Titus Ruscitti knows there are at least 1,000 taco shops in the Chicago area because he’s eaten at 1,000 of them.
Since 2013, the Logan Square resident has been documenting his taco exploits—at least two new (or new-to-him) taco joints a week on average—on his Chicago Taco Tours blog.
His 1000th stop Monday was satisfying if understated, a quiet, late lunch in the empty dining room at Mom’s Old Recipe (5760 N. Milwaukee Ave.) a family-run restaurant tucked between a karate studio and a title loan office in Jefferson Park.
“They make their own tortillas here. When they’re willing to take that extra step with tortillas, it’s a sign of what else may come out of the kitchen,” he says, holding aloft a taco filled with breaded, fried beef and rice.
The tortilla wasn’t even the best part. Ruscitti says these tacos acorazados, a specialty of Cuernavaca, Mexico, are a rare sight in Chicago. “Seeing them here is pretty special,” he says.
Among food-obsessed social media types, Ruscitti, 34, is something of an elder statesman. He has been writing his main food blog, Chokin’, Smokin’ and Chowing with the King, for a decade. He had a blog dedicated to Italian beef sandwiches until he ran out of places to try.
Tacos, though—he can’t get enough. He’s been enamored of them since his first visit to Taco and Burrito Palace in Lincoln Park when he was five. It wasn’t until his college years in Tampa, Florida, and Madison, Wisconsin, that it hit him: “There’s not good Mexican food everywhere like there is in Chicago.”
Ruscitti started the taco blog as a personal repository for his already sizable photo collection of tacos until he realized he could be a valuable resource for others. Other great taco towns, “and by that I mean L.A. and Dallas,” he says, have self-appointed “taco scholars” (writers Bill Esparza and Jose Ralat, respectively, whose work Ruscitti says he’s learned the most from) who seek out real-deal taco shops that might as well be in Mexico. Why not Chicago?
But, one might wonder, how can a white kid from Lincoln Park call himself a taco expert? “It’s not like I’m imposing on a culture or someone else’s job. [Tacos] are there for anyone to enjoy. More than anything, my hope is that it’ll attract more people to these spots,” Ruscitti says. “It’s just showing love to the restaurants. I don’t think you have to be black to talk about soul food or Italian to review a restaurant like Monteverde.”
“He definitely knows everything there is to know about tacos in Chicago,” says his friend Aaron Wolfson, owner of Chicago’s Dog House.
Ruscitti, a self-employed entrepreneur who’s worked in the video gaming industry, hears of places through friends, media reports, LTHForum, and just by driving around. “So many of them are not on Yelp or Google, especially on the South Side,” he says.
While taquerias are his main focus, he’s happy to try trendy sit-down spots too. “Hipster tacos can be delicious,” he says.
His practiced eye knows to look for regional specialties on a menu first. If a place says it serves tacos al pastor and he sees meat being shaved off a vertical spit called a trompo, that’s an excellent sign; you won’t see that at most places, he says. (Pro tip: Tacos El Tio, 3734 W. Grand Ave., is one place where you will.) When in doubt, order the first item. “I do believe that nine times out of 10, the best taco will be listed first,” he says.
But Ruscitti says his role is taco advocate, not critic. “Even if it’s not great, I try to be nice. These are mom-and-pop spots mostly. You can catch one on a bad day. I’m really just trying to shed light on lesser-known spots and where to find great tacos in your neighborhood,” he says.
He typically doesn’t identify himself to restaurant owners, although occasionally they’ll ask why he’s taking photos. His reply: “I tell them I go around and I like to eat tacos. Usually they smile.”
Ruscitti admits he’s fallen behind on updating his taco blog; his corresponding Instagram and Twitter feeds are more current. But that’s because he’s been busy working on his next projects with Wolfson: turning the blog into an actual walking tour and finding a location to open a Texas-style taqueria (his wife is from Texas), serving breakfast tacos and guisados.
This summer, he and Wolfson tested out their concept as a pop-up vendor at a Pilsen food fest under the name Tacos Lamar. “It’s about finding the right spot,” Ruscitti says.
Meanwhile, taqueria 1,001 beckons. He spotted it—Salsa Borracha on Milwaukee Avenue—in his car on the way to Mom’s Old Recipe.