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A Table Full of Mexican

Who needs a Thanksgiving feast when you can load up on gorditas any day of the week?
Monday Nov 20, 2006.     By Misty Tosh
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

El Rey
photo: Misty Tosh
You'd think that Mexican food around the world would go the way of Chicago—a taco joint on every corner. Not so in Africa. I was there for close to a month and saw neither hide nor tail of anything to do with my favorite south-of-the-border cuisine. No tacos, no burritos and certainly none of my beloved huevos rancheros. What utter baloney.

The quizzical looks I got every time I asked where the heck I could grab a quick taco were priceless. Apparently, the South Africans have yet to discover God's greatest gift to the weekend hangover.

Now that I'm back in town, I'm happily embracing my flood of choices. I associate different dishes with the various 'hoods: I can head south to Pilsen for blissful fistfuls of tender pork, west to Humboldt Park for oozing Oaxacan cheese-stuffed quesadillas or north to Rogers Park for a big batch of homemade refried frijoles doused with fresh lime.

The latest discovery in my never-ending quest to track down soul-satisfying Mexican is a cozy North Side storefront called El Rey Del Taco. I didn't so much discover it as trip upon it with Lisa, my Sunday afternoon eating companion. We simply drove north, parked at a meter and wandered about 'til we found a place that spoke to us. Huevos a la Mexicana, anyone?

If it were based on visuals alone, El Rey Del Taco could be grouped together with any one of the hundreds of Mexican dives populating the city. Same brightly colored storefront signage, same happy-go-lucky kiddies running about the place, same generic list of menu items. The one glaring difference was the most important one—the quality of the food is, in a word, superior.

From the moment I took my first sip of cinnamon-infused horchata, I knew we were on to something special. There was none of that typical watered-down refrigerated feel, much like the rice milk that pops out of low-rent Mexican restaurants. Thick and creamy, I managed to swig it down in four straight gulps.

El Rey
photo: Misty Tosh
I ordered a plate of Mexican eggs with jalapenos while Lisa went on the hunt for something that incorporated carnitas. She ended up getting a couple of gorditas, which are sort of like grilled pork sandwiches that, instead of bread, encase its tender chunks of pork (along with lettuce, tomato and cilantro) between super-thick deep-fried tortillas.

After a long spell of watching the Spanish-speaking-only crowd wolf down plates of delicious-looking pork, bacon and grilled onion tacos, our steaming hot meals finally piled out of the kitchen. Within seconds the table was loaded down with a mighty buffet of food. We were literally awash in perfectly cooked eggs smattered with tomatoes, peppers, carrots and onions; homemade refried beans with little chunks of whole beans still showing face; brilliant orange rice peppered with corn kernels and green peas; and Lisa's big coup, the pork sandwich of the year.

Toasted flour and corn tortillas, ice-cold sour cream and a bowl of pretty green limes rounded out the meal, and we just smiled at each other as we dug in. After every single bite we took gigantic swigs of soothing horchata, commended each other on our fantastic find, and spoke about moving to Mexico once and for all. Cold as it may be, it's good to be back home in Chicago where the foodie finds abound.

The Final Rave: Since eating at El Rey, I've done a bit of research, and it turns out the dish all the regulars were chowing on is called tacos pioneros. Next time, those little babies will for sure be on the belly docket.

Keep It Going:

Do it: Homemade horchata
Why spend a buck fifty on a cup of horchata when you can whip up an huge batch at home from the goodies already in your pantry? Easy peasy.

Watch it: Amores Perros
Good Mexican food goes with good Mexican movies and this little cinematic treasure is a delight to watch. Be prepared to experience brazen urges to ditch it all and head to Mexico pronto.

Eat it: La Pasadita
If you live in Chicago, there's no way you've never heard of this lively taco joint in Wicker Park. Steak tacos are the specialty and they're a sure-fire tummy pleaser every time.

Get crazy with it: North Clark Street
Honest to God, all you have to do is park your car around the 6500 block of North Clark and start hoofing. Every hole-in-the-wall restaurant seems to be a tiny bit better than the next.

Fatcake Misty Tosh explores back-alley eateries, holes-in-the-wall and seedy ethnic joints as she treks the city in search of the next raving dish. Join her in the quest.


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