City of taquerias | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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City of taquerias

Twenty-five places for the real deal

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Carnitas Don Pedro1113 W. 18th | 312-829-4757

$ mexican | Breakfast, Lunch: seven days | Reservations not accepted | Cash only | BYO

The Sunday-morning pork rush at Carnitas Don Pedro presents a trial of forbearance appropriate for the after-church crowd. First you must worm your 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 (goat stew), barbacoa, menudo, brain tacos, and a piquant cactus salad are ordered on the right side; chicharrones (fried pork rinds), fresh chorizo, and mountains of glistening, steaming carnitas (or "little meats," pork slow-cooked in lard) 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 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. MikeSula

Carnitas Uruapan1725 W. 18th | 312-226-2654

$ Mexican | Breakfast, Lunch: Sunday-Wednesday, Friday-Saturday | Closed Thursday | Cash only

There's pig paraphernalia everywhere in this fixture on the 18th Street strip, from pictures and sculptures to coin banks and comic strips. A large pan of fork-tender shredded pork is a main attraction, second only to a high stack of chicharrones under the heat lamp. The few tables are packed every morning, and the place does a brisk trade in takeout. The limited selection includes carnitas and menudo; there are also fresh nopales and taquitos de sesos, brain taquitos. But carnitas are clearly the main attraction here—the only question you're asked upon sitting down is "How many?" LauraLevyShatkin

La Casa de Samuel2834 W. Cermak | 773-376-7474

$$ Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 2, other nights till 11

La Casa de Samuel offers exotica of a sort you won't find at many other restaurants. We started with a bowl of tiny eels—looking a lot like white mung beans with eyes—and enjoyed a platter of frog legs, the meat firm and juicy. The absolute knockout dish was cecina de venado, slabs of salted and dried venison that are rehydrated and griddled; its deep, dark flavor will please those who like beef as well as those who prefer their food on the wild side. We had a chicken breast with a blisteringly spicy brick red India sauce that was excellent with the tortillas—homemade, as is the salsa. The extensive menu offers goat, boar, and alligator; we took the plunge with rattlesnake, which was . . . odd, gnarly and jerkylike. For dessert, my companion made the right choice: our waiter had only to hear the words banana flambe and he was off, preparing his citrus zest, pan, and liquor bottles; the result, served with a spumoni-type ice cream, was fabulous. DavidHammond

La Casa del Pueblo1834 S. Blue Island | 312-421-4664

$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days

Next to a grocery with the same name, this little cafeteria offers middle-of-the-road Mexican food at reasonable prices, starting at breakfast with egg-and-tortilla dishes like chilaquiles. Dining here can be hit-or-miss, with the pork in chile arbol and pollo en salsa (chicken breast cooked in a clear stew of zucchini and corn) among the hits on our visit. North Mexican-style tamales, moist with manteca (lard) and filled with slightly piquant meat, are available for carryout; barbacoa, too, is available to go. Chiles rellenos with meat were tasty, layered with chayote and slightly spicy. Patas de puerco (pigs' feet) were another story—I can't say I'd recommend venturing there. Gorditas dulces are an excellent dessert for those who like pastry, flavored with vanilla and shreds of cinnamon bark. Servers are very friendly and speak English as well as most of us speak Spanish. David Hammond

La Cebollita1807 S. Ashland | 312-492-8443

$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days| BYO

Just north of 18th along Ashland is this tiny, semi-fast-food joint where you place an order at the counter, then wait to pick it up. The extensive menu has mostly a la carte items like gorditas (thick corn tortillas split and stuffed with your choice of filling), sopes (hand-formed masa discs filled with ground beef, chicken, pork, chorizo, or tongue), burritos, and tamales. Both of the salsas available in squirt bottles on the ten tables are delicious; one's tomatillo based, the other made from dark, smoky chile de arbol. Laura Levy Shatkin

La Cecina1943 W. 47th | 773-927-9444

$$ Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days

Tired of dull, tasteless beef? Then get to La Cecina and savor the salt-dried traditional steak of Guerrero: when rehydrated and grilled, cecina is deliciously toothy and succulent. Other representative foods from Guerrero include a guajillo-chile-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. My dining partner had grilled seafood with gently charred chunks of octopus, shrimp, and (alas) krab in a light sauce. 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. Alcohol is neither served nor allowed, 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

