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.


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.