The taco may have originated in Mexico, but given the variety of talented taquerias, Chicago could be the next best place to get one
The ingredients seem so humble: a corn tortilla, protein or veggie filling, onions and cilantro on top. And yet, the taco – that historically Mexican snack food that has spread throughout America and beyond – is so much better than the sum of all its parts. The best tacos are a vehicle for spice and texture, consumed in just a few bites, leaving you wishing you’d ordered more. They’re made from pork or steak, fish or veggies, and they come from small mom-and-pop shop and hipster whisky bars alike.
In Chicago, you can find a decent taco in just about any neighbourhood. But a chosen few are superior to the great many. Here are some key spots for taco tourists to check out.
Taqueria El Asadero
No frills, no website, no credit cards and, most importantly, no regrets. The al pastor taco – tender pork coloured red by chilies and spices – is among the best in town. Get it topped with the traditional onions and cilantro for a pop of fresh flavours and textures that contrast with the spice-filled (but not spicy) meat. Order at the counter, grab a table and the friendly servers will bring you a basket of fresh-from-the-fryer chips and a squirt bottle of salsa verde while you wait. Note: Ask for extra napkins, the tacos can be messy!
2213 W Montrose Ave, 773-583-5563
Las Carnitas Uruapan
This hole-in-the-wall taco joint, located in the largely Hispanic Pilsen neighbourhood, specializes in one thing: carnitas (slow-cooked pork with a golden crisp outside), hence the name. Carnitas Uruapan further proclaims its pork proclivities with pig pictures that line the walls and counter, including a rather violent cartoon of a chef chasing pigs with a large knife. Ask for the “carnitas value meal”; it’s enough food for two to share and includes a half-pound of carnitas, a stack of warm corn tortillas, salsa and a pile of chicharrones (crispy fried pork skin), all for about $6.
1725 W 18th St., 312-226-2654
Courtesy Las Carnitas Uruapan
Taqueria El Milagro
If you go to Carnitas Uruapan, make it a taco crawl and head to Taqueria El Milagro, also in Pilsen. Here, the bistek asado taco – grilled steak – is a standout, topped with large pieces of tender steak, grilled to order. At around $3 per taco, it’s pricey by taqueria standards, but it’s also huge: Each taco is topped with beans, cheese, cabbage slaw and far more meat than you’d expect to find mounded on a tortilla. Bonus: This location is attached to the El Milagro tortilla factory, so the tortillas are as fresh as they get. For dessert, try one of the fruit-filled tamales, like the pina (pineapple).
Multiple locations including 1927 S Blue Island Ave., 312-421-7443
Rubi’s at Maxwell Street Market
If you’ve spent much time in Mexico, you know that some of the best food comes from the street vendors. Same goes for Chicago, and the case in point is Rubi’s, a taco booth open just once a week (Sundays until 3 p.m.) at the outdoor Maxwell Street Market. Here, the line is perpetually long and the tacos are impossibly good, thanks, in part, to the homemade corn tortillas. Choose from an array of more than a dozen fillings that range from vegetarian, like the squash blossom (flor de calabaza), to the more adventurous, like beef tongue in green sauce (lengua de salsa verde).
800 S. Desplaines St. #A21, 773-318-9526
This hipster hangout/whisky and tequila bar/taco dispensary is one of the earlier chef-driven taco spots in Chicago, and was at the forefront of the city’s taco revolution. Located in a former gas station in the trendy Wicker Park neighbourhood, Chef Paul Kahan’s tacos draw a crowd until the wee hours of the morning. Here, you’ll find tacos loaded with creativity and deliciousness in the form of pork belly, pineapple and even mole spiced carrots. Add a margarita or two to maximize your Mexican meal.
1531 N. Damen Ave., 773-235-4039
Big & Little’s
Fish tacos don’t get better than the ones at Big & Little’s, where you can choose from a number of variations. Take the “samurai,” which comes with perfectly fried whitefish, jalapenos, lettuce, lime juice, sesame seeds and a couple of secret sauces. Or opt for the raw ahi tuna taco, served in a crispy shell. This isn’t a traditional taqueria. For instance, you won’t even find any chicken tacos on the menu, because the owners think chicken is boring. But it is proof positive that bending the rules, when it comes to tacos, can be muy delicioso.
Multiple locations, including 860 N. Orleans St., 312-943-0000
Chef Rick Bayless opened the eyes of many Americans to the complexity of Mexican food with his PBS series, Mexico: One Plate at a Time. The celebrity chef has a number of restaurants in Chicago, ranging from high-end to fast casual. The quick and convenient Frontera Fresco, located in Macy’s on State Street and at Old Orchard, a suburban mall, slings some quality tacos, packed with complex flavours begging to be topped with Bayless’ addictive salsas. Try the chipotle chicken with poblanos rajas (strips of poblano pepper), jack cheese, chipotle chile, black beans, cilantro crema, avocado and wild arugula to see just how elaborate a taco can be.
Multiple locations including Macy’s Seven on State, 111 North State Street, 312-781-2955