Like many Americans, I enjoy my Mexican food. Some like a burrito or tamale but I remain true to the taco. As a recent transplant to Chicago, I was surprised to find that this city knows good Mexican cuisine. In fact, I’d say Chicago rivals the likes of Los Angeles when it comes to a mean taco in the States.
I guess it’s not that surprising, since Chicago does have the second largest Mexican population (after L.A.) and if you look at the U.S. Census data, the Mexican population rose by about 35 percent in the past ten years which has certainly influenced the food scene in Chicago, leaving this little gringa searching high and low for the best tacos in town.
Whether you live here or you’re just stopping through, don’t leave without trying the tacos at some of my top choices:
What: Big Star
Where: 1531 N Damen Chicago, IL 60622
When: Sunday – Friday 11:30am – 2am, Saturday 11:30am – 3am
Price: $3 – $5 tacos
The lowdown: Head to this Wicker Park taco and beer joint to hang with some of the coolest hipsters in town. Anticipate a long line outside on the weekend (yes, it’s like trying to get into a night club) just to talk to the host, but you’ll soon forget the wait as you’re blown away by these delectable tacos. Far from ordinary are the lamb tacos, taco de panza (pork belly), taco al pastor, or maybe the best-I’ve-ever-tasted taco de pescado. The patio is great, the service is quick and the margaritas are fresh (but lethal). If tequila isn’t your thing, there is also an extensive beer and whiskey selection. Or if you’re just looking for a quick bite to eat, they also offer the less crowded take-away option.
Bottom Line: I’ve heard people say this spot is overrated, but I couldn’t disagree more. Maybe I’ve been on the East coast for too long, but these are some of the best tacos I’ve tasted north of the border.
Where: At the Maxwell Street Market on Des Plaines Street, between Roosevelt Road and Harrison Street.
When: Every Sunday of the month 7:00 am – 3:00 pm
Price: $4 tacos
The Lowdown: The Maxwell Street market is not a farmer’s market, nor is it a typical flea market. It’s a weird mix of vendors, selling just about anything you can think of. I saw a lot of power tools, t-shirts, tires, and all the other random junk you’d find at a garage sale. There are several food vendors here as well, mostly serving Mexican food. Rubi’s is by far the most popular and it’s no surprise because this is where everyone comes for an authentic experience. The tortillas are made from scratch and pressed onsite, the ingredients are traditional and fresh. Try the Al Pastor with cheese or the steak quesadilla.
Bottom Line: This market is a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon and rub shoulders with the locals who know a thing or two about authentic Mexican.
What: Antique Taco
Where: 1360 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60622
When: Tuesday – Thursday noon – 10:00 pm, Friday noon – 11:00 pm, Sunday Noon – 8 pm, Closed on Mondays
Price: $8 – $10 for two tacos
The lowdown: Antique Taco is another noteworthy Mexican joint in the ever-evolving Wicker Park neighborhood. These tacos are modern served up with non-traditional toppings and unique flavors. The sweet & spicy chicken was my favorite with chunks of chili-rubbed chicken topped with cucumber and jalapeno pickle, honey yogurt, and topped-off with purple onion or the tempura battered fish tacos with smoked cabbage and sriracha tartar sauce. Also try the house guacamole which has big chucks of velvety and smooth avocado throughout every bite. The beer and cocktail selection is spot on. You probably shouldn’t leave without trying the refreshing Rosemary’s Margarita with tequila, fresh lime juice, fresh orange juice, and rosemary simple syrup.
Bottom Line: This low-key restaurant from husband-and-wife duo Rick (chef) and Ashley (designer) Ortiz does a great job of cooking up delicious, modern tacos while also creating a lovely low-key ambience by incorporating reclaimed vintage pieces throughout (a few of which are for sale).