photo: Misty Tosh
It's been almost a year since I left San Francisco, where I, a refugee of the Great Burrito Wars, saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by the ever-escalating battle between the city's two main factions: the El Farilito
faithfuls and the Cancun
Okay, so maybe it wasn't quite that bad in San Francisco, but while the partisan bickering wages on in the city by the bay, I've been wandering the streets of Chicago trying to find the best taqueria. In the past 11 months, I've nibbled on al pastor and carne asada, sucked down horchatas, and taken enough shots of salsa verde to get a pretty good idea of Chicago's Mexican scene—bestowing arbitrary titles on my findings along the way.
Hipster haven: El Cid 2
One thing about both San Francisco burrito giants: When the bars got out at night, they were stormed by an influx of hungry hipsters, looking to soak up the evening's copious quantities of PBR. Likewise, when it comes to feeding the hipper-than-thou masses, Logan Square's El Cid 2 knows the drill; pile 'em onto the patio, load 'em up with a margarita, sangria and beer, and serve 'em breakfast all day. For some a little spice day or night, try the Huevos a la Mexicana ($4.30), eggs mixed with hot peppers, onions and tomatoes, served in white corn tortillas and splashed with lime. Don't forget the fresh-squeezed OJ on the side!
Best al pastor: Taqueria Moran
Few things get me going like a sloppy pile of marinated pork. While I definitely appreciate the merits of a slow-cooked skewered mother loin, there's something to be said for the low-brow tactic of simply chopping up the meat, throwing it on a grill (which is seasoned by thousands of orders before it) and serving it up without fuss. Moran's tangy pork (called adobado on the menu, because you technically need the spit to call it al pastor) gives some vinegar bite, with a molasses-flavored afterglow, officially fulfilling my every pastor wish—and then some for $1.75.
Most Baja-licious fish taco: Carbon
There was one thing I was never able to find in San Francisco: a fish taco worth a trip on its own. Surrounded on three sides by water, the city didn't have much of an excuse. Somehow, situated smack in the middle of the country, Chicago takes the prize on this one—specifically, the tortilla-encrusted tilapia filet anchoring the fish tacos ($2.50) at Carbon. Topped with cool cabbage salad and tequila-lime sauce, this little corn pocket bursts with Baja goodness; it's a destination nosh, to be sure.
Best bet when drunk: The trinity La Pasadita
The first time I stumbled through the Pasadita triangle, fueled by a night's worth of excess and an irresistible craving for a torta, I was dumbfounded. What could be the story behind three taquerias with the same name, on the same block, with practically the same menu and prices? I may not have an MBA, but it certainly seemed like someone botched the business plan. No matter—when engaged in a drunken hunt for a late-night bite, these three little Pasaditas look like heaven on earth. For the ultimate hangover-remedy, grab a deliciously greasy torta ($3.45). Unexpected offerings like a breaded milanesa steak are available, but the simple pollo is seasoned just right, slathered in cheese and cilantro, and cooled off with a little avocado and sour cream.
Best carne asada: Tio Luis
It's hard to screw up a carne asada, but it's even harder to make one that impresses this taco-aficionado. The perfectly charred, lovingly seasoned steak bits at Tio Luis are sprinkled with cilantro, dabbed with lime, and tucked into a grilled corn tortilla—all for less than $2. For extra kick, I like to pour some smoky salsa into the fold. Truly, the great steak taco doesn't get much simpler than this South Side take, but when simple tastes this good, why try for anything else?
Best burrito: Taco Burrito Palace #2
Since the burrito is the a la carte aggravator that tore San Francisco's late-night culinary scene apart, I was hesitant to start trying them here. Aside from the fact that not a single taqueria in Chicago seems to know how to properly roll (it's not supposed to look like a football, people) or wrap (twist one end, fold the other) a burrito, Taco & Burrito Place #2 sure knows how to make 'em taste good. Savory meats, fresh avocado and flavorful sauces are shoved inside a wonderfully oversize shell, then grilled until crispy. And it only costs about $5.