11/15/07

Burrito Bracket on the Radio!

Oops, forgot one important thing. Last week, Burrito Bracket did an interview with Mike Stephen and Andy Hermann of Outside the Loop Radio. They have a podcast available -- scroll down to November 9th (Episode #59) on the page I just linked you guys too.

I've actually done a decent about of radio before for my day job -- not that you could likely tell by listening to me -- but for some reason, talking about burritos had me a lot more nervous than talking about baseball. A big thank you to Mike and Andy for setting up a great interview.

Burrito Bracket on One-Week Break

Hi, all. We're taking this week off for a couple reasons:

1) Burrito Bracket has fallen way behind on some "real life" work.
2) Burrito Bracket has eaten way too many off-bracket burritos over the past several days. Of note: La Pasadaita's barbacoa, which I thought was so wonderful a couple of weeks ago, was a little bit off when I had it for dinner last night.

See you all next week.

11/10/07

El Taco Veloz [#2] defeats Picante Taqueria [#10]

Unlike other recent underdogs, Picante Taquera [reivew] turned out a burrito that exceeded expectations, but it wasn't enough to put it in striking distance of El Taco Veloz [review], which was en route to shattering De Pasada's record with a Burrito Breakdown score of 43.5.


Three of our final four taquerias are now established: Veloz, La Pasadita, and De Pasada. The last spot will be fought over by Irazu and Tecalitlan, which was the premier matchup of the second round all along. Any of our five remaining taquerias serve up good enough food to win the entire bracket, and there will be no easy decisions from here on out. Stay tuned.

Picante Taqueria: Round 2 Review

#10. Picante Taqueria
2016½ W. Division
Al Pastor Burrito
$4.95 (no extras)

Defeated #7 Chipotle in Round 1 [review]


All right, let's be perfectly honest here. There was pretty much no way that Picante Taqueria was going to defeat El Taco Veloz. Not after Veloz's spectacular showing earlier in the week, and not when Picante is such a bare-bones operation that they don't even have a seating area. Mathematically, this would have to be just about the best burrito I'd ever eaten for Picante to make up the points it's losing in the service and experience categories. So, Picante was a little bit of a lame duck heading into yesterday's visit. That doesn't mean that it's without its redeeming facets, however.

The Food: The way that I'd describe the food at Picante is "surprisingly good". Not great, but surprisingly good. All of their ingredients are of a fairly high quality (although the pork was sliced up thinner than in needed to be), and this burrito was proportionate and fresh-tasting. Their salsa is underrated, and their tortillas are above-average. Their pork al Pastor is a little toward the spicier side rather than the sweet side, but it's a pretty good blend, and as at Veloz the Pastor was accentuated by grilled onions.

One mild complaint: their burrito is a little sloppy, by which I mean that it isn't wrapped all that tightly and so the ingredients tend to slip out. This problem is a bit more acute because Picante is exclusively a take-out joint, and so if you decided to walk your burrito north a couple of blocks and eat it in Wicker Park, you'd inevitably wind up spilling some on yourself (those al Pastor stains are notoriously difficult to wash out!).

The Experience: There isn't any: Picante has no indoor seating area, and their outdoor seating area is closed for the season. The service experience, such as it is, is mixed. The turnaround time on my burrito was considerably quicker than on past visits. On the other hand, Picante gets a deduction because I asked for both hot and mild salsas and my take-out bag wound up containing only the hot.

11/7/07

El Taco Veloz: Round 2 Review

#2. El Taco Veloz
1745 W. Chicago
Al Pastor Burrito
$4.00 (no extras)

Defeated #15a Taqueria Trespasada in Round 1 [review]

I remember the moment that I first conceived of Burrito Bracket. It was in those halcyon days of late July, 2007. I was walking down Milwaukee Avenue, so sweaty from the 90-degree heat that my glasses kept slipping off my nose. I was a kid back then, looking for lunch in all the wrong places.