El Chimbombo6725 Cermak, Berwyn | 708-484-9420

Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days

To build his restaurant Viliulfo Andablo saved his money for five years hawking eyeball tacos from a stand in the Maxwell Street market. Tacos de ojos are no longer on the menu at his Berwyn restaurant El Chimbombo, though there is traditional Mexican barbacoa, and anyone with an eye for an orb could order the conglomerated abeza tacos. Andablo is committed to venturing far beyond the standard Americanized taqueria formula in other ways. The quesadillas, gorditas, huaraches, and sopes are handmade and stuffed with the usual fillings as well as more unappreciated ones like pork rinds, zucchini blossoms, mushrooms, and huitlacoche, the earthy and delicious black corn smut. Mike Sula

La Finca3361 N. Elston | 773-478-4006

$$Mexican | Lunch, dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Reservations accepted for large groups only

The fare's fresh and tasty at La Finca, where the matronly server banters lightheartedly with patrons of all stripes, from local yuppies to families of ten-plus to lunching workers from the nearby ComEd plant. With its faux brick paneling, plastic flowers, and a large, dry central fountain/birdbath, the brightly lit room may be lacking in subtlety, but that's hardly the case when it comes to the food. An herb-green vegetarian tamale appetizer dotted with corn kernels is quite savory. Steak tacos are as light and tender as the chicken soup is delicate and restorative. Heartier appetites will meet their match with the tender, well-seasoned carne asada or the orange roughy a la Veracruzana, served in a version simmered with mushrooms, olives, tomatoes, and spices. On Mondays and Tuesdays there's a $2.50 margarita special. Kathie Bergquist

Las Islas Marias4770 W. Grand | 773-637-8233

$$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations not accepted

There are enough different shrimp preparations on the menu at Las Islas Marias to dazzle Forrest Gump's army buddy. Shrimp empanadas are simple and good, with a cornmeal crust and fresh green salsa, and there are several shrimp-heavy seafood cocktails, hot and cold, as well as a paté. Langostinos a la plancha (grilled shrimp) are meaty little guys griddled in salsa Huichol to a piquant crustiness. Our order of parilla levanta muertos—a grilled platter to "raise the dead"—was fresh and spicy, full of shrimp, mussels, scallops, and crab. My dining partner rapidly slurped down a bowl of caldo sieto mares ("soup of the seven seas"), an overflowing cornucopia of crustaceans and fish more stewlike than soupy. We ordered a $9 tilapia and were pleased to receive a whole fish—which is rather interesting, zoologically speaking, if you've only seen this creature in fillet form. This is not fancy seafood, just good stuff prepared straightforwardly and perked up with avocado and fresh lime. Most dishes are cooked in the tradition of the islands off the coast of the Mexican state of Nayarit, so don't come a-looking for refried beans and tortillas. David Hammond

La Justicia3901 W. 26th | 773-522-0041

$$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days| Saturday & Sunday brunch | Open late: Friday-Sunday till 11

This Little Village restaurant puts out the usual Mexican dishes—with a few surprises. We started with thick and flavorful caldo de mariscos in an exceptional broth. An order of camarones rellenos turned out to be shrimp wrapped in bacon and bathed in a chile de arbol sauce, a dish with praiseworthy bite and texture. Fajitas chiyonas was a blend of chicken, steak, fish, and shrimp in a red sauce—not bad considering the disconcerting mix of beasts. But the side of frijoles charros was just the best: plump, unmashed pinto beans nestled into superb liquor with bacon and strips of ham—quite possibly the smartest two bucks I've spent in a long time. David Hammond

Maravillas5211 S. Harper | 773-643-3155

$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Every night till 11

The subterranean room isn't fancy. Tables are orange Formica, and the cooks will probably be listening to the soccer game. But the food is authentic—there's posole, chicken mole poblano, and menudo—and attracts a regular clientele. Carrot and orange juices are fresh squeezed, fruit shakes are topped with a sprinkle of cinnamon, and they have Mexican Cokes—"a nice bonus," says one Rater. Holly Greenhagen

Mi Tierra2528 S. Kedzie | 773-254-7722

$$Mexican | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Saturday till 2, Friday & Sunday till 1

Operated by the same family that owns Mi Tierra on Belmont, this Little Village restaurant serves a large menu of both staples (fajitas, enchiladas mole) and specialties (pollo con queso y rajas, strips of chicken breast with poblano peppers, cheese, onion, and bacon). Service is Inglese friendly, a colorful mural fills one wall, and a mariachi band plays on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Holly Greenhagen

