Chicago has the best tacos in America. There, I said it. It’s about time somebody did.
To be fair, Los Angeles comes close. Hell, it may even be a tie. But the best of the Windy City can go toe-to-toe with any other taco in the U.S. This makes sense, considering Chicago is home to America’s second largest population of native-born Mexicans. As a result, it’s also home to an obscene amount of Taquerías, which means trying to nail down the 15 best is a fool’s errand. Well, I’m just the fool to do it.
I can already hear some of you saying, “Hey, you forgot to include that guy behind the abandoned Blockbuster who sells Cabeza tacos out of his trunk!” Well, lo siento, pndjo! Maybe he’ll be on the list next year. Until then, enjoy these 15 outstanding Chicago taco joints.
15. MAXWELL STREET MARKET (SUNDAY ONLY)
The tacos available at the Maxwell Street Market deserve a list all their own. But since I’m not getting paid to write that list, I’m adding the entire market as its own entry.
Thanks to Mayor Daley and UIC, the historic flea market is now only a shadow of its former self. But today’s Mexican immigrants are doing their best to breathe new life into the open-air bazaar. As a result, it is home to some of the best tacos in the city. And since the vendors are constantly changing, you never know what you’re going to find. If you need a specific stall, grab some al pastor or lengua at Rubi’s. But with so many ever-changing options, it’d be foolish to limit yourself. Shop around.
14. EL MILAGRO TORTILLA
Quality over quantity is important, but in the case of El Milagro, I’d be lying if I said quantity wasn’t a major factor. It’s not that the food isn’t up to snuff. It’s pretty delicious. But at the end of the day, it’s cafeteria style, and the restaurant is basically just an excuse to promote El Milagro tortillas. However, there’s something wonderful about ordering a chicken taco and watching them bring out an entire breast wrapped in a tortilla. The size of the rib-eye on the steak taco was equally absurd, and equally tasty.
13. RAYMOND’S HAMBURGERS AND TACOS NO. 2
Some taco purists will probably consider the word “hamburger” in a restaurant’s name to be a red flag. And I have to admit I was a little skeptical when I saw our cook at Raymond’s reaching for a slice of American cheese to put between my rib-eye taco’s tortillas. But damn if it didn’t work. The grease, onions, and processed cheese melted in my mouth. And as an added bonus, the extra cholesterol probably took a few days off my miserable existence.
As I left, a less-than-stable woman who was ordering a burger threw a fist full of change across the counter and yelled, “Count this, I don’t have my glasses.” This made the experience all the more enjoyable.
12. LA LAGARTIJA
After glancing at La Lagartija’s menu, I had my sights set on the Volcan, which was a mix of al pastor and cheese served on a tostada. But since this is a taco list, I settled for a shrimp taco, and did not walk away disappointed. Those of you who prefer your culinary victims with four legs will enjoy the chorizo, al pastor, and carne asada options, which were also nicely done. For the alcoholics among us, La Lagartija’s bar looked promising, although by that point I was too full of tacos to properly indulge.
11. XOCO (WEDNESDAY ONLY)
Playboy just ran an interview with Rick Bayless, so including one of his restaurants is probably a conflict of interest. Oh well. Sue me.
Besides, every Wednesday night, Xoco is serving up some of the best Al Pastor tacos in the city. If you show up any other night, you’re going to have to settle for a delicious torta.
10. BIRRIERIA REYES DE OCOTLAN RESTAURANT
In 1934, a goat fell off a truck and wandered into The Lincoln Tavern. Rather than call animal control (which probably didn’t exist), bar owner William Sianis took a liking to the creature, made it the bar’s official mascot, and renamed his business The Billy Goat Tavern. With that, a Chicago institution was born.
If a goat fell off a truck in front of Birrieria Reyes De Ocotlan today, he would not be so lucky. In fact, he’d be totally f*cked. But he’d also be a totally delicious taco, and perhaps the Cubs would win a World Series.
9. TACO EL JALISCIENSE
Most Chicagoland Taquerías aren’t much to look at from the outside (or from the inside, for that matter). But something about Taco el Jalisciense, a trapezoid-shaped building wedged into the diagonal intersection of Chicago and Grand, looks even sadder than normal. But there’s nothing sad about the tacos. Jalisciense is home to some of the most sought after al pastor in the city. But I opted for the carne asada and walked away more than satisfied.