When the days grow shorter and colder, it helps to hold on to memories like this one, as a squirrel hoards nuts for the winter. It's always Daylight Savings Time when it hits me: the passing of the seasons. What bureaucrat was it decided that we needed less daylight in the middle of winter? He surely can't have been stationed in Chicago. It was cold and dusky by the time I left my apartment for a late lunch today, the sort of day that makes you want to hibernate, to subsist on a diet of cable television and takeout Chinese until the sun comes out again. No, not to give up the fight; but perhaps to take a rain check on dreams of finding the perfect burrito.

The Food: And then you sink your teeth into a burrito like this one, and you remember what the whole struggle was for. This was probably the single best item of food that we've tried in the Bracket to date. Let me count the ways.


First, there was the wonderful flavor of the pork al Pastor, a rich, sweet flavor -- a perfect autumn flavor. Second, there is Veloz's salsa, a complex, peppery blend that somehow defies description, but is instantly recognizable to the tongue. Third, there are the little extras. Veloz, like Dona Naty's, cooks its onions on the skillet with its pork, giving them a caramelized flavor, and for another unique touch, there is a container of pickled jalapenos sitting on the table. Fourth, there is the way that everything stays in balance. This burrito contained a large number of ingredients, flavors, and textures -- meat, beans, salsa, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, cheese in that perfect state of meltedness, the pickled jalapenos -- and yet no one taste overwhelms the others, and the burrito is the perfect size for a hearty lunch, rather than some supersized monstrosity.

The perfect burrito? Not quite. The meat itself was only of average quality, and while generally tender, its texture varied a bit from slice to slice. But for the grand total of $4.00, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better meal in the city.


The Experience: Anybody that calls Veloz a hole-in-the-wall doesn't know their holes from their walls. No, it isn't white tablecloth stuff, nor does Veloz get much light; there are no windows on either side of the dining area. But there's a kitschy, eccentric coziness to the interior, which this time was accentuated by a homemade mural of Halloween ghosts down the right-hand wall. The colorful lighting and equally colorful music from the jukebox are designed to get you to sit down and stay for a while. And the service is notably efficient, if a little informal.

11/3/07

De Pasada [#4] defeats Dona Naty's Taco [#12]

Thus far, our second round has been a little anticlimactic. La Pasadita was expected to defeat Arturo's Tacos, but the margin of victory was a little bit of a surprise. Likewise, we expected Dona Naty's Taco [review] to provide a formidable challenge to De Pasada [review], but it had an off-day whereas De Pasada was at the top of its game. In fact, De Pasada's composite score of 42 is the highest score recorded to date in the Burrito Bracket. Although that score strikes me as a little bit high -- purely in terms of the quality of the food, this torta wasn't quite as good as the one at Taqueria Trespada, for instance -- it goes to show you what can happen when you combine very good food with very good service.


This sets up a real grudge match between De Pasada and La Pasadita in the first of our Final Four matchups, two virtual next door neighbors with more shared history than you might assume at first glance (more on this in the coming days). The item for that match-up will be the Chicken Super Burrito, as we have not sampled the chicken at either establishment thus far (at least within the context of 'official' Burrito Bracket business). The super burrito -- as opposed to the simpler, regular burrito -- is one of De Pasada's strengths, and so this matchup should be closer to a toss-up than you might think.


Odds to Win Bracket

La Pasadita ............... 2-1
De Pasada ................. 3-1
El Taco Veloz ............. 3-1
Irazu ..................... 6-1
Tecalitlan ............... 12-1
Picante Taqueria ........ 100-1

Dona Naty's Taco: Round 2 Review

#12. Dona Naty's Taco
1813 W. Chicago
Torta de Milanesa
$3.49 (no extras)

Defeated #5 Taqueria Super Burrito in Round 1 [review]
Defeated #12b Carniceria Leon in Eat-in Match [review]

On its best days, Dona Naty's Taco can remind me of De Pasada. Both restaurants take their time, and put some extra care and forethought into how their food is prepared. In Dona Naty's case, that meant the spicy ground chicken mixture that made an extraordinary meal out of an ordinary chicken burrito, and the grilled onions that provided a little extra flair to its tacos al Pastor. It's those little things that had made Dona Naty's the lowest remaining seed to survive in the bracket. Unfortunately, this was not one of Dona Naty's best days.


