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The Chicago Dining World Tour: A Completely 'Maravilloso' (albeit Cash Only) Discovery of Costa Rican Cuisine

Costa Rican
1865 N. Milwaukee, Chicago

What I ate: Chifrijo, Beef & Potato Empanada, El Tico, Chips & Salsa

When I introduced my idea for a Chicago Dining World Tour at the beginning of this year, my friend Paolo was the first to comment, with the suggestion that we visit Irazu as my Costa Rican entry.

So before we went to see Fleetwood Mac on Saturday night and following Paolo's trip to Lollapalooza in Brazil--from which he brought me a t-shirt, Pelé jersey and a shot glass--it was my pleasure to treat him to dinner at the Milwaukee Ave. BYOB. (We didn't bring anything; also note that the restaurant is Cash Only, but has an ATM.)

I have never been to any Latin American countries--beyond Tijuana--but Paolo once lived in Costa Rica, has visited often and CR seems to a fairly common destination among my friends and relatives.

And if the food at Irazu is truly representative, I can see why.

Before Paolo arrived, I was brought a basket of corn chips and a bottle of green salsa, although a bit puzzling to me, no bowl.

Paolo subsequently explained that the chips aren't common to dining in Costa Rica and likely more an offshoot of what American expect from Mexican restaurants. And he had no ready answer for the absence of a bowl in which to put the green salsa.

But that was my only quite minor quibble of the whole experience at Irazu (other than their no credit card policy).

Paolo cited the appetizer shown-- Chifrijo = Fried pork layered with whole black beans, white rice, pico de gallo and topped with avocado and Lizano sauce--as being quite good, although only a Costa Rican staple over the past 15 years or so.

Although I have a general aversion to beans of any kind other than jelly, Chifrijo sounded too good not to try. And especially with the crunchy fried pork rinds being delicious, it was a truly terrific and unique dish.

While empanadas, or something closely akin, extend across several cuisines I've sampled--Argentinean, Cuban, Jamaican, Peruvian--I've never had one I haven't liked, so I was compelled to order a Beef & Potato Empanada as a second appetizer.

It too was excellent, possibly the best I've ever had.

For entrees, the first item under "Costa Rican Dinners" on the menu-- Casado = either thin rib-eye steak, chicken breast or tilapia with white rice, black beans, sweet plantains, an over easy egg and cabbage salad--sounded quite savory, but not being a fan of black beans nor eggs other than scrambled, I went with the second item listed, which I'll describe in a moment.

Paolo did order the Casado, with steak, and found it to be outstanding, saying of Irazu:
"I really should make a point of coming here more often."
Pretty high praise from a guy who has literally eaten all around the world, including at several of the most highly rated restaurants.

El Tico--which Google Translate tells me means "the attic"; not sure how accurate that is in this case--was thin rib eye or chicken breast sautéed with onions, bell peppers and tomato. Served with white rice, black beans, sweet plantains & cabbage salad. Guess you can now call me a fan-attic. (Note: Paolo has now explained that Costa Ricans are called "Ticos.")

Being allergic to poultry, I of course went with the steak and had them hold the black beans.

Without meaning to hyperbolically slight any other restaurants--ethnic or otherwise--where I've enjoyed some really amazing and eye-opening meals this year, El Tico was one of the best things I've eaten in quite some time.

Paolo conveyed that it was culturally customary to mix all the various plate items together, and the combination of steak, peppers, onions, tomatoes, sweet plantains and rice was truly magnifico. Which according to Google Translate means magnificent, while maravilloso (in my heading) seems to be how I would say "wonderful" in Spanish.

Though the bill was quite reasonable--roughly $45 for all of the above and two Diet Cokes--not knowing that plastic was forbidden, I had pull to out an emergency $20 from the inner reaches of my wallet and take Paolo's only four bucks on hand just to cover the tab (and an apologetically not-so-big tip) without incurring ATM fees...or wind up washing dishes.

Then it was onto see Fleetwood Mac, who were also terrific in my estimation.

"Don't stop thinking about... the next time I visit Irazu" already seems rather aptly appetizing, if not quite deliciously lyrical.

Perhaps not tomorrow, but I assure you it won't be a case of "Never Going Back Again."

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