It is one of Chicago’s great pleasures to drift through the neighborhood on a summer night with a case of beer, stopping into a long sequence of taquerías to pick out the local delicacies. Such is the strength of the city’s Mexican population that has filled the streets with their small, family-owned restaurants. These days, every city in America has a Mexican neighborhood. In Chicago, Mexican restaurants and grocery stores are the common element of every neighborhood, and while Pilsen, Little Village, and to a lesser extent Rogers Park are the barrios, there is not a single corner of the city where you can’t find a fresh salsa verde. Consequently, much of the city’s culinary depth is found in its Mexican heritage, teasing the outsider with hints of secret knowledge waiting to be discovered: which paleta cart has nieve de mamey, the difference between their thousand-or-so chiles, where the best mole can be found. Half the fun is in acquiring this sabiduría, journeying through a reconstructed Mexico that transports the country’s rich gastronomic regions out of love and nostalgia.
A common mentality when it comes to eating out is to find the best all-around place, a judgment informed by aggregate restaurant reviews and a general anxiety associated with being forced into eating something. To our ultimate detriment, we’ve come to expect menu variety, a static list of vegetables, beef, fish and poultry. But specialization and seasonality are vital to a country’s restaurant culture, guaranteeing a certain level of quality while maintaining a robust array of delicacies.
Chicago’s Mexican restaurants are generally specialists, although some try to hide it. I have on many occasions, while sampling mediocre offerings at a taquería, found one or two truly spectacular plates that show real finesse. This is because many of these restaurants operate on two levels, serving a wide menu of generic Mexican food to the uninitiated, while keeping a set of daily especialidades for la raza, scrawled on the board in Spanish. El Ranchito in Uptown, for example, makes passable carne asada and has a random American menu featuring shrimp cocktail, chicken parmesan, and other anachronistic staples that are guaranteed to disappoint. On the other hand, their pozole (pictured above) is a simmering potage of hot fire, flaking pork, and tender hominy; in short, a magnum opus served all day and night. In the end, a taquería is only as good as you let it be.
Occasionally, the cooks make it easy on us, limiting their concept to a single theme or ingredient. The great birrerías come to mind, houses of goat, where the animal is served either in tacos or in the rich broth called consomé. Similar are the asaderos, where cooks char thin cuts of arrachera and nothing else. Barring specialization, the all-and-sundry taquería is defined by its masterful delivery of every edible cut of meat, elevating offal and forgotten bits into fine delicacies that can fetch a higher price than the prime pieces. Costs aside, the decision to choose cabeza (pictured above) over carne asada is a matter of taste and texture, determined by a moment’s caprice: the salty charred crust of a steak or the delicate richness of a cow’s head, cleaned and simmered to match the flakiest ragú. The lengua (tongue) is also particularly good, sliced and stewed either plainly or in a piquant tomato sauce until ready to dissolve in the mouth. In Chicago it is only rivaled by a few Koreans and Japanese who also know tongue.
These perfectly cooked and seasoned meats are then given to a variety of corn flatbreads, ranging in size and thickness from the basic tortilla to the pocket gordita (pictured above) and the platter sized huarache. Also notable are the tortas, sandwiches on white rolls, which are called cemitas in certain corners. And it’s my intention, as a minimum, to eat one of everything.
At restaurants in this country, imbibers who would linger all night are viewed with suspicion and often contempt, but at the average taquería, no such judgement is passed. The tradition we’re channeling here with our beer and tequila and whiskey is that of the cantina, a kind of Mexican bar that charges for drink but not for food, which is dispensed with increasing generosity as the night goes on. In that spirit, tacos are only the beginning–as the appetite sharpens we move to harder vices, glasses of whiskey paired with grand soups like consomé and menudo, teasing the palate with that sublime contrast of chili, fat, and lime, each perfect bite begging for another drink. And we’re in good company, around us are some borrachos chilling with their coronitas after brutal shifts of running the city. The atmosphere is lively, the music is terrible and we’re doing our best to maintain a conversation about Carlos Fuentes. There’s a point in the evening when words lose their meaning, washed away by some deeper, intuitive pleasure. We clink glasses and order another round of al pastor, for old time’s sake.
Some favorites on the North Side:
Huaraches Dona Chio
1547 W Elmdale Ave
1206 W Lawrence Ave
1708 W Lawrence Ave
2213 W Montrose Ave
4651 N Clark St
Tamales Lo Mejor de Guerrero
7024 N Clark St