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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, June 30

Gapers Block

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I have a definite love/hate relationship with Irazu.

This tiny Bucktown establishment, self-described as the only Costa Rican restaurant in the city, routinely inflicts equal parts pleasure and pain on my stomach all in the same visit. I have yet to find another restaurant in Chicago that is capable of giving me such bipolar experiences.

The alternating highs and lows of the Irazu dining experience manifest themselves as soon as I walk through the door. At first, the meal gets off to a terrific start when owner Miriam Cerda greets me with an enthusiastic hello from behind the counter and hands me a menu. As I pore over the long list of titillating offerings, my stomach rumbles happily in anticipation of the meal ahead. Unfortunately, I'm in for a few surprises.

After I place my order with Miriam, she points to a side counter laden with baskets and baskets of tortilla chips stacked on top of each other, telling me to "help myself." I choose a basket from the top of the pile, squirt on some red "salsa" from a plastic bottle bobbing up and down in a bucket of melting ice, and pour myself a glass of water from the cooler before heading into the dining room.

Once seated and waiting for my order, I am reminded of some of Irazu's more unappealing features. The too-salty tortilla chips are cold, the squirted salsa is colder, and the water that I'm using to wash all of this down is, of course, not cold at all. The dining room is a cramped, homely space lit by a few bare bulbs. Dirty plates have not been cleared from a few of the tables. I am not, by any means, a high maintenance diner, but I am slightly disgusted by this inattention to detail. I have to fervently remind myself that I am simply experiencing one of Irazu's temporary downswings; the situation will improve momentarily.

My mood brightens significantly as soon as I hear my name shouted from the kitchen, alerting me that my order is ready. I collect my vegetarian burrito and oatmeal shake from the counter and return to my seat. So what if I forget to grab napkins and utensils and must return to the counter yet again? Nothing can dampen my spirits now that I have food.

All of the praise and "Best Of" rewards bestowed upon Irazu's veggie burrito by various local publications are entirely deserved. The burrito itself is crafted in such a way that each bite yields a perfect mixture of black beans, rice, tomato, lettuce, avocado, sautéed mushrooms (optional), and hot peppers. There are other burrito joints -- in particular those of a certain addictive corporate chain -- that take no care in their composition; often the beans are all on one side, the rice and peppers on the other. At Irazu, it is difficult to identify the individual components of the burrito since everything is so well-blended together -- the filling is a big mess of flavorful goodness.

The oatmeal shake -- a sweet, frothy concoction of ice cold milk, oats, and heaps of cinnamon and sugar -- is further adding to my elated state. Maybe oatmeal seems like most unusual ingredient with which to whip a shake: Does tamarind or guanabana (two other popular milkshake flavors at Irazu) seem any more commonplace?

About three quarters of the way through my meal, the feeding frenzy begins to wind down. Once again, Irazu does not appear to be as appetizing as I had thought 10 minutes prior. The simple fact of the matter is that the portions are fairly big and heavy, and in my efforts to finish my burrito, I'm starting to feel a bit sick from consuming all the food and drink. I have also hit this same food wall with one of my other favorite Irazu specials, the pork chop dinner. The two thin pork chops sautéed with onions vanish immediately, but the delicious sides of yellow rice, pinto beans, sweet plantains, and salad make finishing this dish almost impossible.

As for the milkshake I was raving about just two paragraphs before? I have learned to slurp this down fast; otherwise, the ice melts and the sugary taste all but disappears leaving behind a soup of mushy oats. Minus one more point for Irazu.

I wish I could end this piece with some kind of overall positive or negative recommendation, but frankly Irazu is so inconsistent I feel uncomfortable declaring one or the other. I will say that if you are someone who requires cleanliness and trendy décor to have a pleasant dining experience, I would steer clear from this place. But if you appreciate savory Costa Rican entrees, fresh sandwiches, creative milkshakes and friendly service, I'd say give it a try.

As for me, I love/hate this place.

Irazu is located at 1865 N. Milwaukee Ave. There is table service during dinner. Sandwiches and burritos range from $3.75-$5.75. Entrees are $7-$12.

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Naz / March 15, 2004 10:33 AM

I've always had a good time at Irazu and have never experienced any sort of uncleanliness. The veggie burrito however is not all that. I find Allende on Lincoln and Fullerton has a much tastier veggie burrito. However I'm quite fond of Irazu's fruit shakes (never tried the oatmeal), their vegan dinner specials and plantains.

Maybe I've been fortunate.

miss ellen / March 15, 2004 10:34 AM

i love taking out a veggie burrito when i get my hair cut (i get it cut a few doors down on milwaukee); but, as you said, i always do best when i save 1/2 for later - they pack those 'ritos FULL at irazu.

still haven't tried the oatmeal shake, gotta remember that for next time!

Xan / March 19, 2004 10:02 AM

Come on! Irazu is great!
Try the Palmito salad and the Ceviche.

And as for the dining experience, I find it incredibly comfortable and pleasant. Always.

I wish they were open on Sundays. That's my only complaint.

Mister Mister / March 19, 2004 12:15 PM

1) Big portions are made for taking home. Stuffing yourself silly till you feel sick is just gluttonous and should only be saved for buffets.

2) The atmosphere is homey and cozy. This is a neighborhood restaurant with a lot of history. If you want hip and trendy sterility, go to Mod, where they factor that into the price.

3) With the oatmeal shakes, you might want to stir it around during your meal. Then you won't get so much bulk at the bottom.


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