Author: Emily Kang
Photographer: Hsin Min Zee
Despite the recent cold spells and torrential rain, summer in Chicago can actually be kind of nice (I promise… I hope). When those rare, perfectly sunny days roll around, enjoy every second and take advantage of the incredible selection of Chicago restaurants with outdoor seating. With all of the possible options, it can be hard to find the gems. So, in hopes of more sunny days ahead, I present to you: Irazú.
In the narrow gap between two Bucktown streets, Irazú invites you to settle into their cozy patio space and peruse their expansive menu. However, before you venture out from Hyde Park, make sure you come prepared; Irazú is cash only and BYOB. The treck is beyond worth it. With huge windows that remain open and brightly colored metal stools, Irazú immediately feels like summer. If you check in on Yelp, you also get a free oatmeal shake. The oatmeal shake, which is basically a cinnamon hug-- somehow both comforting and refreshing-- is a great way to start and is not too sweet to enjoy alongside your meal.
When you dine in (they also have carry out!), you’re greeted with free chips and salsa. We started with five empanadas. For all of them, the pastry was crisp, yet tender and had a lovely buttery quality without being too greasy. PLEASE forgive our sin of cutting these delicious hand-pies of joy-- our party of three wanted to try all of them. My favorites were the chorizo and potato, and the beef and potato. The chorizo filling was a bit heavy on the tomato, but it was so well-spiced and balanced. The beef and potato had a very soft filling that went well with the crisp pastry. The pico de gallo, served with the empanadas, added a nice spice and acidity that enlivened the savory filling. Tied for a close third: the spinach and cheese, and cheese and jalapeño. The spinach and cheese had much more spinach than cheese, so while it was tasty, it was unbalanced and benefited from the pico. The jalapeño and cheese, on the other hand, overflowed with oozing white cheese-- big fan. However, the jalapeño was very mild and actually tasted more like green pepper. So, while yummy, you may be disappointed if you were expecting spice. Finally, in last place, we have the chicken empanada. The shredded chicken breast was juicy, but otherwise bland.
For our main dishes, we had chifrijo, the pepito sandwich, and the chicken taco platter. Chifrijo is a contemporary Costa Rican dish featuring rice, beans, chicharones, pico de gallo, and avocado. It is also life-changing. A magical combination of textures and flavors, chifrijo is what your Chipotle burrito bowl wishes it could be (but never will). The rice and beans add a solid and hearty foundation to let the crisp and smokey chicharrones shine. The pico de gallo adds brightness and acidity that cut through the richness of beans and avocado. The entire dish is topped with Lizano sauce, a traditional Costa Rican condiment that I will be purchasing as soon as possible. Lizano sauce is slightly sweet, acidic with almost citrusy notes, and lightly spiced with dominant notes of cumin and sharp black pepper. Its sweetness and brightness tied together the chifrijo perfectly.
The pepito sandwich was another showstopper. Airy French bread wraps up black beans, cheese, caramelized onions, and skirt steak in this restaurant-favorite. The beans give the sandwich richness and moisture, while the melty cheese is slightly salty and very creamy. The sandwich can be made with skirt steak or chicken, and the steak came highly recommended. I heartily endorse this recommendation. Medium rare, juicy, and flavorful-- it’s hard to say no.
Finally, the chicken tacos. I regretted this decision the moment we ordered them, as tacos are not really a Costa Rican dish. However, at the request of my lunchmates, we gave them a try. The tacos were dry and bland. The corn tortillas were nice and soft, but the overall taco needed lots of pico to be moist enough to eat. If you really want tacos when you visit, try taco tico, which are Costa Rican tacos, instead. You’ll likely enjoy them more.
All in all, Irazú is a must-visit this summer. Consistently cool, both in temperature and atmosphere, this authentic restaurant will bring you joy on even the hottest, most humid Chicago day or night. When ordering, stick to Costa Rican classics (I hear the casados are fantastic) and whatever your waiter recommends, but be sure to try the chifrijo and the pepito sandwich! If you do, you’ll be sure to have a fantastic meal.