Cafe Irazu (1865 N. Milwaukee Ave.) is one of those places I recommend to a lot of people. It’s just a great place to eat whether it be for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I believe it’s still one of the only – maybe THE only – Costa Rican restaurant in Chicago.
Similar to some Cuban cuisine, Costa Rican food focuses of fresh vegetables, rice and beans. Salsa Lizano, a mustard based sauce, is a feature of the restaurant and its native cuisine; it’s slathered on most of their specialty sandwiches.
The service is quick and friendly, the food is consistently prepared and extremely flavorful, plus it’s extremely reasonable on the wallet. I can eat to my heart’s content and still leave feeling fairly comfortable and not like I’m about to fall into a food coma.
My buddy and I went on a hot summer day for lunch. We were hungry and ready to eat. They had recently been on Diners Drive-ins and Dives where I saw a dish I had yet to order – the Chifrijo.
An authentic starter of black beans mixed with beautiful cubes of fried pork belly, it’s topped with diced veggies, sliced avocado and a light sauce of reduced Worcestershire, spices and their Lizano sauce. Though I could eat the the mixture on its own with a fork or even spoon, they provide tortilla chips as the vehicle of choice.
Now is a good time to mention that their tortilla chips are homemade and ALWAYS come out fresh and warm from the frier. This makes a big difference in the finished product. I mean, who doesn’t LOVE hot and toasty tortilla chips over the pre-made, slightly stale kind…come on!
The pork is…well…great. It’s pork belly that’s cubed in just the right size, crispy on the outside and super soft and buttery on the inside. The veggies add a necessary fresh component to the dish. Lively, acidic and super colorful, it’s essentially a pico de gallo that tops the plate.
The black beans kind of tie the other items together. They’re almost like the glue that binds the dish. So many different textures and sensations incorporated into such a pint sized app. When you get a little bit of every ingredient on a chip, you realize why this is the house specialty.
We split two sandwiches, a tactic I often employ with whomever happens to be dining with me. We went with the Costa Rican and the Pepito – probably the two most ordered sandwiches they offer. All sandwiches are pressed on beautiful fresh and toasty French bread which they obviously receive daily.
Thinly sliced beef is kissed by the flat top and comes under a slice of a mild melting cheese, lettuce tomato, mayo and mustard. Lastly, they apply a layer of their salsa Lizano. It is not a veggie salsa like you’re thinking.
Again, it’s more of a mustardy mayo sauce with a little zest. Even though there’s already mustard and mayo, the sauce works. Simple, tasty, and again, super cheap…$4.95!
The other sandwich was featured on Food Network as a Cafe Irazu Chicago original . The Pepito is sliced ribeye steak or chicken – uh, which do you think I chose. The ribeye is thicker and more, well, steak-like than the sliced beef on the Costa Rican. This sandwich is topped with sauteed onions, the same melty white cheese, beans and, of course, salsa Lizano.
Overall, I’d say this sandwich was touching me in more of the right ways on the particular day. I liked the chew of the steak and the better sear that was achieved. The steak was also seasoned well and was clearly marinated in a slightly spicy liquid before hitting the heat.
The entire sandwich was warm and toasty all the way through. The textures of each bite was more consistent and made for really easy and enjoyable eating. Homemade giardinara on the side was the kicker – plus it made it a true Chi-town favorite. The Lizano sauce was on both sandwiches, so that was a null, and frankly, the sauteed onions and the simplicity of the Pepito won me over. Again, $4.95. Bang!!
You have to try their fried sweet plantains. They’re as good as any other version of the dish at the Cuban restaurant around the corner – there are plenty around.
They are served warm and super soft. The slight caramelization you crave around the edges of the plantain cubes are present and accounted for. Ample size for a group of four.
Additionally, their steak fries – yup, steak fries – are my second go-to side item. They are your typical steak fry – this I know. BUT, they cook theirs how most steak fries fail to be treated. They come out crispy without one undercooked spud on the plate. In fact, there are plenty that are cooked well done. And there really isn’t a better style of fry than the steak fry when prepared extra crispy. Think about it. I’m right.
Since everything is so cheap, you may as well spend a couple of the bucks you save on one of their oatmeal milkshakes. If you haven’t experienced an oatmeal milkshake, you should go here tomorrow. Tomorrow.
You can choose oatmeal and a fruit flavor and they’ll magically combine the two to create a milkshake unlike any you’ve had before. You have the option of using milk or water in your shake. My buddy goes with water, I prefer milk…I mean, it is a milkshake. They’re both great, but mine’s better. Strawberry and oatmeal. Fresh, simple and delicious.
In and out for $20 a person, and we ate like KINGS I say, and feel absolutely fine leaving a 30% tip here. I have yet to try their breakfast options or dinner. I know, I feel silly as I type this realizing I love Irazu so much but haven’t experienced the magic after the sun has set or before it has risen. Hmmm…maybe tomorrow.
I’m hungry. Lets eat!