I’ve had a lot of offal tacos. There’s been lengua or tongue, braised cow cheeks and even the occasional brain taco. But, ultimately it’s the awful tacos whose insipid tomatoes, lifeless lettuces and fiery spices that really warm the soul.
Sure, I’ve sucked down the goat eyeball taco at the Maxwell Street market, but the joke among my fellow band of intrepid culinary hounds is that the real adventure is to eat at Flash Taco during the day. With all your senses intact and the synapses of the brain firing at full spark, you’d have to be crazy to set foot in the Wicker park Mexican box at the six-corner intersection of Damen, Milwaukee and North Avenue. And so I never have.
But at night, it’s another game. After a keg’s worth of bourbon, and hours of shuffling through the packed confines of Nick’s, staring at the bullet-riddled painting of Peaches and the waxed veneer of the large wall-mounted surfboard, or sifting through smoke, muscles dulled from sulking in the inky dungeon of blackness at Estelle’s, proximity is the thing. And if the food gods were to smile, there would be a smoky Korean bbq joint in Bucktown full of tangy bulgogi and endless bowls of kim chi and assorted panchan, but alas, there’s only Swank Frank’s, Underdog or the Flash.
Somehow in the polluted fog of a drunken brain, I always reason that greasy taqueria fare trumps deep-fried twinkies and soggy hot dogs. Standing in the impossibly long lines, contemplating the twinkle of the plastic stars that hang from the Flash Taco ceiling and squinting at the glinting light reflecting off the kaleidoscope of multihued Jarritos bottles in the Pepsi-branded cooler, the food is served in anything but a flash.
I belly up to that white ceramic-tiled counter, and the order is always the same, the Jr. Fajita. I fear the grande-sized burrito will be my end, and I reason that moderation, even in the food mediocrity, will save me. The line cooks scramble, coaxing slow-cooking meat with squirt bottles of water and steel domes, and so the final product is a scrambled mess of grey lifeless meat, devoid of any of that hot grilled char that marks the truly transcendent taco joint.
But, in those hazy moments, taste doesn’t really matter, for with taste buds ruined and a cardboard tongue dulled by a pack worth of smoked Parliaments, I could wolf down braised horsehide or toasted dog and I’d never know the difference. For me, food is still primarily about the company—the friends and family gathered— and there is no better sea of fellow humanity than the gleeful drunken masses of Flash Taco. It’s an anthropological center point where late-night Latino line cooks in their baggy checked pants meet Lincoln Park black-panted women and where hoodie-clad hipsters mingle with blue-shirted frat boys, in search of a common magical elixir, the grease to stave off the sour stomach and the pounding headache.
And in each of those post-hangover mornings, with the lead of the Jr. fajita burrito in my belly, I swear each visit is the last—but always I return. The burnished stainless-steel letters with the thunderbolt logo continue to beckon as a culinary bat signal for my sloshing stomach. My first post-bar bender in Chicago was at the Flash, and it’s likely that in the years to come, when my arteries harden, it will be the grease from that flattop which will finally stop my heart.