The Regional Taqueria | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

The Regional Taqueria 

Fifteen recommended storefronts


[Plus: Mexican Worth the Trek: Northern specialties, handmade flour tortillas, and 14 salsas at a pollo joint in west-suburban Northlake]

Abuelo's Mexican Grill

2007 S. Damen | 312-733-0329



Brothers Angel and Hugo Gomez have transformed a grungy storefront across from the Damen Pink Line stop into a sparkling sandwich shop wallpapered with Latin American record jackets and National Geographic covers. Sopes, tacos, burritos and tortas are well conceived and delicious, demonstrating fine attention to detail. The chorizo sope is a beautiful construction, a soft masa platform topped with piquant meat, artfully mounded with colorful cabbage; shrimp in tacos are fried to tempura laciness, splashed with crema, and dabbed with not-too-hot-but-flavorful salsa (imported from Canada!). The menu is pan-Mexican: the Gomezes are from Cuernavaca, in central Mexico, and they serve cecina from their native Morelos as well as burritos in the flour tortillas of northern Mexico, dressed with the pickled red onions of southern Mexico. Entrees, served with griddled vegetables, have a lot of personality. A torta of marinated steak is griddled medium rare and juicy with sweet chile morron, and cochinita pibil yields cinnamon hints and more dimension than you'd expect. —David Hammond

Birrieria Zaragoza

4852 S. Pulaski | 773-523-3700



Juan Zaragoza learned to make birria from a master: Miguel Segura, who runs the venerable Birrieria Miguel at the market in Zaragoza's native town of La Barca, Jalisco. Birria is a regional Jalisciense variant of the more widespread barbacoa, meat traditionally slow-cooked in a pit. These days ovens have replaced the pits. Zaragoza goes through five to seven young goats in a weekend, seasoning the meat with kosher salt before gently cooking it in a sealed steamer on a stovetop for up to six hours. Unlike most birrieros, he makes his consomme, which is tomato-based, without drippings from the meat, which results in a clean broth without the fat and excessive saltiness that can ruin a plate of chivo. After steaming, he lightly applies an ancho-based mole to the meat and transfers it to an oven. Handmade tortillas, freshly pressed and heated on the grill until slightly puffed, are an exquisite vehicle for the goat, lightly drizzled with the consomme and garnished with salsa, onions, cilantro, and lime. —Mike Sula

Carnitas Don Pedro

1113 W. 18th | 312-829-4757



The Sunday-morning pork rush at Carnitas Don Pedro presents a trial of forbearance appropriate for the after-church crowd. First one must worm one's way between two counters and a handful of small tables to the back of the line, which may snake into the kitchen, where sturdy men are stirring giant brass vats of roiling pig parts with paddles. Whether you're in the line for a table or the line for takeout, you'll be inching forward among a scrum of customers, cooks, and waitresses. If you're taking out, you'll eventually return to the front of the store, where birria, barbacoa, menudo, brain tacos, and a piquant cactus salad are ordered on the right side; chicharrones, fresh chorizo, and mountains of glistening, steaming carnitas on the left. Specify meat, fat, offal, or some of each and the man with the long knife chops it, piles it high in a cardboard boat, wraps it tight in butcher paper, then hands you a sizable snack to help you fight the urge to break into the package on the way home. At $5.80 a pound, the well-seasoned carnitas here are among my favorites in the city—the high turnover ensures they're hot and juicy, and they come with a brilliantly flavored dark green salsa flecked with plenty of red chile. —Mike Sula

La Cecina

1943 W. 47th | 773-927-9444



Cecina, the salt-dried traditional steak of Guerrero served rehydrated and grilled, is deliciously toothy and succulent. Other representative foods from Guerrero here include a guajillo-spiked chicken soup in a bright red broth with fresh squash and carrot. This place is swimming with seafood: fried smelts were especially tasty spritzed with lime, and ceviche was helium light. Less routine menu items include quail, game hen, and bull's testicles. The tortillas at La Cecina are handcrafted, and we enjoyed quesadillas with requeson, Mexico's answer to ricotta, and fish (minced and fried in the tortilla). No booze is served, but there are healthful beverages including a fresh-squeezed concoction of mixed veggies and fruits and a milk shake of mamey, a starchy, honey-tinged tropical fruit. —David Hammond