The Food:
In a word? Meh. There were no signs of Dona Naty's subtle knack for innovation in this torta. In fact, it was one of the most ordinary dishes that we've tried so far. In contrast to De Pasada, which cut its steak into individual slices and breaded each one individually, Dona Naty's reverted to the standard route of providing one big "wafer" of meat. Although the breading was reasonably good, the meat was smashed so thin that you could barely even taste the animal product. Likewise, the toppings were a little lackluster. Whereas De Pasada's torta featured fresh guacamole, Naty's had ordinary avocado. And for some reason, the combination of the avocado plus the grated cheese, both of which were at refrigerator temperature, made the torta a little cold; the idea of the hot staying hot and the cool staying cool has been a dicey proposition ever since the McDLT was launched.


The Experience: Speaking of which, Dona Naty's service can run hot-and-cold. If you'll recall from Dona Naty's eat-in match two months ago, we encountered a waitress who was a little anglophobic. Maybe that's too strong a term, but considering that she didn't even try to take my order, instead having the counter guy do her dirty work for her, I don't know how else to characterize it. That pattern completely reversed itself in our Round 1 visit, when we had a pleasant, English-speaking waitress that made us feel right at home. This time around? Back to Mrs. No Habla Ingl├ęs, and her running point with the counter guy to have him take my order. To make clear: I'm not even asking for the courtesy of a waitress who tries to speak English. Rather, I'm asking for the courtesy of a waitress who lets me try and speak Spanish. If I'm completely embarrassing myself, then you can call the counter guy over to serve as an interpreter. Again, all of this was in stark contrast to De Pasada, which has perhaps the most welcoming service of any taqueria in Chicago.

11/2/07

De Pasada: Round 2 Review

#4. De Pasada
1108 N. Ashland
Torta de Milanesa
$3.75 (no extras)

Defeated #13 Mr. Taco's Restaurant in Round 1 [review]

When my parents were in town a couple weeks ago and they wanted to check out one of the taquerias from Burrito Bracket, the place I took them to was De Pasada. That does not necessarily mean that De Pasada is my favorite -- if I knew which one was my favorite, I would never have started Burrito Bracket in the first place. But it does mean that I wanted them to come away with a good experience -- and De Pasada was the choice for its exceptional consistency.

The Food:
Standard operating procedure when you order a milanesa torta -- and if you're new to the torta world, this is the kind of torta that you want to be ordering -- is to be presented with a large, amoeba-shaped piece of steak, brutally beaten down until it's thinner than Calista Flockhart, and coated with a light breading. Oftentimes, as in the case of this otherwise very good torta from Arturo's, the shape of the meat will not particuarly match the shape of the bread, leading to a sort of overbite effect.


At De Pasada, this is not a problem, because rather than giving you one big slab of meat, they instead give you a series of individual slices, all of which are breaded individually. This undoubtedly requires more preparation time than the common method, but careful preparation is what De Pasada is all about. And it really shows up in terms of the results: you can actually taste the steak and not just the breading, and you don't run into any tough or stringy portions like you might elsewhere.

De Pasada also has what might be the best salsa in Chicago, rating plenty high on the Scoville scale without blowing out its character. All the veggies and toppings are very fresh, particuarly the guacamole, which is a nice perk to have on a $3.75 torta. I wasn't in love with the bread, which was also very fresh but could have been somewhat toastier, but nevertheless this was an outstanding torta.

