What seemed like a fad a few years ago—chefs slumming with burgers, pizza, and doughnuts—is the city’s new reality. This is good. Now Chicagoans hold even the most modest of dishes to higher standards, which elevates the playing field for foods that many once left to franchises and chains.
A cynic could assert the opposite: Chefs have not democratized good dining; they’ve upscaled foods that were just fine to begin with. Tacos, for instance. Plenty of young Chicagoans worship slick new spots like Antique Taco, Big Star, and Takito Kitchen. (It’s worth noting that the three form a triangle around Wicker Park.) These places do a nice job, proffering farmers’ market ingredients and creative drinks, but are their tacos better than those served at any number of standout taquerias—at far lower prices?
Americans’ fascination with Mexico’s humblest street food caught fire around 2008 with Kogi BBQ, the creative Korean fusion taco truck in Los Angeles. Imitators followed as the taco became a canvas, à la pizza, upon which chefs could paint whatever their cooking-school hearts desired. The nadir of taco bastardization came when TGI Fridays introduced Korean steak tacos with Sriracha and ginger lime slaw in 2012.
But long before the revolution, Chicago’s huge Mexican community boasted countless humble taquerias that treated tacos as an art. Carmela’s Taqueria, a 33-year-old tile-countered Uptown dive, and Tierra Caliente, a 20-year-old gem tucked into a grungy corner bodega on North Ashland Avenue, are fine examples. One look at the serious guys manning their kitchen trompos (Lebanese-inspired vertical spits) spinning with manicured tiers of marinated pork, and you know the tacos al pastor—the gold standard—will be good.
Even better is Taqueria Los Barrilitos in Little Village, which occupies a dingy space so bare-bones that on one unseasonably cold night, the room was warmed by a heat lamp attached to a propane tank perched on a wooden chair. Pray the operation doesn’t burn down, because the food is fantastic.
After carving achiote-marinated pork from the trompo, a taquero crisps the thin shavings on the griddle and enfolds them in two layers of warm corn tortillas with the traditional cilantro, onions, and roasted pineapple. Add salsa verde, a squeeze of lime, and a pinch of onion habanero escabèche. This is how a taco should taste: juicy, spicy, simple. Go on a Wednesday or Thursday, when tacos cost $1, get three—al pastor, carne asada, and cabeza—and you’ll be set.
Or venture into La Chaparrita, an amazing Mexico City–style taqueria attached to another corner grocery, this one at 25th and Whipple Streets. Decor includes rickety barstools, a Santa Muerte altar, and a photo of ABC-7’s Steve Dolinsky. Chicago’s foodiest foodies discovered La Chaparrita long ago, so the staff is used to curious gringos wandering in. My crew hadn’t even ordered when the cheerful owner, Angelina Mendez, offered cups of homemade pineapple tepache that was fermenting in a wooden barrel.
The taquero, a smiling man named Cesar Castillo, is some kind of genius. He shuffles between a charcoal grill, a small griddle, and a charola pan full of cow parts and warming corn tortillas to produce what I declare to be Chicago’s best tacos. Suadero, the smooth, moist cousin of hanger steak, goes straight from Castillo’s charola to you. Sprinkled with onions and cilantro, it’s almost perfect, but the crown belongs to the lean and glorious $1.75 specimen stuffed with fiery homemade longaniza, a sausage somewhere between linguiça and chorizo.
Other tacos, including lengua (tongue), crispy tripa (stomach), and creamy seso (brain), are their own treasures, as are caramelized sweet onion knobs and housemade salsas. I saw Castillo peeking from the kitchen to check my reaction to the tripa. I’m not sure which of us was happier.
By these standards, Takito Kitchen, an earnest industrial-modern storefront whose artisanal tacos are the kind of kitchen-sink creations that probably seemed awesome during a staff meal and should have stayed there, does not fare well. Chef/partner David Dworshak’s gorgeous but muddled Maple Creek Farms pork belly taco (three for $11) involves a homemade sesame tortilla, superfresh mozzarella, and hydroponic arugula. It’s ecologically responsible and culinarily questionable.
At Antique Taco, a breezy hot spot where the kitchen crew sports Antique Taco trucker hats (for sale, near the cash register), the chef, Rick Ortiz, takes his own chances. “We’re all about how creative can you get with tacos,” says his wife and business partner, Ashley. Pretty creative, it seems. Ortiz, who formerly cooked at Soldier Field, gives tempting pork carnitas an adobo rub and a tamarind glaze, then folds in spinach, bacon, and queso fresco. A satisfying fish tempura taco smolders with Sriracha tartar sauce and smoked cabbage. Nothing authentic here, nor is that the point, but where Takito’s creative liberties twist your tongue, these flavors intrigue.
Then, of course, there is Big Star, Paul Kahan’s whiskey-drenched honky-tonk, where the buzz includes a taco truck, coffee, churros, and a patio soon to spill into an adjacent parking lot. It’s Chicago’s best party—and almost enough to convince you the tacos are great.
The tiny kitchen produces six versions with varying degrees of success. Too often, the tortillas arrive soggy and saggy, as on a braised pork belly taco de panza burdened with tomato guajillo sauce and queso fresco or on a beer-battered tilapia overpowered by chipotle mayo. The al pastor tacos, made from pork shoulder fresh from the grilled-pineapple-topped trompo, are good, but the marinade lacks the depth of Los Barrilitos’.
Oh, Ruby, you say. Can’t I just enjoy my tamarind-flavored beef barbacoa taco and cucumber margarita? You can. This is not an either-or situation, and maybe a trip to a boozeless South Side storefront isn’t your idea of fun. Unless your idea of fun involves great, cheap tacos, that is.