What does "urban" mean when applied to a restaurant? As interpreted by these two north-side taquerias, it means upscale street food, cocktails, black-garbed servers and bussers—and appropriating elements of the popular Wicker Park bar and taqueria Big Star, right down to the takeout window.
Lakeview's Barrio Urban Taqueria—a warm-toned, loungey room with an odd configuration of stools in place of a proper bar and banquette seating in the back room—is a long way from the Latin barrio. The menu touts house-made tortillas and salsas, but the results are oddly tasteless, with little masa flavor and even less heat in an order of four tacos ($9.99) with a trio of salsas. And much of what we tried was overly sweet, including a "Rehab" margarita with tamarind syrup, tequila, St-Germain, and piquin chile powder. The house margarita, on the other hand, had a bitter metallic aftertaste.
Appetizer options include guacamole made tableside, "nachos de barrio" with "artisanal chips," and queso fundido with Chihuahua, Gouda, and Manchego cheese. A ceviche of Peruvian bay scallops and gulf shrimp was sweetened up by the addition of corn and Granny Smith apple; onion, cilantro, and citrus were scarcely detectable, and the blue and red tortilla chips (I guess that's artisanal) lacked appeal.
Short rib sopes? Sweet once again, and served in masa boats so hard they were difficult to cut. Despite this, a sope with chicken verde (also available as a taco filling) was by far the best thing I tried at Barrio, tender and flavorful. There are some reasonably priced standard entrees like carne asada and cochinita pibil, but the emphasis is on the tacos, of which there are eight varieties, including both grilled and battered fish (the latter the most successful of those we tried), and a vegetarian number with mushrooms, mozzarella, and apples served in a lettuce-leaf wrap. The lengua came drizzled with a cloying sauce that not even the hottest of the salsas could counter.
Service was solicitous and quick even as the rooms began to fill with a neighborhood crowd—and that's clearly the audience this not-at-all-challenging restaurant is aiming for. If you're looking for destination dining, Chilam Balam is right around the corner.
Far more outwardly gimmicky is Lincoln Park's redundantly named Taco Joint Urban Taqueria and Cantina, a dark shotgun-style space decorated with hand-painted tequila signs. It's hard to imagine a less comfortable place to eat—the front bar gets packed, the back dining room is picnic-style seating, and the hallway is outfitted with narrow, shelflike tables and stools hard by the kitchen doors. But to my surprise, I found the food mostly enjoyable.
Owner Edgar Castaneda also has a stake in Zocalo, and a couple of the drinks bear that name. The Zocalo flight features the house margarita and sangria as well as a "citrus cazuela," with citrus tequila, aguardiente, white wine, and citrus juice, that will really kick ass when the weather heats up. A grapefruit margarita with a chile rim is also refreshing, and there's a cilantro mojito with muddled limes and pepper-cured tequila. The four guacamoles—traditional, rojo, fruta, and a special—are served with plantain and malanga chips in addition to corn chips, a nice touch, but the less said about the special made with chicharrones one night the better ("Underwood Deviled guacamole," my friend dubbed it).
The fresh tortillas here are clearly made in-house and, overall, the tacos come closer to giving Big Star a run for its money. Al pastor was juicy, crunchy, and generous, with pronounced pineapple; the tacos rajas—poblanos, onions, and black beans with tomatillo salsa—might even get the nod over Big Star's if only because of their more ample size. I was a bit puzzled by birria tacos made with lamb and pork and carnitas made with duck, but cecina is made the traditional way, marinated and cured and served either as a torta or a huarache, which had notable masa flavor. Best of all, though, were the simple refried black beans, perfectly textured and seasoned and sprinkled with queso fresco.
The takeout window's already in place and is just awaiting a change of weather.