Nuevo Leon1515 W. 18th | 312-421-1517

F 7.4 | S 6.3 | A 6.3 | $$ (8 reports)

Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days| Open late: Monday-Saturday till midnight, Sunday till 11 | BYO

They serve heaps of 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 worth every calorie. Carne a la tampiquena is the classic skirt steak—found all over Mexico and the menu—served with beans and guacamole, steak's soul mate. We really liked the guisado de puerco, a piquant stew with slow-cooked, chile-sauce-saturated pork. Pig also makes an appearance in tangy tamales. If you come earlier in the day, consider ordering some of the renowned breakfast chilaquiles or machacado con huevo (seasoned steak in egg). You can BYOB, or for a few pesos get a cup of foamy, cinnamony Mexican cocoa. —David Hammond

Nuevo Leon3657 W. 26th | 773-522-1515

$Mexican | Breakfast, Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Every night till midnight

At first glance the Little Village Nuevo Leon looks like just another corner joint. A few distinctive foods typical of the restaurant's Mexican namesake, however, set it apart. Machacado con huevo is a scrambled egg taco showcasing cesina. With this we enjoyed a michelada, kind of a beer-based Bloody Mary made with Angostura bitters and Tabasco sauce, lemon, salt and pepper, and beer over ice (there's some evidence to suggest that this drink is the long-sought cure for the common cold). The chicken mole was good if not quite memorable, the meat relatively meaty and the sauce quite chocolaty. Flour tortillas are most common in the north—and this is one of the few restaurants in Chicago that make their own; you can really taste the difference. Come in on weekends and you're offered a south-of-the-border amuse-bouche: a taquito with a dollop of barbacoa, a juicy mouthful to get the meal going. Afterward you're brought a complimentary plate of melon, apple, and orange. Nice. —David Hammond

Playa Azul1514 W. 18th | 312-421-2552

$Mexican, Seafood | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 2, other nights till 11

The soup of seven seas, caldo siete mares, our first course at Playa Azul, was impressive: a superrich broth filled with shrimp, crab, lobster, octopus, calamari, and catfish. This was followed up by the pico de gallo Jarocho, a nicely done, moderately spiced mound of octopus and a whole lot of shrimp, complemented with cilantro and avocado. My dining partner was pleased with the ceviche de pescado, made with tilapia. Unfortunately other courses went downhill from there. The grilled red snapper was a powerful argument for ordering only the fried version of huachinango; carne asada was a very tough piece of meat for $14.95. I'd been told the camarones rancheros were worthy, and they were billed as being served with hot peppers and cilantro, but what we got was a small portion of shrimp in a sweet ketchuplike sauce. One bright spot was chicken with a house-made mole poblano, a flavor-rich sauce that achieved what few dark moles seem to: an even balance between chile and chocolate. DavidHammond

Playa Azul Ostioneria4005 N. Broadway | 773-472-8924

$$Mexican, Seafood | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations not accepted

Mexican music blared, and tables of families with kids were making big noise, but once the food arrived there was nothing but happiness at the table, as our waiter ran back and forth from there to the kitchen, where he donned an apron to help prepare the food. Pico de gallo Jarocho was a blend of marinated shrimp, octopus, and whitefish mixed with tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and chopped jalapenos and topped with avocado, each piece of seafood popping with freshness. The straight-ahead fish ceviche was surprisingly spicy, dotted with oysters, and served in the traditional sundae cup. Extraordinarily flavorful, the caldo siete mares combined clam, crab, shrimp, whitefish, and (I'm told) three other types of sea creature with some potato and carrot in the complex broth. A classic usually cooked in a tomato sauce, the huachinango a la Veracruzana is here deep-fried, then dressed with chopped avocado, tomato, and onion—although technically misnamed, this fish dish is meaty, with good tooth. Apart from several preparations of carne asada, there are next to no meat dishes on the menu, but there is chicken in mole, either verde or a red Puebla-style sauce zinged up with poblano chiles. There's a bar, and you can get margaritas, but I'd recommend sticking with beer; this place isn't fancy, but count on basic, good seafood at a good price. David Hammond