The Experience: De Pasada truly is a family affair -- I actually have a little bit of an inside scoop on this, which I'll present at a later time -- and that's reflected in most every aspect of the experience there. The service is warm, inviting, and for lack of a better term, motherly -- on a previous visit, I was commended when I returned by plate to the counter before I left, and told that my mom must have raised me well. Yes, you might have to put up with the fact that the 9-year-old son of the owner has decided to commandeer the TV and hook his XBOX up to it. But for this kind of quality, it's a small price to pay.

10/26/07

La Pasadita [#1] defeats Arturo's Tacos [#8]

Da-da-da-duhduhduh-dum-dum
Da-da-da-duhduhduh-dum-dum
Da-da-da-duhduhduh-dum-dum
... Wipe Out!.

In one of the most definitive (and least surprising) verdicts in Burrito Bracket history, La Pasadita [review] has defeated Arturo's Tacos [review] to advance to the Final Four. It's final score of 41.5 also ties it with ... itself ... for the highest overall score in the competition to date.


Ladies and gentlemen, we've got a juggernaut on our hands. The winner of next week's De Pasada - Dona Naty's match-up will do its best to unseat La Pasadita in Round 3.

Arturo's Tacos: Round 2 Review

#8. Arturo's Tacos
2001 N. Western
Barbacoa Tacos
3 @ $1.80 each + 45¢ sour cream each = $6.75

Defeated #9 Lazo's Tacos in Round 1 [review]

As a rule of thumb, there is an inverse relationship between the size of a restaurant's menu and the quality of its food. Case in point: consider The Cheesecake Factory, which has a menu the size of a phone book, versus Charlie Trotter's, which doesn't really even have a menu at all, but simply dictates to you what you're going to be eating that evening (possibly with substitutions for food allergies -- if they're in a good mood). Even within the realm of fast food, this principle largely holds true. Chains like In-and-Out Burger, Chipotle, and Potbelly Sandwiches focus on small, simple menus featuring well-sourced ingredients. As a result, there are more efficiencies in their food costs, keeping the menu more affordable, and the quality is considerably higher, enough so that even a self-proclaimed food snob like me will find himself eating there once in a while.


Arturo's Tacos has a very large, diner-style menu: the menu literally takes up the entire length of the wall of the establishment. Some things on its menu, things like the milanesa torta, are quite good. Other things on its menu, things like the barbacoa tacos that I ate today, perhaps should not be offered.

The Food: Well, these were certainly good-looking tacos. Arturo's is more cognizant of presentation than perhaps any other restaurant in the bracket save Tecalitlan, and that presentation extends both to its interior decoration and to the food itself. Aligned neatly on the plate, and accompanied by a lime wedge and the streaming sunlight of Armitage Avenue, my tacos were almost self-consciously photogenic --as opposed to La Pasadita's, which might generously be described as "fugly".


Unfortunately, there's no way around it. I have a soft spot for Arturo's Tacos -- I consider it to be a Chicago institution, and it has served up many a good meal to customers in a variety of states of sobriety. But these barbacoa tacos simply weren't any good. As you might infer, the primary problem as with the meat, which was overcooked, stringy, and had a rather unpleasant aftertaste; it seemed like it had been sitting in a vat for awhile. The tortillas were also a little too tough and the sour cream verged on being runny; just not a good experience all around. The salsa was redeemable, at least.

The Experience: On the other hand, good food or bad, at least Arturo's heart is in the right place. The interior of the restaurant is beautiful, with a slightly kitschy, almost grotesque aesthetic that is distinctive without being overdone. The service was extremely prompt -- it might not have been three minutes from the time I ordered my tacos to the time they were sitting in front of me. Although it looks like they've slightly upped the prices on their tacos recently, the operation is certainly endearing enough that it's earned a mulligan on a bad meal here and there. But this was one of those bad meals.

