May 18, 2007

The Gadabout—May 18, 2007

Costa Rica is built on a rich mixture of Mesoamerican and South American history tied together with relaxing Pacific waters and leafy jungles. The country’s cuisine embodies this mezcla perfectly, combining elements of Spanish, South American, and Caribbean cooking into a leisurely blend founded on plantains, rice, and beans. One of Chicago’s only Costa Rican restaurants, Irazu, makes a strong attempt to adapt the food and atmosphere of its home country to the hustle of a major American city. However, our experience fell short not with its food, but because of its stomach-breaking waiting times.

In sharp contrast to the nearby Bucktown/Wicker Park area, Irazu is pleasantly unassuming and unpretentious; the clientele of the teeny, beach-yellow hut range from Central American families looking for familiar cuisine to city dwellers out for a night on the town looking to enjoy the BYOB policy. We even saw several fellow U of C students, identifiable by their UT shirts and uniquely ugly fedoras. On a warm Chicago evening, the outdoor atmosphere created by simple patio furniture and bustling crowds successfully takes on a Central American flavor.

Irazu is known not only for its allegiance to Costa Rican specialties but also for its original milkshakes. Shakes at Irazu ($2.95) come in such exotic flavors as papaya, oatmeal, guanabana (a Brazilian relative of the pawpaw), tamarind, mango, and pineapple, although the more mundane chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla are available for those less adventurous. These options can be mixed into pairs of flavors ($3.95) to produce more bizarre flavors like blackberry—cornmeal or lemonade—carrot. Unless one of your childhood traumas featured the Quaker Oats man, the oatmeal shake may just displace local favorites like the chocolate-peanut butter shake at Moonstruck or the Cocoa Nib shake at Hot Chocolate as one of the best milkshakes in Chicagoland.

Unfortunately, the sumptuous liquid- oatmeal cookie kept us entertained for only 15 minutes of the 50 that we waited for our meal. Our server, in between our fleeting encounters, became harder to spot than Waldo in the Loop during Friday afternoon rush hour.

After taking our orders, she appeared briefly—35 minutes into our long wait—to apologetically inform us that the kitchen was running “a little slow.” Although we couldn’t blame her for the overwhelming delay, we felt neglected as our waters were not refilled for 15 minutes and our milkshakes ran dry. To Irazu’s credit, the cashier apologized for the wait at the register, but a complimentary shake would have been a nice gesture.

When our meal finally arrived, we found the portions large, appetizing, and interesting. The Casado ($9.95), one of the “Costa Rican Dinners,” is an authentic favorite. With a choice of either rib-eye steak or grilled chicken breast with caramelized onions, the Casado is served with black beans, plantains, white rice, beet salad, cabbage, and an over-easy egg heaped on top. The plantains complemented the rice and egg unexpectedly well, and the beet salad resembled a colorful, tropical coleslaw on psychoactive drugs. The thin cut of rib eye was mostly tender, and the onions helped add some flavor to the otherwise bland beef.

Irazu has a surprising plethora of vegetarian options. The potato tacos ($8.95), crispy corn tortillas filled with potato, were accompanied by a slew of items, including guacamole, yellow rice, pinto beans, cabbage, beets, black beans, plantains, and refried beans. The refried beans were Gerberesquely smooth, while the guacamole was chunky with tomatoes and avocado. Despite the widely varying textures and colors, every component of the dish came together to form a cohesive, delicious whole.

After an eternity on Irazu’s patio, we desperately wanted to leave, but the intriguing homemade flan ($2.25) goaded us into ordering it before making our escape. Unfortunately, the flan was much sweeter than the usual offering at traditional Mexican or Spanish restaurants, perhaps to a fault. In general, flan purists would do better to simply order another oatmeal milkshake.

The service and the pace of the meal at Irazu operated on a bewildering time schedule, a pity when the affordable prices, superb oatmeal milkshake, and interesting entrées would normally classify it among the highly recommended. With this in mind, Irazu could serve as a good example of Aristotle’s “tragic hero” for a Hum class. Its food and appearance are excellent (perhaps even “noble”), but its service, as we discovered, is a tragic flaw akin to Achilles’s heel or Oedipus’s ignorance.