Baltimore, Maryland, that roiling crucible of Mexican culture, has sent Chicago a taqueria. It's fair to wonder what the folks behind Barcocina think they have to offer a city with an infinity of opportunities to eat well in simple mom-and-pop taquerias, to say nothing of the recent rise of chef-driven taco spots.
But it might be precisely the success of cheffy places like Big Star, Takito Kitchen, and Antique Taco that led this Crabtown concern to Lakeview, the north-side neighborhood least likely to harbor a legitimate taco. It's an impressive build-out, with two bars on either end of a long, white brick building set with large glass garage doors opening onto both Sheffield Avenue and George Street. On a summer evening it's Big Star for the Lakeview stroller mafia.
The chef is Hogsalt Hospitality veteran Matt Williams, and while we've recently seen what extraordinary things a Hogsalt alumnus can do with a cuisine he didn't grow up with (see Pub Royale), at Barcocina the chef doesn't appear to be given much independence from the east-coast mothership: the menu's seven tacos, three entrees, three guacamoles, and handful of sides and antojitos represent a truncated version of what the Baltimore location serves.
Let's take a look at those guacamoles. The first offering, titled "Oaxacan style guacamole," doesn't contain anything particularly representative of that southern Mexican province, just avocado, chiles, and red onion. At the same time the signature "Barcocina" guacamole, drizzled with balsamic-vinegar-based chile sauce, is served with Oaxacan cheese. One gets the sense that there isn't much respect for the average Chicagoan's familiarity with regional Mexican food.
Then again, how uptight can you be about something like that when you're offered a "cheeseburger" taco that arrives swaddling underseasoned, dry ground beef, cabbage, unmelted shredded cheddar, and a mildly spicy mango sauce with the viscosity of Gerber baby food? If not for the stainless steel taco holders, these could be mistaken for something out of the Taco Bell playbook.
Not all these experiments seem as wrongheaded. Lamb barbacoa topped with pickled fennel and served with a dish of lamb jus for dipping is an OK idea until the finely shredded meat reveals itself to be bland and already overwet. Same goes for Hawaiian pineapple pork: one might hope it offers the promise of charred al pastor lurking under the pile of diced fruit—that meat too is wan and underseasoned. There's no hint of cumin in the "cumin-scented" mushroom tacos, and the chicken tinga is seasoned for seniors. Even the salsas that accompany these lack heat, acid, and salt.
It's a problem found across much of Barcocina's brief menu: fat shrimp quesadillas with corn and melted cheese bear little trace of their promised ancho seasoning; a green mango-quinoa salad with lettuce leaves large enough to pose a choking hazard is slicked with oil, but there's little acid for balance; and in a sizable plate of the pork and hominy stew rebocado, luscious pieces of pork belly never seem to harmonize with the nutty, chile-coated hominy.
The one dish I tried at Barcocina that didn't remain uneaten was perhaps its most gimmicky: a basketful of yucca tots that approximate the iconic, knobby Ore-Ida exterior but are lush and creamy inside; when dipped in a pleasing yin and yang of citrus-spiked crema and adobo you'd gather that Barcocina is at least a one-hit wonder.
There is a list of treacly, undrinkable cocktails and a collection of mostly pedestrian beers and wines (apart from a handful of local brews on draft), but the most impressive things about the drinks—indeed the whole restaurant—is the tequila and mezcal list. With 14 mezcals and 60 tequilas, it's certainly not the most grand in the city, but you're bound to find something interesting to drink, perhaps among a handful of bottles of Mezcal Vago distilled from different varieties of agave.
It's not enough. Barcocina is somewhat evocative of Mexican food. But the way it's executed underscores the worst stereotypes about this neighborhood: that it's unthreatening, unchallenging, and unsurprising. Doesn't Lakeview deserve better? Judging by the crowds flocking to Barcocina, I suspect not. v