La Pasadita: Round 2 Review

#1. La Pasadita
1132 N. Ashland
Barbacoa Tacos
3 @ $1.55 each + 50¢ sour cream each = $6.15


Defeated #16 Flash Taco in Round 1 [review]

There once was a time when I was a little bit intimidated by La Pasadita. It wasn’t too hard to get over that, once I realized that their somewhat detached service is a necessity given how many customers they turn over every hour, and that the utilitarian preparation of their tacos and burritos – “yes” to onions and cilantro, “no” to anything else – is not because they forgot to buy grated cheese at the store, but because things taste better that way when you know how to
cook your meat.

Then there was a time that I was convinced that La Pasadita was a one-trick pony. Yes, their carne asada was probably the best in the neighborhood, and possibly the best in Chicago. But what about the rest of their menu? Once I moved closer to La Pasadita, however, enabling – nay, necessitating -- more frequent visits, I came to understand that nearly the entire range of their menu is quality. Tortas, tacos, and burritos were successfully tested; chicken, steak, and pork were obligingly tasted. There were visits to its take-out counter at 1 PM, and visits to its sit-down restaurant at 1 AM; the quality was the same.

La Pasadita’s barbacoa, however, was sort of the black sheep of the family. I had ordered their barbacoa once before, and remembered being a little underimpressed. But that was once and only once, and barbacoa was just one out of a medley of tacos I was having, and I was so hungry on that visit that I barely had the time to process what I was eating. So barbacoa would be a fair challenge for Pasadita -- if La Pasadita was going to stumble, it quite possibly was going to be here.

The Food: But stumble it did not. In fact, the barbacoa might be the best thing on La Pasadita’s menu.

Before we consider that proposition, let me detour a bit to explain my previous history with barbacoa. It is very limited. In fact, save for my one prior experience at La Pasadita, it had been limited to occasional visits to Chipotle, where barbacoa is one of the four primary meats that Chipotle serves on its menu. I always liked Chipotle’s barbacoa reasonably well, but there was something missing; it was a little too processed, too refined. And after this visit to La Pasadita, I discovered what that “something” is: the fat.

Barbacoa is generally made from head meat, quite often cheek meat, which means that in its natural form it’s going to contain quite a bit of fat. At Chipotle, however, the fat is sort of sanitized out. Consider the following, which is the percentage fat content of each of Chipotle’s four meats.

Barbacoa 11.4%

Carnitas 10.7%

Steak 10.7%

Chicken 9.8%

You’ll notice that the ratios for the four products are all about the same. That strikes me as a little unnatural. Meats like barbacoa and carnitas ought not to contain just a little more fat than chicken; they ought to contain a lot more fat. I suspect this is so because Chipotle is trying to keep their calorie counts low for health-conscious consumers, but the thing is, the fat content from the meat is not really where the problem lies. Let’s say that you order a barbacoa fajita burrito at chipotle, accompanied by corn and red tomatillo salsas, cheese, and sour cream. According to chipotlefan.com, that burrito will cost you 1313 calories. How many of those calories are from the barbacoa itself? Only 285; about 80% of the calorie count comes from all those other toppings that Chipotle is piling on. So their approach to cooking is sort of penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Now let’s return to the world of La Pasadita. Their barbacoa is fatty. In fact, it’s wonderfully fatty – rich, tender and succulent. It reminds me of two of my favorite dishes on any menu in Chicago: the short ribs at sola, and the slab bacon at Bluebird. It hits that perfect note of being a little bit indulgent, while still being consumable in large portions. And the thing is, since La Pasadita doesn’t load up its tacos with all the other crap that Chipotle does, I would guess that its calorie count is still much, much lower. Their barbacoa is not something that you’d want to eat every day, exactly, but it’s giving you much better bang on your buck.

I did cheat a little bit by ordering sour cream on my tacos. Actually, this was somewhat unintentional; I asked my waitress for sour cream on one of my tacos as a sort of experiment, but something was lost in translation and it came on all three. Good thing it did, because the sour cream was a natural complement to the zesty meat, and something that I’d recommend highly with this dish. Pasadita also has three kinds of salsa available – the pico de gallo was a little bit off, overly salty and not especially fresh, but both the green and the mysterious black salsas were very good. Finish off with ample helpings of onion and cilantro, and you’ve got a gourmet-quality meal on your hands for barely more than six dollars.

