Skate wing at Mexique
Mexique’s skate wing. For more photos, launch the gallery »


Shark Tacos at BIEN TRUCHA, $9
We love 2010. These days, you can drive out Route 38 to the far western suburbs, pull up to a place that looks like it may have been a Laundromat in a past life, and find shark tacos so shreddy and wonderful, topped with an avocado-habanero pico de gallo so fresh, you may as well have your feet in the sands of Baja California. 410 W. State St., Geneva; 630-232-2665

Tacos de Rajas de Poblano at BIG STAR, $3
No one has ever taken a bite of Big Star’s lone vegetarian taco and thought, You know, this would be better with meat. It’s got the soft homemade corn tortilla, a roasty burn, salty queso de freir, and fresh crema to soothe it all. What else do you need? Other than one more, that is. 1531 N. Damen Ave.; 773-235-4039

If you’re seeking an obscure spot to drag your adventurous friend on a food odyssey, this friendly little place near Midway is it. Order the rich goat stew of slow-cooked, crispy-edged meat in an intense habanero-infused consommé, and layer it in a wood-pressed tortilla with cilantro, onions, lime, arbol peppers, and homemade salsa picante and habanero sauce. No one will go home disappointed. 4852 S. Pulaski Rd.; 773-523-3700

Tacos Arabes at CEMITAS PUEBLA, $2.60
The Lebanese brought the concept of spit-roasted meat to Mexico, where shawarma became al pastor tacos—a.k.a. tacos arabes. Chicago’s best are at this Humboldt Park legend. Long-marinated pork and onions, tenderized by a pineapple atop the spit, nestle in a supple flour tortilla with a smoky salsa made of chipotles that Tony Anteliz, the owner, selected himself in a Puebla market. 3619 W. North Ave.; 773-772-8435

Puerco Indigena at CHILAPAN, $16.79
Folks have been going bonkers for this Logan Square BYO since the day it opened in May 2010. The seared pork tenderloin, seasoned with clove and cumin and set on a thick green pumpkinseed mole with a cheesy potato cake and wilted spinach, is just one reason. 2459 W. Armitage Ave.; 773-697-4374

Tampiqueña at DECOLORES, $16.50
When a guest asks our pleasant waitress what tampiqueña means, she says, “That means that it comes with an enchilada.” True, but it also refers to the strip steak that originated at the famed Tampico Club in Mexico City, restored here to its tender glory with magnificent char marks and a simple seasoning of garlic and salt. And you get an enchilada. 1626 S. Halsted St.; 312-226-9886

Chiles Rellenos de Mariscos at DORADO, $23
What a wonderful life it would be if every time you broke open a roasted poblano, it overflowed with fresh diver scallops, shrimp, and crabmeat. If you laid it on pillowy green rice and ladled a concentrated lobster-shrimp emulsion on top, it probably still wouldn’t be half as lush as Dorado’s. 2301 W. Foster Ave.; 773-561-3780

Tacos de Lengua at EL OJO DE AGUA, $1.79
Too many taquerías out there use low-grade, chewy beef or overly greasy chorizo. Lengua, more commonly known as beef tongue, is the answer. At this new Bucktown storefront, it’s cubed into gentle, pliable chunks, topped with onions, cilantro, and lime, and double-fortified with homemade corn tortillas. Regarding the Tongue Factor, we’ll quote Dylan: Don’t think twice, it’s all right. 2235 N. Western Ave.; 773-235-8807


Photograph: Anna Knott


Tinga Huaraches at HUARACHES DONA CHIO, $6.50
This big, bold Mexico City street-food dish is named after a sandal—for its size and shape, if not for its bluntness. Sofia Calventes, Dona Chio’s owner, presses her own thick masa, stuffs the beast with refried beans, and then paves it with salsa verde, juicy marinated chicken, Chihuahua cheese, cilantro, and onions. That’s one massive meal for the price. 1547 W. Elmdale Ave.; 773-878-8470

One of our Best Mexican RestaurantsPollo al Guajillo on Hongos at FRONTERA GRILL, $23
In simplest terms, it’s chicken, mashed potatoes, and mushrooms. Coming from Frontera’s kitchen, courtesy of the chef de cuisine, Richard James, it’s a fork-tender, adobo-marinated Gunthorp breast in red guajillo chili sauce with creamy, thick queso añejo mashed potatoes and the wildest grilled chanterelles possible. 445 N. Clark St.; 312-661-1434