La Quebrada4859 W. Roosevelt, Cicero | 708-780-8110

$$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Every night till 11 | BYO

You'd expect a restaurant specializing in the cuisine of Guerrero, on the Pacific coast, to have some decent seafood, and La Quebrada does—especially the shrimp cocktails and ceviche. But when I go to this tiny joint in a dilapidated industrial zone I want the goat barbacoa and fresh tortillas. La Quebrada's rendition of this dish is exceptional, featuring meaty hunks, perfectly cooked to a slightly pink center, served with cilantro, onion, and guacamole. On the side is a bowl of frijoles de la hoya, plump pinto beans in a mild broth. Handmade tortillas, something of a rarity, are here pliant and absorbent, providing a perfect platform for piling on meat and vegetables soaked with the house molcajete (salsa ground and served in a mortar). Cornmeal also finds its way into other selections on the menu, among them huaraches, a vegetarian's nightmare/carnivore's dream come true, topped with marinated pork, chicken, regular steak, or cesina. To drink there's freshly squeezed orange or carrot juice, as well as aguas frescas, lightly flavored beverages of sweet rice flour and cinnamon, tamarind, or hibiscus. The place is usually crowded with families and locals who know they'll get the real thing and lots of it. As I was eating I watched two of Chicago's finest, each as big as my car, patting their bellies and leaving with doggie bags. David Hammond

Restaurant y Pozoleria San Juan1523 N. Pulaski | 773-276-5825

$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: 24 hours Friday & Saturday, Sunday-Thursday till 1 | Reservations not accepted | BYO

At Humboldt Park's Restaurant y Pozoleria San Juan, one of the few remaining posole places in Chicago, the hominy soup ($7.75 for a large bowl) is available in the three colors of the Mexican flag: red, seasoned with guajillo chiles and typical of Jalisco, and the green and white varieties more typical of the neighboring state of Guerrero. (If you want pig foot in your bowl you have to ask for it specifically.) Pedro Aguilar, the owner and sometime cook, serves the hearty dish with baskets of crispy chicharrones. Apart from the namesake dish, there's classic Mexican from breakfast (huevos rancheros) to dinner (carne asada). DavidHammond

Sabas Vega Carnitas Restaurant1808 S. Ashland | 312-666-5180

$Mexican | Breakfast, Lunch: seven days

Family owned since 1966, this former butcher shop now specializes in carnitas. Shimmering with fat, the drop-dead gorgeous piggy bits are available seven days a week, but weekends are when Sabas Vega shines. Crowds line up starting at 6 AM for weekend-only treats of birria; barbacoa made exclusively from cheek meat and tender as a dying lover's last words; menudo, the perfect cure for that wild Saturday night; and cabecitas de chivo, steamed goat head. Rice and beans shine with flavor and glisten with lard, cactus salad is a flavorful counterpoint, and there's a full range of aguas frescas and soda, American and Mexican. The tables are comfortable and the waitresses efficient, and occasionally some strolling mariachis make the rounds. On the weekends—especially for those interested in the specials—I suggest arriving well before 9 AM. —GaryWiviott

Taqueria Amigo Chino5601 W. Irving Park | 773-685-4374

$ Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: 24 hours Friday & Saturday, Monday-Thursday till midnight | Cash only

In addition to its standout tacos al pastor and house-made salsas, Taqueria Amigo Chino serves the standards and some unusual variations. We saw chilaquiles, the breakfast comfort food, ferried out to many dinner tables, dressed in red or green sauce, with eggs, chicken, or steak. For the lunch crowd there are tortas; I took a calculated risk and tried the Hawaiiana, which featured ham and pineapple with lots of mayo and lettuce—odd, though not half bad. The Cubana sandwich was a big surprise: the ham and breaded pork were there, but so were an omelet and a hot dog, a combo inconceivable on the streets of Havana. Huachinango a la Veracruzana came mounted upright as though for display on a fisherman's mantel but apart from this received a fairly traditional treatment with olives and tomato salsa; it's one of the better renditions I've had in Chicago. Horchata was superb, frothy and not too sweet—I'd recommend a tall glass of it (there's no alcohol served, and you're not allowed to bring your own). —David Hammond

Taqueria El Milagro1923 S. Blue Island | 312-433-7620

$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days

This festive, brightly painted cafe sits on the main floor of the well-known tortilla factory of the same name. The green and salmon walls, painted with trees and oversized flowers, make it one of the more attractive rooms in Pilsen, although the food, served up cafeteria style, isn't quite as nice to look at. Pan after steaming pan is loaded with daily offerings like puerca en verde (pork in green tomatillo sauce), guisado de res (house-special beef in a dark sauce), and lengua de res (stewed beef tongue). Tacos, tamales, chiles rellenos, and burritos are available for takeout, and a large dispenser of chilled horchata bubbles behind the counter for dessert. Laura Levy Shatkin