The Experience: For this visit, I went to the “full service” location at 1132 N. Ashland. The largest of Pasadita’s three neighboring storefronts, La Nueva is also the most chaotic, since it has the most comprehensive menu and is also processing considerable take-out business. It helps to know the ropes a little bit. When you’re ready to eat, just sit down – no need to hang out at the counter. And when you’re ready to leave, just head to the counter – no need to hang out at your table, since the waitresses seem to have a magical ability to arrive at the cash register exactly when you do, and remember exactly what you ordered. It’s chaos – but it’s organized chaos. That’s not to say the service is overtly friendly, but it’s as friendly as it needs to be. My only minor complaints really where the mix-up over the sour cream, and the volume of the music, which was turned up loud enough that there was no way in hell that I was going to be able to check my voicemail while waiting for my tacos.

10/22/07

Elite Eight Preview

With apologies to Taqueria Trespasada, and to a lesser extent Carncierias Guanajuato and Taco & Burrito Express, all of which I would recommend to one degree or another, things are going to get much more interesting now that we've advanced into the second round, and weeded out some of the weaker taquerias in our bracket. Following is the world's briefest -- and hopefully only -- preview of my next eight lunch dates.

#1. La Pasadita versus #8 Arturo's Tacos

Barbacoa Tacos

This will be our first and perhaps only venture into barbacoa in the bracket; the secret ingredient was originally supposed to be al pastor, until I realized that La Pasadita did not carry pastor on its menu. It's that barbacoa that throws a little bit of a wild card into this matchup, since it's something that involves careful preparation and a house recipe that can differ significantly from taqueria to taqueria. The two things we can say almost for sure about La Pasadita are that (1) everything on its menu is good; (2) nothing on its menu is as good as its carne asada. How we resolve the tension between those two platitudes is going to go a long way toward determining the outcome here. That is not to say that what Arturo's does is unimportant -- it surprised us once before by turning out a very solid torta in Round 1. But this is still La Pasadaita's match-up to lose.

Vegas Odds: La Pasadita is a 5-1 favorite.

#4. De Pasada versus #12 Dona Naty's Taco
Torta de Milanesa

These restaurants remind me a lot of one another -- both are tremendously friendly family businesses that are overshadowed by flashier neighbors (La Pasadita in De Pasada's case, and Taco Veloz for Dona Naty's). I would not read very much into Dona Naty's #12 seed -- it has already won twice, first in its eat-in match where it delivered pastor tacos that were worthy of our Honor Roll, and then with a chicken burrito in Round 1 that wasn't that far behind. Still, De Pasada is nothing if not consistent, and tortas have not been a particular strength of Dona Naty's on past visits.

Vegas Odds: De Pasada is a 5-2 favorite.

#2. El Taco Veloz versus #10 Picante Taqueria
Al Pastor Burrito


This is probably the biggest mismatch of the second round, at least on paper. Both Veloz and Picante exceeded expectations in the first round -- but for Veloz, those expectations had been very high, whereas for Picante they had been quite low. Veloz also has something of a structural advantage in the non-food categories, and the weather could be a factor -- we'll be into November by the time this match-up occurs, and if God has thrown off the global warming switch and restored Chicago's weather to what it normally should be this time of year, it's not going to be much fun eating at Picante's outdoor patio.

Vegas Odds: El Taco Veloz is a 9-1 favorite.

#3 Tecalitlan versus #6 Irazu
Chicken Tacos

Irazu was unambiguously better in the first round, crushing Lobos al Fresco while Tecalitlan barely skated by Carnicerias Guanajuato. Indeed, Irazu is probably the favorite in spite of its lower seed. But I'm not sure that chicken is going to play to Irazu's strengths, since most of its dishes are either meat- or vegetarian-based. Tecalitlan, meanwhile, as one of the more gringo-friendly restaurants in the bracket, and ought to know how to keep us white boys happy by serving up some good chicken. This is definitely the signature matchup of the second round.