One of our Best Mexican RestaurantsTortillas at LA CASA DE SAMUEL, $2.21
It all starts with good tortillas, and these chewy handmade miracles make anything exponentially better. For one thing, they’re thick and steamy—more substantial than what we’re all used to. In every delicious char mark, you taste the thousands of tortillas that preceded yours on the griddle. 2834 W. Cermak Rd.; 773-376-7474

One of our Best Mexican RestaurantsCochinita Pibil at LA FONDA DEL GUSTO, $16
“Buried baby pig” sounds like a particularly cruel translation, but this suckling porker, which has been slow-roasted, marinated into tender submission with achiote paste, and steamed in banana leaves, is one of the great dishes of Yucatecan cuisine. Dudley Nieto’s crispy-tender version, atop a tostada with pickled onions, is a masterpiece. 1408 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-278-6100

Camarones Tacos at LA LAGARTIJA TAQUERÍA, $2.50
Luis Perea and Laura Cid-Perea (Bombon Café) graduated from the School of Bayless in 2000, and their new taquería has the same bright colors and flavors as their mentor’s. Lagartija’s tacos are all fresh and cheap, but the best involves shrimp dabbed with crema and chipotle salsa—shielded by a breading as delicate as you always want tempura to be. 132 S. Ashland Ave.; 312-733-7772

Pollo en Mole Oaxaqueño at LA OAXAQUEÑA, $10
The many dried chilies in a mole negro recipe (and their seeds, too) get toasted until they’re dark as midnight. That’s what makes it so negro. It also explains why this mom-and-pop’s mole is so smoky, earthy, and rich—though we don’t know what magic Mom and Pop perform on the chicken to get it to retain its character under such a thick blanket of yum. 3382 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-545-8585

Carne a la Panela at LOS NOPALES, $16
It takes a certain hubris for a restaurant to serve three strips of skirt steak in a way that looks blatantly like a crucifix. The wonderful thin charred beef, bolstered by al dente cactus strips, tomatillo sauce, pan-seared panela cheese, and addictively soupy black beans, proves that Los Nopales has confidence in spades. 4544 N. Western Ave.; 773-334-3149

Patas de Jaiba at MARISCOS EL VENENO, $30
When you grow up landlocked like some of us did, a big plate of uncracked crab legs is as frustrating as it is enticing. But with this decadent Nayarit-style dish, wherein the meaty legs are marinated, steamed, and swimming in a wicked-hot red chili sauce, all the hard work pays big dividends—even if we end up covered in buttery garlic. Especially if we end up covered in buttery garlic. 1024 N. Ashland Ave.; 773-252-7200


Coctel de Camaron at MAYA DEL SOL, $6
Ruben Beltran, yet another Bayless disciple, breathes some life into a hoary old classic by slicing his luscious Gulf shrimp so thin that the fiery tomato-serrano sauce seeps into every square millimeter. An earthy tostadita base, pico de gallo, and smooth diced avocado act as a balm for your tongue. 144 S. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park; 708-358-9800

Seviche de Callo at MERCADITO, $11.50
If the citrus blast of seviche is too puckery for your tastes, Mercadito has the answer: watermelon. Moist chunks and a pastrylike tostadita balance the edge of wham-bam lime-marinated bay scallops and a deadly serrano-stoked pico de gallo. 108 W. Kinzie St.; 312-329-9555

Goat Taco at MEXICO RESTAURANT, $1.70
The cafeteria ambiance of this family-owned spot has as much personality as the name, but they make a mean goat taco. The spicy pulled goat meat (stuffed in a fresh double-tortilla wrapper with onions and cilantro) is caramelized around the edges, not remotely gamy, and about as tender as a bearded ruminant can be. 694 Lee St., Des Plaines; 847-296-1611

One of our Best Mexican RestaurantsSkate Wing at MEXIQUE, $23
Hmm. Pan-seared skate wing? With grapes, cauliflower, and cubes of Yukon gold potatoes? Not your typical Mexican fare, but then Mexique, with its historical-French slant, is not your typical Mexican restaurant. The fish, encrusted with herbed salt, has a crisp bite to it, and the citrus butter sauce harbors the only hint of a Mexico we know: serrano peppers. 1529 W. Chicago Ave.; 312-850-0288

