photo: Zinny Fandel
I've been in a Plain Jane mood lately. I'm no sooner through my door than I'm in my five-year-old electric blue sweats, sporting a ponytail and munching on not-long-from-the-freezer Jack's Pizza. As a cook who makes the whole shebang—pizza dough and sauce included—from scratch every week, that, more than anything, is a sign that I've temporarily strayed from the high-life. So when Steamer and I headed out for our latest BYOB feast, I wanted a simple cuisine paired with a beverage that wouldn't call for high heels: beer.
The restaurant pick was fairly easy. After an unbelievable breakfast (trading chi-chi omelets for a Cubano sandwich at Cafeteria Marianoa), I wanted to stay in the simple, warm waters with a Costa Rican meal. I had had my eye on Palmito, 3605 N. Ashland Ave., since hearing rave reviews, and assumed it would be something like Irazu, just without the beloved burritos.
With the destination in mind, we popped by Provenance Food & Wine. I don't know much about pairing beer and food, but I know a few simple rules of thumb, including this one: Amber ale is an all-around OK beer for any food that isn't too sweet, and aside from plantains, I anticipated a hearty meal that incorporated some kind of carne. Provenance's helpful notecards give simple descriptors, and the Unibroue 16, a deep amber ale (brewed in honor of Unibroue's 16th year) sounded great, as did the price: $9 for a big ol' bottle fit for two.
We moseyed into Palmito just before 9 p.m. on a Saturday night and encountered the man who deserves the World's Most Accommodating Waiter title. Though I get antsy in long brunch lines, I tend to be pretty darn patient when I show up to a 10-table restaurant on the weekend without a reservation. Every table, save a four-top, was open, but as Steamer and I readied ourselves for a bit of a wait, Mr. Accommodation came by a good six times to let us know he was working on it (and even offered to let us split the four-top with two girls, should we want to make friends).
A table soon opened, though, and we went straight to business, ordering the tilapia ceviche (though the heart of palm bruschetta gave me more than a moment of pause) followed by casado con carne and lomito de cerdo.
Our server, confused by our grand bottle of brew, brought us petite wine glasses, which we decided to accept in the spirit of drinking fun. After one sip, I started counting the minutes until the carne arrived. The taste was a complex one—Steamer instantly called out peaches and brown sugar—but the finish was tart and malty, which I don't find overly sippable. I was eager to see if pairing it would be another story.
The lime-soaked ceviche might not have been the smartest start (Would that little bit of sweetness kill my amber ale's brilliance?), but each bite of tortilla chip topped with chunks of citrusy fish made me enjoy the beer more, easing me into its finish. Served in a martini glass, it was a perfect portion for two. I demolished the plate's remaining chips and shoved it aside to make way for the entrees.
And, woe, where did my Plain Jane instincts go? I visually determined that Steamer made the smarter choice, with his simple platter of salad, steak, rice, beans, tortillas and plantains. It was the hearty Costa Rican feast I hoped for and stood in stark contrast to my artsy, American-ized (albeit flavorful) meal of pork tenderloin arranged in a crescent moon of medallions, flanked by a swirl of potatoes draped in green beans.
It was pretty indicative of the overall experience: on the classier end of the BYOB spectrum. Entrees average $15, which isn't astronomical, but it's also the equivalent of an entire meal at some Thai spots (or, for that matter, Irazu). That doesn't mean you shouldn't come. Just do it when you're looking for a BYOB that justifies heels.
And when you do come, you are hereby ordered to get the bananas caramelizados, sugary bananas bathed in coffee liquor and served with ice cream and whipped cream. I may be feeling perfectly plain, but I'd don a cocktail dress if given another chance to eat something this divine.
Zinny Fandel's tales of living the (mostly) BYOB life are intended to be attempted at home and in the community, preferably at BYOB restaurants. If you know of a BYOB spot she simply must tipple at, let her know.