Vegas Odds: Irazu is a 4-3 favorite

Odds to Win Bracket

La Pasadita ............... 2-1
El Taco Veloz ............. 3-1
De Pasada ................. 5-1
Irazu ..................... 6-1
Tecalitlan ............... 10-1
Dona Naty's Taco ......... 20-1
Arturo's Tacos ........... 50-1
Picante Taqueria ........ 100-1

The main changes here are Veloz and Irazu moving upward and Tecalitlan moving downward, based on their respective performances in Round 1. I've also shortened Pasadita's odds slightly after several positive "off-bracket" experiences, but it is by no means a shoo-in. Who do you like? Who are you rooting for?

10/19/07

Irazu [#6] defeats Lobos Al Fresco Tacos [#11]

Since this result was both relatively clear and relatively predictable, let's keep this as simple as possible: Irazu [review] has defeated Lobos Al Fresco Tacos [review], and advanced to the next round. It also recorded a convincing score of 40, which is enough to register it for our newly-created Honor Roll (see right-hand column, and note that some scores on the Honor Roll have been added retroactively).


Look for a preview of the "Elite Eight" matchups and a bit of dish from an inside source, all to come at some point this weekend.

Lobos Al Fresco Tacos: Round 1 Review

#11. Lobos Al Fresco Tacos
1732 N. Milwaukee
Carne Asada Burrito
$6.25 (no extras)

This is sort of a bittersweet day for Burrito Bracket, because it marks the end of the first round, and therefore also the last "undiscovered" taqueria in Wicker Park. Destiny is now manifest, every corner of the map has now been filled in, and if I want a new taco joint, I'll have to move to San Francisco -- or at least to Pilsen. Today's entrant, Lobos Al Fresco Tacos, was a particuarly appropriate way to end things, because having opened quite recently, it was one of the few taquerias in the bracket that I'd never tried. And so the sense of discovery was preserved, at least for one more day.


The Food: Generally speaking, Lobos al Fresco causes a bit of cognitive dissonance. It has an upscale name and an upscale menu -- most of its items are full dinner plates priced at $10 to $15, rather than tacos and burritos -- but the interior looks like a renovated burger joint, which is in fact exactly what it is. And it's owned and operated by somebody named Yebel Shlimovitch, which I'm assuming is not a Mexican surname.

The food provokes a similar reaction. My first taste of Lobos was its unique and somewhat wonderful salsa that came with my chips and salsa; a rich orange in color, it had a 'creeper' spiciness that bore the distinct mark of habanero peppers. And when my burrito arrived, my first impression that it was excellent, perhaps even competitive with Irazu's entry from earlier in the week. Accessorized with a nicely-seasoned brown rice and both black and pinto beans, and dribbled with a little bit of that orange salsa, it certainly had its own special character.


Upon further review, however, I found the burrito to be a victory of style over substance. The primary problem was simply with the steak, which as Time Out Chicago's David Tamarkin had warned, was bland and underseasoned. Another problem was the texture: the steak was diced up too thinly, almost producing the character of ground beef, which cheapened what seemed otherwise like a pretty good cut of meat. And eventually, all the rice and beans produced a bit of a carb overload, making the burrito go down heavy. This didn't render the burrito inedible by any means -- I will give Lobos another try. But ultimately I agree with Mr. Tamarkin's conclusion: there's some unrealized potential here.

The Experience: As its name would imply, the real attraction of Lobos Al Fresco is in its small, triangularly-shaped outdoor dining area, which might not overlook the prettiest streetscape in the world, but has to be a nice option on a pleasant summer's day; a little bit too cool for that this time of year, unfortunately. My young server was prompt and friendly, checking in multiple times to see whether I needed refills on my salsa (yes) and cola beverage (no). But the interior of the restaurant is compact, and I overheard a little bit more chatter than I needed to about everything ranging from the previous customer to where they were going to buy their tomatoes.

