For Chicago to be so frosty for so many months in the year, I am surprised at the abundance of Latin American restaurants in the city. Truth be told, the authenticity of a restaurant hinges on the representation of community for which it serves. This is a case in point with the many Latin American eateries in the city. And to add to that, there is a Costa Rican restaurant in Bucktown that Chicago can now add to the list. Located at 1865 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Irazu misleadingly looks like a tiny store from the street. Only once you go inside do you find that the place is much larger and constantly filled with patrons who love to partake of the goodies on the menu. One thing about Chicago’s Bucktown is that there are always crowds of young adults — college age to mid 40′s — frequenting the establishments. Although Irazu is spacious, good business has a way of drawing a good number of people. The inside was also filled and there were large parties coming to partake of the dining experience at Irazu. [This seems to be a constant in a lot of eateries on Chicago's North Side.]
A very dear friend who was in town visiting for a wedding joined my adventurous friend and me this particular Friday. Not realizing that Irazu is a BYOB restaurant, we settled on some smoothies for starting out — mango, oatmeal, and tamarind. Tasty, tasty, tasty. I never thought of an oatmeal smoothie before, but this one was worth having another one and going back a day or so later for some more. For appetizers, we had guacamole, which is most definitely a staple in Latin American dining experiences. A little less spicy than some guacamole that we have had, it still was good enough that we finished it all to our satisfaction. The next appetizer was empanda, another main staple in Latin American eating. The one thing about the cheese empanada that we had at Irazu was that they made it using corn meal instead of flour. Maybe it was just that the corn meal gave the illusion of something new and different because I have gone back to Irazu since this visit and ordered batches of the empanadas for my own personal consumption. The third appetizer was truly different. It was a plate of plantains with garlic, served up with frijoles for dipping. I have had plantains served up as nachos, covered in cheese, and even doctored up with vegetables and ground beef. But I had never had plantains with garlic and Irazu was not pandering to a conservative notion with the healthy heaping of garlic on the plantains. Nevertheless, we gobbled them up before we realized that there was indeed a generous portion of garlic on them. Yes, they were that good.
When we got ready to order our entrées, we took recommendations from the waitress. Considering the place was quite busy and filled, we were pleasantly surprised that she took the time to explain menu items and make recommendations without being hasty. And because she took the time necessary to give us good suggestions, what came to the table was outstanding. When my friend and I started our restaurant hopping, we always did everything in combinations of three — three appetizers and three entrées. We had covered three appetizers, so what was left was to try three main dishes. The waitress had us try one chicken dish, one beef dish, and one fish dish. The chicken mixed with rice was an absolute must. Served up stir-fry style with onions and red bell peppers also with sweet plantains and frijoles, this was one recommendation that we ate up with huge smiles. The grilled steak was another dish that sounded almost too bland to be true, but was anything but bland. With rice and peas, sweet plantains, and cabbage salad, and topped with grilled asparagus, this was a huge hit. The steak was tender — it passed the plastic knife-cutting test. You know you have some good meat on the plate if it’s tender enough that you can cut it with a plastic knife with very little effort. For the fish entrée, we had red snapper. I have become such a purist as I have aged and I am mostly big on pan trout, Buffalo fish, salmon, and swordfish, which is great with ackee. But another is red snapper and if a restaurant messes up red snapper, it’s over. With Irazu, it was a marriage for me. The key is not to end up with dry or crusty fish. If you’re not singing after the first bite, then there is a problem. Not that I was singing, but I was sated after the last morsel. The red snapper came with sweet plantains, cabbage salad, and rice and peas. The waitress did a great job with the recommendations and we planned to tip her accordingly.
We wrapped up with a flan — yet another staple in Latin American dining. While the flan was not spectacular, the fact that the only thing left on the plate afterwards was a napkin summed up our sentiment toward the dessert.
Again, we turned up a dining success. And having a guest visiting from out-of-town made it that much better because it wasn’t an embarrassment. Then again, she once lived in Chicago and knows all about the happiness that comes with good food, good company, and good conversation. Do I recommend Irazu? Yes, but be forewarned that the portions are large and the restaurant tends to get crowded fast. Depending on where you’re sitting and the number of people in the main dining area, you may find yourself in someone else’s conversation or them in yours. Then again, that tends to be how restaurant establishments are outside of America. For those who wish to imbibe a little something special, Irazu is a BYOB affair, so be sure to pick up a bottle of beer or wine on your way to the restaurant. A final thing to note is that Irazu is not credit card friendly. Oh, no! They only accept cash, but don’t let that deter you. As far as food goes, there is very little to deter me. Cash machine in the area? Getting cash is no problem. If you find yourself in Chicago’s Bucktown and want to get your fill of some good food, wander on up to 1865 N. Milwaukee Avenue and put your feet under one of the tables at Irazu.