Posts in the ‘Latin American’ Category

Irazu, Bucktown

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

she said:

We spent half of our honeymoon on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica so when our friend Laura asked us to meet her at Irazu for some Costa Rican cuisine, we were pretty excited.  We arrived at the small, bustling Irazu on a Saturday night and were told we’d have a table in thirty minutes.  Not bad, but after waiting outside in the cold drizzle for over an hour, our enthusiasm wasn’t the only thing that had been dampened.

Enter Omar, our waiter, whose personality was as large as his physique and whose booming apologies were backed up by several complimentary snacks, including black beans and plantains splashed with spoonfuls of Lizano salsa.  Lizano salsa, by the by, is a spicy sweet Costa Rican sauce made with onions, carrots, cauliflower and cucumber.  Although it’s ubiquitous in Costa Rica, it’s uncommon here.  Within five minutes of sitting down, I’d forgiven the long wait.  I knew why the place was so packed, and why nobody wanted to leave.

We started with a combo order of empanadas (cheese, black bean, spinach, zucchini and plantain, if you must know), which were very tasty, especially when topped with pico de gallo.  For dinner, I ordered the “award winning” vegetarian burrito, which was straightforward and delicious, stuffed with occasional hot peppers that nearly burned my lips off my face.  I love plantains so I ordered them on the side; they arrived in a perfect combination of goo and crisp.

It’d be a shame to leave Irazu without trying one of their trademark Aveno (oatmeal) shakes.  I tasted the fresa (strawberry) and the chocolate and I haven’t stopped thinking about them since.  In addition to being uniquely scrumptious, they also come in handy as cooling remedies when you think you might have to be hospitalized for the relentless burn that’s spread from your lips, through your cheeks and is now tingling its way into your sweating scalp.  (I’m exaggerating.  They’re just peppers, but if you don’t like crying, you may want to avoid them).

Icing on the cake?  Irazu is BYOB.  At the end of the day, we didn’t pay more than $10 per person, if that.

In Costa Rica, you can’t walk down a street without hearing or reading the phrase, “Pura Vida.”  It’s on menus and t-shirts.  It’s painted onto the sides of buildings and etched into cliffside rock.  Pura Vida can mean hello and goodbye, thank you and you’re welcome.  It can express wonder or satisfaction, best wishes or respect.  In Spanish, it translates (though backwards) to Pure Life, but it means something closer to Good Life.  It’s an affirmation that this moment, experience, taste, smell, sight, person, friendship, interaction, etc, is real and true and….. well, good.

Pura Vida is not the same thing as the sweet life.  It’s simpler than that, and more humble.  You can get a taste of it at Irazu.

he said:

I think my wife undersold just how miserable the wait was. About the last thing on my mind as we were standing outside this little restaurant was the warmth and beauty of our honeymoon. It was cold, it was wet, we had to stand near a group of louts who arrived after us, only to realize that this loud, obnoxious group had deposited one person there earlier who had put their name in, so they got to go in ahead of us while we watched them from outside as they warmed up and enjoyed the delicious food and their insipid conversation.

In fact, by the time I finally made it inside, I wanted to smack the Costa Rican rainforest in the face (much like it had smacked my wife in the face when we went ziplining, though that’s a story for another time). But she was right. Omar was the best. The food was amazing. All was forgiven before the feeling returned to my toes.

Costa Ricago Favorite

I’d read online that Irazu had wonderful sandwiches. I hadn’t tried a Costa Rican sandwich when I was in Costa Rica, but they’d received such glowing reviews that I wanted to give it a go. After having one, I’m ready for another trip down south to compare Irazu’s to the originals. And that’s setting the bar pretty high for that small country, I have to say.

I had the Pepito Sandwich, which was described as a Chicago favorite. I opted for the ribeye, and added the hot peppers, cheese and avocado. When you’re starting with a sandwich for $4.95*, why not add a few delicious things on top?

*I rarely mention price on this blog, but this is one of the best values I’ve ever had at a restaurant. I’d have paid three times that for this sandwich.

The steak in the sandwich was amazing, good enough to eat by itself. And the beans and Lizano sauce complimented it perfectly.

As we left, I noticed that Irazu has a pretty generous delivery area. It won’t deliver to our house, but it would deliver to my work, so I’m thinking about impressing my coworkers with some delicious delivery one of these days. At the very least, I know that I won’t have to wait in the cold and the rain.

