It was barely midmorning on a recent Sunday, and the smell of sizzling meat was in the air on a quiet southwest suburban street just four lanes over the Chicago border. No one was stirring on the tiny front stoops or postage-stamp lawns, but before long a fire truck pulled up in the alley and stopped behind the garage of a small one-story house. Leaving the motor rumbling, two firefighters exited and disappeared through the back fence next to the garage. They walked past a gaggle of kids horsing around in the backyard and entered the garage, lining up in front of a long griddle heaped with piles of pastor, barbacoa, lengua, potatoes, blistered knob onions, and long, pale green chiles.
Two long plastic foldout tables were set with plates of quartered limes and squeeze bottles of red and green salsa. Abdominous middle-aged men sat alongside their wives and kids, idly chatting, eating tacos, and pulling on cans of Pepsi and Modelo, not giving the firefighters a glance.
When I'd walked in earlier with a pal it had been a different story. For a long moment everyone had paused and looked up to mark the strangers before returning to their plates. Unfamiliar faces aren't unwelcome in this garage, but they're not common either.
This wasn't a family gathering: the people eating were customers. But nor was it a legit business (which is why I'm not going to say exactly where I was). For the last year or so, a landscaper named Gustavo has been selling tacos out of his garage for two bucks apiece. A native of San Juan, Jalisco, he lives here with his wife and three kids. One of them, his 15-year-old son Carlos, would rather sleep in on Sunday mornings, but he helps his father and uncle Jesus in the garage. Their customers are a mix of family, friends, and coworkers and other people from the city and surrounding suburbs who've heard about it by word of mouth.
Gustavo, who was inspired by a brother (now deceased) who used to sell tacos out of a garage in the city, started out cooking birria and carnitas for special events. Norma Zaragoza, whose family probably makes the best birria in the city at nearby Birrieria Zaragoza, recommended the place. "Everybody knows who he is and where he is," she said, but other than that he's a bit of a mystery. "Nobody knows anything else." The Zaragozas got their start in an operation similar to Gustavo's, cooking in the backyard for friends and family until their renown became so great it seemed natural to open a legitimate business.
Norma's father, Pablo Alvarez, heard about Gustavo's menudo at his church. "My father is probably the most finicky eater of menudo," she says. "It has to be superclean. If my father says it's good, it has to be good."
Unfortunately Gustavo only makes menudo in the wintertime, so I haven't been able to try it yet. The tacos are good, though, easily rivaling any at the Maxwell Street Market. You can dress them at the grill with onions and cilantro. There's also a deep bowl of cactus salad that you can serve yourself from.
On another morning Gustavo sat at a table talking with some friends, occasionally rising to take cash and make change from a drawer in a cabinet against the garage wall or hack up an order of barbacoa with a cleaver on a small cutting board. While Carlos warmed corn tortillas on the end of the griddle, Jesus built tacos from a mound of carne de puerco al pastor that sat in a burbling pool of juices.
Around 9:15 seven kids rushed in through the alley and swarmed the garage, chattering in English and Spanish. One little girl ran up to Gustavo and demanded "Where's my ten dollars?" Another reached deep into the cooler for a Pepsi. A boy took a bat to a whiffle ball and thwacked it so hard it sounded like a gunshot.
This sort of ad hoc food operation is common in Mexico, and though certainly not unheard of here, such outposts are a bit more underground. I wondered how Gustavo could get away with a continuous parade of people passing through his garage every Sunday. Doesn't he get hassled? What about the health department? Carlos says on a few occasions neighbors have complained, but neither the town nor the police have given them any trouble. The cops are their customers.
And why should they give them any trouble? One of Gustavo's coworkers, a man named Jose, leaned against the garage door and scoffed at the notion. "It's not cooking for business," he says. "It's only cooking for family."