Cafe Costa Rica
141 South Butler Street
Madison, WI 53704
Specifically Costa Rican restaurants are tough to come by, so loyal readers are probably wondering why it took us so long to meander over to the one in our own backyard. The short answer is a bit of indecision: country-specific it may be, but we were concerned with Costa Rica Cafe’s reviews. We hard it all: potentially spotty food, horrendously slow service, and very overpriced. But finally we made it to see for ourselves – and every complaint we heard turned out to be wrong.CCR inhabits a former house in downtown Madison, decked out in party chairs and fake plastic palm trees outside that must make for a kitschy but amusing summer evening, yet were no good on this chilly and rainy night. We were concerned when we walked into the seating area downstairs, mostly because CCR turned out to be one of the tiniest restaurant’s we’ve been in (about the same size as Bien Trucha) and all the seats were taken. Luckily a nice couple, who were just paying their bill, got up and gave us their seats, so we nestled ourselves into a cozy corner and began to scope the place out. Check out the view from our table – yes this is the entire place!
First good sign: they grow their own habaneros. In little plants right on the main counter. People familiar with M’s culinary escapades can imagine how excited he was at this. Second good sign: The table has two bottles of salsa, but homemade, one based on said habaneros (“Mango Man Sauce”) – meaning the peppers are not for decor, they actually use them in cooking. As such, the menu piqued our interest. We decided to mix it up as much as we could given our budget. For appetizers, a plate of fried plantains (an ETW favorite) with the aforementioned habanero sauce ($5.95) and a cheese empanada ($3.95). Main course: we split an order of pork tacos (under the assumption that one order ($11.95) would be enough for both of us.
The plantains were soft, sweet, and delightful, and the habanero sauce added a good flavorful kick. M could have eaten three plates of them and called it dinner. L was enamored with the empanada, soft and cheesy and flaky, doing good on her cheese/carbs combo love. But it was really those tacos that blew us away: piled high with shredded pork marinated in the habanero sauce, garnished with generous helpings of cilantro (another ETW fav we can never get enough of), lettuce, tomatoes, and more habanero sauce in a corn tortilla. The marinade absolutely made the meal, and we were really happy to see someone making tacos in corn tortillas that really broke out of the ubiquitous Mexican mold into other regions, and to do it so well.
The meal ended with us having spent $20 on what we thought was really well-price food given the amount we got, in addition to really friendly, unpretentious service. We really have to ask the naysayers about this place: what on earth were you all complaining about? We’ll go back if you don’t want to. We can’t help but take CCR and Bien Trucha together to think that a small seating area and simple, unpretentious service and decor make for a great restaurant. The smaller it is, the better we like it!