Chicago’s taco game is strong: these three spots prove the taqueria, if nothing else, abides | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Chicago’s taco game is strong: these three spots prove the taqueria, if nothing else, abides 

A taco crawl for the end times—El Santo Taqueria, the Chicago Taco Authority, and Tomatillo Taco-Ville

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click to enlarge Fish, carne asada, and barbacoa tacos from Tomatillo Taco-ville; al pastor taco from Chicago Taco Authority

Fish, carne asada, and barbacoa tacos from Tomatillo Taco-ville; al pastor taco from Chicago Taco Authority

Jamie Ramsay / hand model: Yohance Lacour

There's been a lot of freakishness forced down our throats by the idiocracy in recent times, but amid it all you may still remember this whopper:

"My culture is a very dominant culture, and it's imposing and it's causing problems. If you don't do something about it, you're going to have taco trucks on every corner."

That was Marco Gutierrez, founder of—please stay with me—Latinos for Trump, on MSNBC in September 2016, spouting what will go down as one of the most unintentionally hopeful campaign promises ever made.

But to a clear majority of the nation's lasting rage and sorrow, that promise has not been delivered upon. And yet the state of the taco is strong.

Albany Park, for example, and its neighboring north-side enclaves remain (for now) a safe place where the professional taquero can thrive in America. A case study: on a side street off one of the busier thoroughfares in this part of the city, there's a family who each weekend set up a tent along the sidewalk, sheltering a table and chairs, coolers, cold drinks, a salsa bar, and a gas-powered comal on which the patriarch of the clan griddles piles of hissing carne asada, al pastor, cesina, and chorizo con papas. The smell of warming corn tortillas and caramelizing meat casts a spell that's palpable for blocks. People who don't even live in the neighborhood drive their cars to this corner, line up under the tent, and wait patiently to place their orders with a teenager scribbling in a spiral-bound notebook.

This weekly pop-up is clearly enchanted, but a lot of that owes to the simple superiority of eating tacos on the street. That's appreciated all over this city if you know where to look—sidewalks, garages, and soccer fields—and yet it's almost easier and in certain ways less risky to open a brick-and-mortar taqueria. It's definitely more competitive, which benefits all of us.

Just in the last six months, a trio of taquerias opened in Irving Park and North Park. They aren't even the only new ones in the area, but they're certainly notable. On Foster Avenue at the edge of the North Park University campus, EL SANTO TAQUERIA opened in April, bedecked with brightly painted murals that embody Dia de Muertos, and slinging equally vivid tacos on blue corn tortillas that almost make them look like dulces. The shtick here is that the food is inspired by southern California, though I'm at a loss to see how, unless superloaded tacos with unconventional elements are more endemic to Los Angeles than anywhere else. These include a barbacoa taco with chihuahua cheese and the crispy onions that also adorn a number of others, such as the carnitas taco, which doubles down on the swine with the addition of bacon, and a sweetly glazed shredded-pork number with pineapple and chipotle-spiked crema. The signature here seems to be the somewhat misleadingly named "steak and bacon" taco, which is fundamentally a lot like the barbacoa, but with a crunchy topknot of "Asian" red cabbage slaw and queso fresco.

While these are all compelling and mostly original ideas, I was more taken with the all-vegetable offerings, which include calabacitas, pale green zucchini-like squash diced along with corn, tomato, bell pepper, and onions; and hongos, an umami bomb of mushrooms, huitlacoche, chihuahua cheese, and avocado sour cream.

While the focus at El Santo is on tacos, there are a number of similarly unconventional takes on classic antojitos, including a quartet of incrementally complicated guacamoles, cemitas that include a chicken tinga with deep-fried jalapeño rings, and "Mexican street fries" covered with melted cheese, sour cream, and fat chunks of carnitas.

If you find the tacos at El Santo overbuilt, you'll probably quail in the shadow of those at the CHICAGO TACO AUTHORITY in Irving Park. I don't know many people who harbor positive feelings about the el or the bus, so it seems weird to enter a public transportation-themed environment in pursuit of pleasure, and yet there's a compelling reason to stay provided by the overhead menu. It has several options taped over and discontinued, and there's no printed menu either; I was told the six-month-old shop is continuing to develop new taco disruptions, some of which are just as avant-garde as El Santo's. There's the Bloody Mary, for example, fat bacon-wrapped shrimp drenched in a tomatoey pico de gallo with cucumbers and shaved celery, and the beef brisket taco, served on a tostada with radish and iceberg lettuce. But I was more taken with CTA's traditional offerings, like a pleasingly greasy chorizo con papas and a solidly executed carne asada with chunky nugs of caramelized steak, crisp onion, and bracing cilantro.

There's nothing wrong with the fillings at CTA, but a problem lies in the delivery system: the two small corn tortillas they're built on can't support the generous portioning here. Plastic spoons are stored to the left of the salsa bar.

The most traditional entry in the new class of taqueria is TOMATILLO TACO-VILLE, situated a little less than two miles east of the Chicago Taco Authority. If you're looking for a reliable roster of classic tacos (and burritos and tortas), from asada to tripas, they're all here, folded in proper, manageable proportion to two standard corn tortillas showered with onion and cilantro, needing only a squirt from the provided lime wedges and the red and green salsa squeeze bottles on the counter next to the tub of gratis escabeche with spicy carrots, cauliflower, and jalapeños. No surprises here except perhaps the pescado, a length of unbreaded tilapia dunked in the fryer and served piping hot, countered by a cool nest of cabbage and pico de gallo, as unassuming and satisfying as anything you could ask for. El Santo and Tomatillo have both announced their intentions to open other locations, which even in the worst of times illustrates the very nature of the taqueria. Tacos never die—just multiply.  v

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