When my partner-in-crime Ben and I imagine the world's beginnings, the seven days start with the immaculate conception of the first primitive humans, which is immediately followed by the frying of plantain-filled empanadas and the distilling of value wine. At the end of the week, human, food, and booze meet to form the Holy Trinity: BYOB restaurants. It is only natural to utilize such God-given gifts.
We didn't always think like this. We were born into the world as ignoramuses -- and we continued to live without BYOs until two years ago. Yes, it's true: in spite of the proximity of Chicago's treasure trove of delightful joints without liquor licenses, we did not know how many BYOs existed for our first two years at Northwestern University.
It's because few cities house as many BYOs as Chicago. Chicago liquor laws make it easy for restaurants to self-label as BYO, and it's just a great selling point. Some people may use the lack of marked up wine and beer to bring expensive bottles. But this blog will not be about that. This blog will be about pairing tons of cheap wine and beer with the amazing food Chicago has to offer. This blog will be about dinner partying.
First stop: Irazu, a Costa Rican restaurant off the Western Blue Line stop in Bucktown.
Armed with: Six pack Sam Adams Summer Ale, 1.5 liter Pinot Grigio from Jewel, two Trader Joe's wines (one white, one red), one double pint of Japanese beer, one double pint of Latin American beer; but a great wine and beer shop called Red & White Wines is right across the street if you show up boozeless.
Ben and I first went to Irazu in the winter, where upon first glance it looked like a late night taqueria. The entrance is tight and crowded, and the menu is hand-written on a blackboard above the cashier. It's not till you walk around the corner that you see the actual sit down area of the restaurant -- an area so small that the people in line for the one bathroom cozy up to about half the tables. (Last time I was there, I sat at one of the bathroom-cozy tables, where I was in a prime position to flirtatiously eye cute patrons in line for the loo. Some may find this uncouth. I consider it intimate dining.)
Lack of elbow room and a dreadfully long bathroom wait was more than made up for by the flavorful Costa Rican cuisine. So good, in fact, that the wait was a solid forty minutes, even when Irazu transformed its patio to double the amount of seating last week when we went again. Tons of positive Yelp reviews clearly have a downside: both Bucktown hipsters and large families have discovered this gem. (Upside: toddlers later became a great source of entertainment. One adorable boy looked like the kid from Jerry Maguire, if that kid had his hair electrocuted.)
We pulled the beer out early. Drinking before dinner was a necessary distraction.
When we finally sat down, we were hungry and tipsy. (Ben, who needs to eat about every two hours, had gotten verifiably drunk off two pints after a snackless day.) We started devouring complimentary chips and examined the menu to decide what variation of fried meat we wanted. Our party of five shared steak casado, chicken el tico, a shrimp and veggie platter, fish ceviche, and five empanadas. Oh, and their signature oatmeal shake, a thick, textured, lightly-sweetened blend of icy bliss that we fought each other to take another sip of.
Irazu did not skimp us. We opted for the Gallo Pinto Costa Rican style rice with our dishes, and the slightly spicy mixture of rice and beans tasted too good to be called just a side dish. The accompanying meats, while tender and flavorful, tasted almost generic in comparison to the rich Gallo Pinto. We also fell in love with the plantains, with their slightly crisped outside and rich, doughy inside. The empanadas had an underwhelming filling-to-crisp-pastry ratio, but the quality of the cheese and spinach filling made the choice worthy.
Our only mistake: we didn't bring tequila to pair with their fresh-tasting watermelon-lime juice mix. But we had more than enough wine and beer for the five of us. Another plus to Irazu: the friendly staff lets diners stick around to chat and be drunk. (Granted, we were there late enough where wait times had gone down some, but we didn't see them be too pushy with previous parties either.) With our meal done, we still had a bottle of our white Trader Joe's wine left. When we drunkenly struggled with its cork, a staffer came by and acted as our savior. Thanks, Irazu. We needed that.
TLDR: Irazu serves delicious, flavorful dishes, but has a long wait because it's small and well-known. Go before it gets too cold and the outdoor seating closes. Pay extra for gallo pinto rice, bring tequila, and buy the oatmeal milkshake. Service is slow-ish because it's small, but is genuinely friendly. Cash only.
Friendliness to Partiers: 4.5/5
Price: $5-$15 per entree