Cemitas Puebla

3619 W. North | 773-772-8435



Long loved by Chicago's fanatical food fringe, Cemitas Puebla (formerly Puebla Taqueria) hit the big time with an appearance on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. But the attention is well deserved: proprietor Tony Anteliz Jr. and his pop, Antonio Zurita, are scratch cooking granny recipes from Puebla, where the latter picks up spices, herbs, and stringy queso Oaxaca on a regular basis. The chipotle en adobo that dresses these sandwiches is the linchpin, smoky with a slow burn, made in-house with morita peppers and Grandma Esperanza's pineapple vinegar. The cemita Milanesa is one of the draws: a crisp, light sesame-seed bun made to order at a local bakery, a layer of avocado, a schmear of chipotle en adobo, a crisp-fried butterflied pork chop topped with a shower of Oaxacan cheese, and, in summer months, papalo—like cilantro on steroids—which Tony's mother grows for the restaurant. Swoonworthy as this may be, go with an Atomica, a belly-bursting combo of Milanesa, carne enchilada, and ham finished with Oaxacan cheese and avocado. Or a cemita pata, made with long-simmered cow's foot mixed with vinegar and carrot then chilled and sliced in the fashion of headcheese. Along with the cemita, tacos Arabes are a signature of Puebla: juicy strips of marinated spit-roasted pork shoulder sheared off a spit, given a healthy dose of chipotle en adobo, griddled, and wrapped in a thick pitalike flour tortilla reflecting the Lebanese influence on Puebla. Orientales are the same succulent spit-roasted pork wrapped in a pair of corn tortillas. And god knows one needs an appetizer or two before downing an Atomica coupled with a taco Arabes. Chalupas fit the bill, crispy masa disks with multiple choices of meat and salsa—I like the salsa roja with cecina and salsa verde with chorizo. Or try a chicharron quesadilla, a heady mix of fried pork skin, cheese, and peppers, served blisteringly hot. —Gary Wiviott

Huaraches Doña Chio

1547 W. Elmdale | 773-878-8470



Huaraches Doña Chio couldn't be more modest: maybe four or five tables, no decor to speak of, TV on the counter usually tuned to Univision. But it's one of very few Mexican restaurants in Chicago serving huaraches, gorditas, and sopes handmade from fresh masa. This means your huarache is patted out, pressed, and grilled to order, so it's slightly crispy on the outside and moist and chewy on the inside, never tough or stale or dry. You can get your huarache prepared with a layer of red or green salsa under the rest of the toppings (or fillings, if you're ordering a gordita), but I recommend going without—that way more of the fried masa stays crispy. (And you can always add it yourself from the bottles on the tables.) The selection of toppings is impressive too: not just standards like pastor, asada, and chorizo (with or without potatoes), but also tinga (spicy marinated chicken), rajas (grilled poblanos with onion), squash blossoms, nopales (cactus), brains, and huitlacoche ("Mexican truffles") mixed with whole kernel corn. One huarache is a full meal—I didn't bring a tape measure, but I'd guess they're 14 inches long and more than half that wide. And don't try ordering two gorditas unless you don't have to do anything but lie down for the next three hours. Doña Chio also offers sopes, tacos, tortas, tostadas, burritos, and enchiladas as well as breakfast. There's posole and menudo on weekends, but given the quality of the masa, I'd be hard-pressed to forfeit a huarache for them. —Philip Montoro

Nuevo Leon

1515 W. 18th | 312-421-1517



They serve a heap o' flour tortillas and meat in the northerly Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, and for more than 40 years this restaurant has done a fine job of doing the same. Tacos de sabinas are house-made white tortillas with a soft, crepelike consistency—they seem to melt around strips of seasoned steak. Frijoles con chorizo is a densely textured accompaniment that's worth every calorie. Carne a la tampiqueña is the classic skirt steak—found all over Mexico—with beans, enchilada, and guacamole, steak's soul mate. We really liked the guisado de puerco in salsa roja, a piquant stew with slow-cooked, chile-sauce-saturated pork. Pork also makes an appearance in tangy tamales. If you come earlier in the day, consider ordering some of the breakfast chilaquiles or machacado con huevo (seasoned steak in egg). You can BYOB, or for a couple bucks get a cup of Mexican cocoa. —David Hammond

La Pasadita Restaurant

1141 N. Ashland | 773-278-0384


MEXICAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: Friday & saturday till 3:30, other nights till 2 | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

La Pasadita had 15 minutes of fame a few years back, when LTH Forum anointed the hole-in-the-wall on the east side of Ashland one of the year's Great Neighborhood Restaurants, while top British chef Heston Blumenthal and friends paid a late-night visit to the larger of the two restaurants on the west side (at 1132 N. Ashland). But truth is, all three are local institutions, notwithstanding the debate about which is "best." Fans of the original praise the authentic atmosphere—counter seating only, and not much of that—and a menu limited to a handful of tacos and burritos. I enjoyed the carne asado burrito packed with smoky, chewy steak, onions, and cilantro (no beans, lettuce, tomato, etc) and decent doubled-up soft corn tortilla tacos folded over barbacoa, tongue, and chile relleno with onions and cilantro. But 1132's creature comforts beckon, even though it's nothing fancy. The food is on about the same level, with choices including quesadillas nortenas, cheese-stuffed corn tortillas smothered with onions and fresh tomato sauce, and parrillada especial, heaped with enough chicken, spicy sausage, carne asada, and thinly sliced short ribs to feed a family of four for a mere $25. Aficionados will appreciate the salsa negra. —Anne Spiselman

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