10/15/07

Irazu: Round 1 Review

#6. Irazu
1865 N. Milwaukee
Carne Asada Burrito
$5.00 (plus avocado, sour cream @ 50
¢ each = $6.00 total)

There are certain days when the Burrito Bracket is a bit of a chore. The grind of mediocre experiences at grungy supermarkets and soulless chain restaurants was beginning to wear on me. But not so today. The first thing I thought when I woke up this morning was "I'm going to go get a big yummy burrito at Irazu".

Irazu, an unpretentious, ramshackle little eatery near the Western Blue Line stop, is one of the worst-kept secrets in Chicago. Its specialty is Costa Rican food rather than Mexican, which explains its relatively low seed (and why I nearly forgot to include it in the competition). However, it does maintain a small menu of "traditional" Mexican fare, including a few items that qualify covertly; its famous Pepito sandwich is for all intents and purposes a torta. And though I'd never tried Irazu's burritos, everything else on its menu has been uniformly excellent. So my expectations were quite high.

The Food: I can understand why my vegetarian friends like Irazu so much. This burrito is bursting at the seams with color -- the lush red of the tomatoes, the tropical green of the avocado, the tapestry of browns from the protein. You just know that the flavor is going to be good, and it does not disappoint. The tomatoes in particular were incredibly ripe and tasty, the avocado was fresh, and the beans were outstanding, with a little bit of sugary sweetness. 90% of the time, it's the meat that makes a burrito. This was that rare exception; it's the veggies and the produce that stand out. I want to know where Irazu does its shopping, because they sure as hell aren't getting those tomatoes at Jewel.


Not that the steak was anything to sneeze at. Irazu serves many varieties of dinner plates centered around steak, and the meat was lean and tender. It was also, to my taste, a little bit underseasoned. Costa Rican food, like most Latin American food, tends to be a significantly milder than Mexican fare, and this might be a relic of that. However, Irazu also takes something of a DIY philosophy: you can add the spice yourself. The salsa, particuarly the verde, is almost pure spice. Eaten with your chips and salsa, it's a little lacking in depth (it's also a little runny). It's a fine compliment, however, to the burrito. Irazu also provides the option of ordering your burrito with roasted hot peppers. I opted in, of course, and these were a nice perk, although there could have been a couple more of them. (Irazu also has several items that prominently feature plantains, which could create some other intriguing permutations. Then again, I'm the sort of person that falls for the sweet-and-savory trick every time, and thinks that pineapple is an excellent pizza topping).

Anyway, we're drifting away from the main point, which is that this burrito works together harmoniously -- it scores well on that mysterious "balance/composition" attribute that we were discussing last week. The only mild complaint is that it does suffer from a little bit of the Chipotle Effect, meaning that the ingredients aren't really mixed together. This frankly makes for more attractive presentation, but it also means that you're going to get some meat-heavy bites and some veggie-heavy bites.

The Experience: My server today, who was sort of a Costa Rican hipster, was awesome. He really seemed to be invested in the quality of the food, and he was helpful and efficient while remaining low-key and out of the way, which can be a hard balance to maintain at those awkward hours when you don't have many customers in your dining area (I was one of just two tables eating in at about 4 PM today). He was also evidently having a little bit of fun with the music, mixing in traditional Latino music with Tutti Frutti. The dining area itself is also fairly pleasant, featuring a large, somewhat hokey mural of a pastoral Costa Rican scene, although it's an old building and on past visits has had some problems with temperature regulation (being either too hot or too cold). Keep in mind when we grade out Irazu later this week that the ratings are particular to this visit and this visit only. Although the service has never been rude, it inevitably loses some ground once the restaurant gets busier, which it usually does by dinner time.