Taqueria el Nuevo Mundo5901 W. Roosevelt, Cicero | 708-656-6503

$Mexican, Latin American | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days

Most days around noon, Taqueria el Nuevo Mundo draws hungry Hispanic workers from all over Cicero. The humble breakfast-to-dinner diner, located inside a grocery store, serves up some very tasty hot grub. The guisados, or stews, are spectacular: you get hefty chunks of beef or pork with nopales and chile pods for not much more than a five spot. I usually go with the carnitas, served with beans, salad, and rice plus a generous side of warm Guatemalan tortillas, slightly smaller than their Mexican cousins and perfect for sopping. The quesadillas and gorditas are built with freshly griddled masa tortillas. The menu is fairly large, with a good selection of tortas (e.g., al pastor, Milanesa), caldos (mole de olla, posole), and pupusas. To drink there are rice-based horchatas and fresh-squeezed carrot juice, both sweet enough to counter the heat of the food (fresh salsas at the table let you adjust the spice level to your tolerance). The people at the counter are friendly and willing to wait patiently while gringos like me cobble together enough Spanish to order (pointing also works). —David Hammond

Taqueria la Oaxaquena3382 N. Milwaukee | 773-545-8585

$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: every night till 11:30

This tiny family-run taqueria is one of the city's very few low-budget restaurants specializing in the sophisticated cuisine of Mexico's Oaxaca state. Regional specialties not found at your neighborhood Taco Borracho are the rule here, specifically a chocolaty house-made mole blanketing chicken and Cornish hens, a rabbit adobado, lots of whole fishes, and cocktails and soups teeming with creatures of the deep. Starters can be simple, like a plate of grilled cactus, onions, and jalapenos, or exaggerated, like a chorizo-mined reservoir of melted queso that can be dolloped onto a hot tortilla to make a convincing pizza. Pan-Mexican standards—tacos, tamales, and tortas—are largely Oaxacan influenced; the three table salsas are made from different chiles, roasted tomatoes, or pumpkin seeds, and chiles rellenos are done with ancho chiles instead of poblanos. Even the signature Torta Oaxaquena, a towering, grandiloquent Dagwood stacked with cesina and chorizo, is singular. —Mike Sula

Taqueria Traspasada3144 N. California | 773-539-4533

$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: every night till midnight | Cash only

The ambience is pure taco shack—plastic booths, bright lights, video games, and dirt-cheap prices—but the spicy marinated tacos al pastor, homemade horchata, and roasted-pepper salsa are out of this world. The tacos come garnished with onion and cilantro, the tostadas are light and crunchy, and along with the usual chicken and steak the meat choices include beef brains and tongue. Wash it all down with a bottle of imported Mexican Pepsi (full of real sugar instead of corn syrup). On Saturdays and Sundays menudo and carne en su jugo are available, as is birria, served in consomme or in tacos. —Kathie Bergquist

Xni-Pec5135 W. 25th, Cicero | 708-652-8680

$$Mexican | Breakfast: Saturday-sunday; Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Saturday till 11

Now that Xel-Ha has closed and renowned but peripatetic chef Dudley Nieto has turned up at River North's Zocalo, Xni-Pec (pronounced "shnee peck") just may be the only Yucatecan restaurant in the area. Owner Antonio Contreras's mother runs the kitchen, and his grandmother has come up from Yucatan several times to help with the recipes. Unlike the foods of many other Mexican regions, Yucatecan cuisine isn't inherently spicy, so you can opt to either savor the flavors without heat or amp it as you please with xni-pec (literally "wet nose") and other incendiary salsas made from habanero chiles. Cochinita pibil is a typical Yucatecan dish: pork spread with a paste of ground annatto seeds, lime, and vinegar, wrapped in banana leaves, and baked in a pit. This pre-Columbian preparation is served with bright pink pickled red onion, which supplies a welcome acidic note to the silky pork. Huevos Motulenos—the finest rendition of this dish I've had outside the dusty town of Motul—are eggs on a tostada, sprinkled with ham, cheese, peas, and salsa and paired with black beans and a little mound of rice, with a disk of plantain. For dessert there's calabaza y comote, a sugary blend of a pumpkinlike squash and a sweetish tuber, candied and served with a slice of orange. Beverages include a light, refreshing cantaloupe water or, more exotic, xtabentun, a flowery honey liqueur flavored with anise. —David Hammond

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