Cafe 28, Lake View

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

he said:

We had a Groupon* for Cafe 28 that was expiring on a Wednesday, so we went there for dinner on a Tuesday. I’m sure some of you can predict what happened when we got there, but for those who don’t know, the last few days before a Groupon expires are pretty crazy.  Since we’re pretty crazy too, we decided to give it a try.

*Most of the time on this site, there’s an ad for Groupon. We don’t control who advertises here, but I’m happy to support Groupon. It’s a great idea and they have awesome customer support. If you want to learn more about it, just click on one of the ads (I’m guessing there’s probably one up right now).

Seating strategy

When I got there, my lovely wife had already put our names in for a table. She had a plan: “hawkeye”* a seat at the bar then order our dinner there. She kept bragging about her hawkeye-ing skills, even though “hawkeye” isn’t a word.

Apparently, to hawkeye is to spy a couple leaving a table, the position yourself nearby so you’re ready to sit down as soon as they get up from their chairs. Sit down too soon, and you get into some awkward lap-dance situations. Too late, and someone else hawkeyes that table. It’s a skill. 

*Seriously, honey, hawkeye? Who are you, Alan Alda?

Situation: Muddled

It was super-crowded in the bar, but we were able to get some mojitos to make the wait go quicker. Delicious, delicious mojitos. I’m not in love with mojitos as much as she is, but I thought they were wonderful. I did feel bad for the bartender, who was making them by hand, muddling the mint over and over and over into hundreds of different cups. But it was so worth it–for us drinkers at least.

And waiting was kind of fun. I think that everyone there had a Groupon, so we all had an idea what we were getting into and were all in the same boat. When, after a two to three hour wait, someone finally had their name called, people would clap and cheer. The lesson here: get enough expertly-made mojitos into enough people, and even standing shoulder-to-shoulder while waiting for food is a good time.

Don’t stamp my passport

When we finally sat down, we were a couple mojitos in and ready for food. I ordered the Cuban-style chicken, and loved it. So good, so tasty. Not as spicy as I thought it’d be, but I don’t really know Cuban food so I didn’t know what to expect.

The sides were even better than the chicken. The sweet plantains were amazing, with a light touch of cinnamon.  I couldn’t get enough of the congri, which is a black beans and rice melange. You could have given just that to me in a bowl and sent me off a gassy, happy man.

When we left, I made a promise to myself that we’d make it back to Cafe 28 when it wasn’t so crowded. Not just to experience the place without the long wait, but also because there was a lot on the menu I want to try. And even if it is crowded, we can always hawkeye another table. Just for the record, though, it was my hawkeye-ing skills that got us a seat this time.

she says:

This was probably my tenth visit to Cafe 28 and, let me tell ya, it was not my typical experience there.  There’s always a wait on weekends and they don’t take reservations.  This however, was a bit absurd.  Surely you’ve seen a beehive spinning around in a tornado spiralling around the lot scene at a Phish show.  It was kind of like that.  That being said, what he said is true – the mood was jovial and we were all a little buzzed.  Getting a table felt like being called down as a contestant for The Price Is Right.

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I go to Cafe 28 for the mojitos, which I truly believe, are the best in the city.  The secret is in the simplicity of the ingredients.  Don’t get me started on all the places that use weird mint liquors and liquid sugars, that add pomegranate extract or limeade.  Rum, mint, lime, sugar, soda water, ice.  When these unadulterated ingredients are combined in the correct way, I’m a happy camper.  Out of the hundreds of restaurants in Chicago that serve mojitos, only a handful get it right, in my not-so-humble opinion.

I keep going back so clearly the food’s good too.  The vegetarian options are a bit limited and I’m not a huge fan of their primary vegetarian dish, the Comal, which is similar to fajitas.  The quesadillas, served vertically, are unusually good with their garlicky mushrooms and smoky salsa.  I’m also a fan of the green tamales and the ceviche (sometimes I splurge), which seems to have mysteriously disappeared from their menu.  They serve their bread with delicious savory-sweet butter, though we didn’t get any during this visit.

Cafe 28 is a family-run business and it feels that way, all warm and fuzzy and buzzing with life.   I can’t wait to go back when the place isn’t overun by Groupon users.  I’m still going to cheer loudly every time someone gets a table,  even if the place is totally dead.