8. CEMITAS PUEBLA
In case the name didn’t clue you in, Cemitas Puebla specializes in making the Cemita, which is a type of torta that originated in Puebla (Thanks, Wikipedia).
If you find yourself in the mood for one of these unique Mexican sandwiches, I recommend the Atomica. But since this is a taco list, I also recommend making a specific visit for the Taco Arabe (spit-roasted pork) or Taco Government Precioso (steak and chorizo), which both manage to hold their own against their carb-heavy cousins.
7. BIG STAR
While it might not have the same hole-in-the-wall charm as some of the other spots on this list, there’s no denying that Big Star is popular for a reason. And that reason is their damn tasty tacos (the Al Pastor, in particular). The servings are a bit on the smaller side, so don’t expect El Milagro-sized portions. And chances are you’ll probably have to wait for a table (one colleague waited twenty minutes on a Tuesday afternoon before getting a seat at the bar). But it’s not exactly fair to fault a restaurant for being too popular. There’s a reason everyone wants to eat here. It’s delicious.
6. LA PASADITA
La Pasadita is a Chicago institution that’s been serving up delicious carne asada tacos since 1976. At one point, there were three separate locations at the intersection of Ashland and Division, all owned by the Espinoza family. That’s insane.
Sadly, current owner David Espinoza has closed two of the three spots, citing the inherent lunacy of owning three nearly identical restaurants within walking distance of each other. While I certainly can’t fault his logic, it’s still a little depressing to see only one La Pasadita in West Town. On the plus side, my favorite location of the three (1140 N. Ashland) survived, and is still churning out some delicious rib-eye.
5. LAS ASADAS
Another Chicago taquería known for its carne asada is Las Asadas. The chain now boasts six locations, three of which are in the suburbs (two in Des Plaines and one in Brookfield, to be precise). If you’re lucky enough to sample their steak, you might notice a lot of similarities to what La Pasadita is putting out. That probably has a little something to do with the fact that Las Asadas’ owner Rosa Bucio is the sister of La Pasadita owner David Espinoza.
4. L’ PATRON
This north-side taquería offers a house special known as “The Gringo.” It consists of a homemade tortilla stuffed with nothing but carne asada and chihuahua cheese. It’s counterpart, “The Gringa,” is the same thing, except with al pastor. But in a bold (possibly drunken) move, I opted for a shrimp taco. No need for coleslaw on the side. They put it right in the tortilla. And while it was delicious, I going back to try “The Gringo” as soon as possible.
3. CARNITAS URUAPAN RESTAURANT
Carnitas Uruapan is very similar to Carnitas Don Pedro (see below). The two are even located on the same street. So which has better carnitas? I went with Don Pedro, but on a different day, I might have chosen Uruapan. Suffice it to say that both are ridiculously cheap and both are ridiculously delicious. I recommend trying one, and then taking a brisk 15 minute walk to the other so you can decide for yourself. But given the incredible amount of “Chuy” sings you’ll see along the way, I wouldn’t recommend wearing any Rahm Emanuel election paraphernalia on your journey.
2. TAQUERIA EL ASADERO
This small, family-run joint near Lincoln Square feels more like a diner than a taqueria. But they’re putting out arguably the best carne asada tacos in the city. An added bonus was Viviana, the owner’s daughter, who managed to remain pleasant and professional while dealing with all the idiots on St. Patrick’s Day, including me. Sorry, Viviana.
1. CARNITAS DON PEDRO
I walked into Carnitas Don Pedro hoping to try just a taco or two. That’s not an option. Carnitas is sold by the pound or half-pound, and comes with fresh tortillas, pickled jalapenos, and a basket of chicharrón (Mexican pork rinds). It was all delicious. I split the meal with a friend, and still walked away uncomfortably full. Despite the abundance of food, the bill came to only $9.50, including drinks. At no extra charge, I was allowed (or was forced) to watch the employees as they wheeled around giant carts of assorted hog parts. It was a wonderful experience. Best in the city, really.
Special thanks to Mike Stephen of Mike Love’s Tacos who contributed to this list.