I am very particular about my tacos because I’m Mexican and grew up eating my mother’s delicious food. I hesitate to go to Mexican restaurants for the same reason. Grilled meat tacos, however, are difficult to recreate in my kitchen, so I do occasionally venture out for some tacos. My main requirements in a taco are the following: high quality meat (no sinew, nerves, or chunks of scary fat), good seasoning, a flavorful salsa, and soft, well-heated tortillas. My quest was also to find meals that cost about $10 dollars. I firmly believe that a few tacos shouldn’t be a blow to your pockets.
El Asadero 2213 West Montrose Avenue, Chicago
Phone: 773-583-5563 Hours: Mon-Fri 10 am – 10 pm and Sat-Sun 10 am – 12 am
El Asadero appeared to be exactly what I like in a taco place: It put on no airs whatsoever. The tacos were clearly the focus. The walls were wood-paneled, which always reminds me of being in someone’s basement. There is something tacky but comforting about it. On one wall there was poster that illustrated various dog breeds. Yet another example of this strange melange of all that adds to the allure of El Asadero. The TV played Sabado Gigante, which I liked for nostalgic reasons. (Every Mexican kid grew up watching the pervy shenanigans of Don Francisco on Saturday evenings.) Also, it’s cash only and you pay at the counter, so YOU can leave a smaller tip.
I love dives, but only when they are fairly clean. I’m no germaphobe. I will eat at questionable establishments if it means good food, but I really wished the tables had been wiped down and the tortilla chips and other litter had been swept from the floor. The man behind the counter was not exactly a friendly fellow, but this is something I can sometimes forgive if the food blows me away. The tacos, however, did not blow me away. I ordered three—asada, al pastor and chorizo topped with onion and cilantro. The asada was by far the best. The meat was soft and seasoned fairly well except for some pockets that were a bit too salty. (I would guess that the meat was seasoned with standard Mexican adobe seasoning, but I was afraid to ask the unfriendly man.) The meat also had the right amount of fat with no scary, quivering fat chunks (you know what I’m talking about). I personally enjoy asada with a more pronounced charbroiled flavor, and although this one didn’t have it, it was still a fine taco. The al pastor, however, I found to be dry and lacking in flavor. I doused it heavily in lime juice to give it more of a personality, but that did not suffice. What I typically like about al pastor is that hint of sweetness from the marinade playing with the sweet quality of the pork, but this lacked that magic. The chorizo was dry, which surprised me because it’s so very fatty. It also lacked that wonderful vinegary flavor that chorizo has. I wondered if it was homemade or store-bought. The tortillas weren’t heated as well as I would have liked, making them a bit too grainy and lacking the softness that’s necessary in a tortilla. I would only return to Las Asadas if I were out late drinking and had an insatiable taco craving. The price for two people—six tacos, 2 drinks, and a side of rice and beans— was $23.
Las Asadas 2045 N Western Ave (between Mclean Ave & Dickens Ave), Chicago
Phone: 773-235-5538 Hours: Daily: 10am-10pm
Las Asadas is a small and unassuming little restaurant. The interior is fairly austere though there are small attempts to create a modern style: exposed brick, colorful tin lizards from Mexico hanging on the walls and granite counter tops. The logo for Las Asadas was a moustachioed jalapeno who could charm even the biggest curmudgeon It’s not quite a dive, but the simple setting does communicate that the tacos are what you are there for.
I ordered two tacos — asada and barbacoa. The barbacoa was soft and fatty, which is the way I’ve always known good barbacoa to be. It was clearly slow-cooked in its own juices. The seasoning was minimal and allowed the meat to really stand out. The contrast of the soft meat against the crunchiness of the white onion is perfect. The taco de asada had the great charbroiled flavor that I love in a taco. My guess is that they were seasoned with the common Mexican adobo. The meat was soft and the pieces were the perfect size, which I think is very important. It is always unsettling to get tiny pieces of meat in a taco because it’s as if they’re trying to hide its low quality. This meat, however, didn’t have anything to hide. It had an appropriately slight fatty flavor without any gristle. The Popocateptl tortillas were soft and heated sufficiently.
Their salsa verde was clearly made from roasted ingredients, which is my preferred salsa style. It had a great color of green and black and tasted smoky with tangy hints from the lime. And though it wasn’t as spicy as I prefer it, it was delicious and added another dimension to the taste of the taco.
The rice was fluffy and the grains maintained their integrity. It had a subtle tomato and cilantro flavor. The beans were fried hard, but were not at all greasy. They also had a generous but not overwhelming amount of shredded Chihuahua. I paired my tacos with an agua de horchata, which is a treat that I usually reserve for taco-eating. The horchata had a nice rice and cinnamon flavor without being too cloying.
I will definitely be returning to Las Asadas. For three people we ordered six tacos, a side of rice and beans, and three drinks all for $21.00. It was a great deal for good quality tacos.
Taco Chino 4712 N Kimball Ave. Chicago
Phone: 773-866-1530 Hours: Mon-Sun 11 am – 11 pm
The name alone was enough to tickle my interest, but the tacos will make me return again and again. Though this Mexican restaurant has Korean influences, it’s called Taco Chino because many Latinos refer to Asians in general as “chinos.” It is politically incorrect but accurate.
The restaurant is painted with bright orange and green. There was a very basic black mural of a desert and mariachi sombreros hung on the wall. You never would guess that this restaurant was Korean from the décor. Actually, most of the food offered is standard Mexican fare with Korean-inspired options.
At first I was skeptical of the vinegary kimchi on a tortilla. It sounded too strange. The tacos, however, were fantastic. I split a bulgoki and kimchi taco plate with my boyfriend. Each plate was composed of three tacos and a side of rice and beans. The rice was a bit bland and the beans were standard refried pinto beans. I also ordered an agua de horchata, which a bit watery. Next time I may just get the tacos and order a coke. I still can’t decide which taco was my favorite. The bulgoki was tender and well marinated. I was lucky to be able to speak to the owner and chef who was kind enough to share some of what was in the marinade: Korean pear, sesame oil, garlic, soy sauce, green onion, sugar, and black pepper. It was sweet and had great umami flavors from the sesame oil and soy sauce. The meat was also cooked with green and red peppers, which added a nice crunch. They were also topped with lettuce, which added another texture. Out of the three salsas provided, I found that the red was the best on the beef. The kimchi tacos were a delightful surprise. The subtle sweetness of the pork was complimented well by the vinegary kimchi. The tacos were topped with onion and cilantro. The very spicy habanero salsa provided another great element to the taste of the taco. The tortillas also seemed to be Milagro brand, which are my favorite because they are thick and soft. They were also heated in a bit of oil, which always pleases me. The owner also informed me that the kimchi was made in-house and that everything was made to order.
For a quality meal, the prices were great. My boyfriend and I spent $22 on two taco meals and two drinks. It is also BYOB and has a liquor store next door.
Those of you who cook authentic Mexican food will know that Mexican cuisine requires a great deal of time and attention. I think that often there’s a misconception that Mexican food is fast and easy. That’s not true at all. If even tacos are made hastily, the flavor will reveal it. There may be taco joints all over the city, but finding a taco worth eating is difficult. I’m pleased to have found some that I think will be worthy of your palate and money.
Oh Hells Nah is a small and sassy Mexican woman exploring the relationships between poetry, politics, and food. She lives in Chicago, you can check out her blog — like hot dogs for your brain — or follow her on Facebook or Twitter @OhHellsNah.