After working a long night at his Costa Rica restaurant Al Mercat Dota, Chef Jose Gonzalez craves gallo pinto, his country’s national dish. Traditionally made from leftover rice and red or black beans cooked anew with spices, onions, garlic, peppers, and cilantro, a bowl of gallo pinto is unpretentious, homey, and belly-warming, everything a comfort food should be. “[Gallo pinto] means my roots, my childhood,” Gonzalez said during a phone interview. “It means Costa Rica.”
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Gallo pinto (whose name translates to “spotted rooster,” a nod to the dish’s speckled look) is often classified as a breakfast food, but it is welcome at the table at any hour. Many Costa Ricans enjoy it daily—the dish works just as well as a hearty side as it does a main course accompanied by eggs, meats, and/or a spread of toppings. Recipes for the dish vary widely around Costa Rica (and in Nicaragua and the several other Central American countries in which it can be found). Some regional Costa Rican versions are drier and toasted; others are made brothier with coconut milk or bulked up with chicharron, bacon, and other meats. “The variations are infinite,” Gonzalez said. However, most recipes follow the same simple steps: Sauté onion, garlic, and sweet peppers until soft; add the beans and their liquid; and fold in the cooked rice.
If you don’t have leftovers on hand, both the rice and beans in this dish require some simple prep work ahead of time. The night before I planned to enjoy my gallo pinto, I submerged dried black beans in salted water (while canned beans are convenient, the beans in this recipe need to be cooked with specific flavors, so dried is a better option). I also cooked and stored a batch of long‑grain rice—rice firms up after cooling and resting, which allows the fluffy, individual grains to soak up new flavors without blowing out.
A Spread with Substance
Gallo pinto can be eaten any time of day as a main course or side dish, but it is traditionally the foundation of a hearty breakfast. Common accompaniments include eggs, sausage, fresh cheese, avocado, and tortillas. Top it all off with a few drops of hot sauce or Salsa Lizano, a Costa Rican condiment that is often also added to the recipe during cooking (see “Lizano: Costa Rica’s All-Purpose Salsa,”).
I kicked off the recipe the next day by cooking the beans: After sautéing alliums and spices in lard, I added the beans, some cilantro, and 1¾ cups of water. An hour later, the beans were just soft and the liquid was slightly thickened, so I strained them (reserving some cooking liquid) and set them aside.
Then, it was time to build the dish. I softened a base of red and yellow bell peppers, onions, and garlic in a skillet set over medium heat for about 10 minutes and then added a quintessentially Costa Rican ingredient: Salsa Lizano, a bottled Worcestershire-like sauce. I added the rice to the skillet along with the beans and their reserved cooking liquid, which rehydrated, softened, and darkened the rice, infusing the whole dish with a grounding earthiness. The resulting texture was moist but not soupy, a consistency common to versions made in central Costa Rica.
I enlivened the dish by mixing in finely chopped fresh bell peppers (per a suggestion from Gonzalez, who likes the freshness and crisp texture they add) and plenty of cilantro and then scooped myself a portion, topping it with a few more dashes of Salsa Lizano. The rice was fragrant and fluffy, the beans were yielding yet chewy, and the Lizano suffused the whole dish with perfectly potent acidity. I already couldn’t wait for tomorrow’s bowl.