ceviche proper. “That’s the main reason for their popularity throughout the country.”
The dish’s growth wasn’t entirely organic. After caldosas began popping up in the ’90s, Jack’s, the company that produces Picaritas, instantly recognized the potential and it began betting on the seafood channel. The company started hiring sales representatives to visit cevicherias (today, there are around 200 of them on the streets), creating merchandising materials for venue owners, and promoting caldosas throughout the country. Sales of Picaritas shot up by approximately 30 percent, and cevicherias now represent 22 percent of the company’s business.
That marketing push hasn’t slowed down. In a savvy strategy during the pandemic, when many restaurants closed their doors, the company launched caldosas.com to promote venues that continued to sell caldosas for delivery or takeaway. Today, there are over 500 registered businesses on the site, including cevicherías, restaurants, and bars organized by province.
With the growing success of caldosas, competing snack companies like Yummies and Frank’s have gotten in on the action. Yummies, for instance, is promoting Ranchitas (similar to Doritos, dusted either in cheese-jalapeño powder or lemon-pepper) as an excellent substitute for Picaritas. Yummies has also developed other recipes beyond ceviche, like one layering black beans, guacamole, chopped lettuce, and other ingredients with Ranchitas in a glass. Picaritas struck back by creating Chichalcaldosas, a recipe mixing chips with chicharron and pico de gallo.
Fine dining chefs are serving caldosas too
Even fine dining chefs have tried their hands at the trend. Santiago Fernández Benedetto created his own take at Silvestre, his modern restaurant in San José’s Barrio Amón neighborhood, which focuses on Costa Rican products and traditions. Benedetto first experimented with the caldosa using house-made corn crisps, snook, and octopus to bring a unique, contemporary approach to the caldosas. He has since introduced new iterations.
Following Benedetto’s lead, other chefs have found their own ways to upgrade caldosas, including chef Sophia Rodriguez Mata, who tested out a version with palm hearts and pejibaye (peach palm) at her restaurant Khali, and chef Paulo Valerios who composed a version at Huacas.
This trend doesn’t sit well with everyone. “I think these gastronomic takes on the caldosas can distort the dish,” Miguel Barboza Retana says. But Benedetto points out that when caldosas first appeared, some people thought they were an insult to ceviche. “Given the commercial snack on which they’re based, caldosas could be considered ‘anti-gastronomic,’” Benedetto says. Yet they have since become popular bocas, or bar snacks, and Benedetto sees the latest, luxurious evolution of the dish as an homage to its widespread popularity.
Ultimately the dish is meant to be playful. “I prefer to think about the appeal that the dish gained, precisely for mixing textures in a fun way, playing with them,” he says. “Opening a bag of Picaritas is like opening a gift, a memory I have from my childhood. Caldosas have brought that memory back to many people.”
Pacheco has seen this first hand. People come from all over, he says, to visit the home of caldosas and taste a bit of their school days — reliving their youth by eating something invented by a kid.
Where to try caldosas in Costa Rica
The birthplace of the caldosa, Fora Fay is a small, wood-covered, roadside bar for bocas (bar snacks) and vibrant seafood specialties. Trophies and football memorabilia compete with liquor bottles for space on the shelves. Although the menu at Fory Fay includes rice dishes, tacos, mondongos, and deep-fried fish filets, caldosas are omnipresent at every table, served in glasses with Picaritas already mixed in.
Rincón de Zaragoza, Alajuela Province
Santiago Fernández Benedetto highlights regional cuisines and the diversity of local ingredients in creative dishes at his restaurant set in a remodeled house in the historic Barrio Amón. His evolving tasting menu is an invitation to discover the breadth of Tico gastronomy, from fresh seafood to arroz guacho (rice and chayote topped with grilled chicken and shrimp). Benedetto’s current caldosa mixes mussel ceviche with shell-shaped crispy corn chips.
Calle 3A #955, Amón, San José
You’ll spot this casual food stall in San José’s bustling, crammed, historic Mercado Central by the giant fake octopus sitting on top of the awning. Named after a national park declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the stall serves one of the most consistent ceviches in the city, with chunks of fish in lime marinade garnished with onion, cilantro, and peppers. And if the ceviche is good, you can bet the caldosa will be, too; it’s served in a bag of crunchy Picaritas, best eaten immediately.
Mercado Central de San José, Avenida Central, San José
On the road to Puntarenas, there are many venues selling churchills, the local version of shaved ice with layers of flavored syrup, condensed milk, powdered milk, ice cream, and fruit. Each stall tries to attract the attention of drivers with colorful balloons, giant flags, and even Minions statues. But the signs advertising giant caldosas make many stops at La Macarena. The shop prepares its caldosas with ceviche made using the freshest fish of the day, often adding shrimp brought in by local fishermen.
Avenida 4, Puntarenas
Rafael Tonon is a journalist and food writer living between Brazil and Portugal. He is the author of the book The Food Revolutions.