One of our Best Mexican RestaurantsCamarones al Ajillo at MOM’S OLD RECIPE MEXICAN RESTAURANT, $17
Around the world, shrimp and garlic always seem to find each other. In Mexico, the classic combination is often like Mom’s: Six gorgeous grilled camarones circle a mound of corn-studded rice and bathe in an almost caramelized guajillo sauce punched up with sautéed garlic. 5760 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-467-1009

One of our Best Mexican RestaurantsQueso Fundido at NUEVO LÉON, $9.20
Poor queso fundido: always the butt of jokes. You take cheese, melt it, and it gets greasy. That’s all. But the good ones, like Nuevo Léon’s, have a complement embedded in all that stretchy Chihuahua: crumbles of first-rate homemade chorizo, acidic tomato fragments, and plenty of jalapeño, all of which you scoop up with grilled flour tortilla wedges. 1515 W. 18th St.; 312-421-1517

One of our Best Mexican RestaurantsPastel Tres Leches at ¡SALPICÓN!, $7
By the time it hits your table, this spongy pastry has been lounging in a fridge for a couple of hours, the better to soak up every ounce of the leches. Resembling a yellow igloo more than Mexico’s beloved birthday cake, ¡Salpicón!’s citrus-flavored version is topped with freshly whipped cream and bottomed with raspberry-mango coulis. 1252 N. Wells St.; 312-988-7811

Enchiladas Potosinas at SAN LUIS, $9
Closer to an empanada than an enchilada, this corn tortilla is blended with salsa, filled with minced chicken, puréed queso cotija, tomato, and chilies, and fried until crisp. It’s an addictive treat popular in the restaurant’s namesake state, San Luis Potosí, and in a just world, it would be popular here, too. 2903 W. Diversey Ave.; 773-276-0691


Flan at SOL DE MEXICO, $4
Clementina Flores, the chef at Sol de Mexico, is Geno Bahena’s mother and Rick Bayless’s former nanny, but the Guerrero native was a good chef before either of them. She’s also the mistress of Chicago’s firmest, creamiest, custardiest flan. Instead of drowning her masterwork in caramel, Flores just plates it with a drizzle of light syrup. 3018 N. Cicero Ave.; 773-282-4119

Tamales in this town begin and end with Señora Bustamante, long known to Rogers Parkers as the Tamale Lady. Bustamante fashions mini masterpieces like the Oaxacan tamale, basically a self-contained chicken mole dish that’s steamed and served in a banana leaf. Small package, big punch. 7024 N. Clark St.; 773-338-6450

Tortilla Chips at TAQUERÍA EL ASADERO, free with order
The thick, crisp triangles at this divey storefront across from Welles Park come fresh out of the fryer, often separating into two layers, both of which you’ll dip into the mouth-numbing tomatillo salsa. They’re free and they’re wonderful, but we were too shy to ask for a second basket. Don’t repeat our mistake. 2213 W. Montrose Ave.; 773-583-5563

One of our Best Mexican RestaurantsGuacamole at TOPOLOBAMPO, free with order
In his 2005 book, Mexican Every Day, Rick Bayless says he gave up searching for “the one best guacamole” long ago. Topo’s coarse dip, made with oily Hass avocados and strewn with roasted garlic and sweet corn, is irresistible, and instead of salty, overpowering tortilla chips, you get mellow jicama and cucumber slices. Looks like our search is over, too. 445 N. Clark St.; 312-661-1434

One of our Best Mexican RestaurantsPoc-Chuc at XNI-PEC DE YUCATÁN, $14.50
The ancient Mayans, lacking refrigerators, preserved meat with salt. All well and good until it came time to eat: Not even the Mayans could stand meat that salty. So they “washed” it with something acidic—say, orange juice. That’s poc-chuc. Xni-Pec nails the modern version: a grilled and orange-marinated pork cutlet, plenty of achiote paste, and skillet-fried onions. The Mayans would be amazed. 3755 Grand Blvd., Brookfield; 708-290-0082

One of our Best Mexican RestaurantsSeafood Soup at XOCO, $12.50
If Xoco’s tortas and churros steal all the thunder, then the caldos bring the lightning. A complex red chili broth walks a tightrope between spice and restraint—all while juggling organic shrimp, mussels, catfish, potatoes, grilled knob onions, pea shoots, cilantro, and lime. It’s an impressive high-wire act that doesn’t get enough applause. 449 N. Clark St.; 312-334-3688