Linda: Meat, onions, cilantro, salsa, in a corn tortilla, served with a wedge of lime – a traditional, authentic Mexican taco. Not fancy, just delicious, if well prepared. Fortunately Chicago has a large Mexican population, so there are many, many taquerias to choose from. We were looking for places that have food that tastes home-made, like our grandmothers would cook, if we had Mexican grandmothers. We sampled 16 tacos in our afternoon of tasting – no white table cloth spots. In fact, we were always the only ones not speaking Spanish as we ate.
Tierra Caliente #1 1402 N. Ashland
Linda: I loved this spot; It is in the back of a Mexican grocery store and has several counter spots as well as a few tables. Nothing fancy but , oh are their tacos delicious. I especially fell in love with their lengua taco (beef tongue). It tasted like roast beef and was so tender and flavorful. I watched them chop up the tongues so I know that the meat was freshly prepared. The meat for their tacos al pastor was sliced off a spit of roasted pork, to order. So good! We also sampled the taco tierra caliente and the chorizo. Tierra caliente is made with skirt steak, a fatty cut, which makes for a flavorful taco. The chorizo was also very tasty. Overall I rate this spot my favorite of our crawl. (All tacos are $2.)
Sharon: I enjoyed everything about this place. When you first walk in through the grocery, you may be put-off a little with the "gritty" feel, but then the mouthwatering smells take over. Not being as adventurous as you, I can comment on all but the tongue. What I noticed almost with the first bite is the lack of grease (a good thing). My favorite was the taco al pastor. The meat just melted in your mouth. As you mentioned, this meat comes directly from a fresh spit; therefore, the made-to-order quality. The meat does not sit pre-sliced under a warming light to dry out and become tough. The chorizo was my least favorite. For some reason the overwhelming amount of cumin lent itself to a fast food taco taste. In the midst of this blue collar, "gritty" grocery sat the most perfect bowl of roasted peppers on the counter. That said it all for me – homemade!
Cemitas Puebla 3619 W. North
Sharon: My first visit to this storefront was 2 ½ years ago, where I enjoyed their "cemitas". Cemita translates roughly to a sesame seed topped roll. It is also typically served with cheese, which a traditional taco is not. So you are basically eating a sandwich. This was my overall favorite stop of the day. We sampled the cecina (thin, pounded, cured steak), taco arabes (pork and onions wrapped burrito-style with chipotle salsa), chorizo, and carne asada (steak). Without a doubt, the chorizo wins for me hands-down. Sometimes sausage can be greasy and/or fatty. Not so here. It was perfection with a subtle spicy hint of -- ?allspice, ?nutmeg -- not sure which but it really added to the flavor of the meat. If I had to pick my second favorite, it would be the taco arabes. I am a big pork fan and found this combination almost heaven (chipotles being one of the greatest condiments in my mind). I think the balance of juicy pork and onions was just right. Whatever your preference, this trip to Humboldt Park is well worth your time. (Most tacos are $2.15; the taco arabes is $2.75.)
Linda: While I enjoyed the tacos here, they did not knock my socks off. I agree that the chorizo was delicious – spicy and not greasy. I also enjoyed the taco arabes, the only taco of the day which was wrapped in a flour tortilla. I thought that the taco cecina was a bit dry and the carne asada needed the green salsa to make it moist.
Birrieria Zaragoza 4852 S. Pulaski
Linda: Oh, my god, is their goat (birria) divine! It's hard to put into words how delicious the goat is. It is slow cooked in a mole sauce, then shredded, finished, and served in a simple tomato broth. As a result the birria is not fatty, not gamey, but lean, and flavorful. They butcher and serve about 25 goats a week and they have perfected their technique and recipe. Also, this is the only spot we visited that makes their own corn tortillas. Making tortillas by hand is an art. When we were there we watched them make fresh tortillas: hand-formed from fresh masa, pressed in a wooden press, grilled on a hot grill, and flipped three times to puffy perfection. (Why a wooden press? It is heavier than a metal one and makes a better tortilla.) They make over 700 tortillas each weekday (and over 2000 every Sunday). Mexican grandmothers who don't want to make their own come here to buy from the Zaragozas. (The large goat platter costs $10.50 and makes about 5 tacos, which works out to $2.15 each.)
Sharon: What can I say? I was not even going to try these goat delicacies (not being the adventurous one), but as I said after my first bite "as good as sex". These tacos really come close to one of the best things I have ever eaten. I believe it is the combination of organic meat, slow steaming (5 hours) and the mole sauce it is simmered in. Top that with a lot of family love and you have the best taco you may ever eat. Just remember, as with all of our visits today, these are not the fast food tacos a lot people are familiar with. These samplings are authentic (with slight variations) Mexican/Latino fare. Be adventurous and enjoy some of the tasty tacos the city has to offer.