If you asked people the number-one most-popular after-hours snack, the answer would usually be pizza. But for many of us, without question, it’s Mexican food.
More specifically, it’s the taco.
Not only because of the taco’s fit-in-your-hand accessibility, but also because no taco is the same, nor taco joint, and the wealth spreads across the city, from Pilsen to Wicker Park to Lakeview. Taco Bell may be the all-around fiscal king of the late-night Mexican buffet—although this E. coli outbreak can’t be good for business—but we’ve never seen a TB serve a goat-meat taco, nor, for that matter, make us believe that we’re actually eating food.
We didn’t even attempt to tackle a comprehensive list of Chicago’s taco joints—there are far too many, and there would have been some serious digestive issues to deal with. This is a rundown of our favorites, our top quick stops, not the fancy, sit-and-have-a-meal Mexican houses. There are some classics—good evenin’, Flash Taco—and, we hope, some you might have never heard of, let alone experienced firsthand.
Enjoy, and pass the hot sauce.
Where the Wild West and Mexican culture meet. A kitschy mural of Indian chieftains standing on the corner of Damen and Archer mingles with a wagon-wheel chandelier, glazed knotty pine walls and a slew of taxidermied animals. Chefs in paper-boat hats carve al pastor (spit-roasted pork) with glinting knives. Served as a torta on a grilled kaiser bun, the smoky, pepper-flecked pork glistens in its own juices, while a wafer of neon avocado melts under the heat from the griddled egg-washed Kaiser-style bun.
3429 S. Archer, (773)376-4015
An outpost of the nearby tortilla factory, this joint serves decent pastor and steak tacos, but people come for one of the best bowls of steaming Menudo, a spicy Mexican tripe-based soup, on weekends.
1649 W. 47th, (773)247-5870
The Birrieria Reyes de Ocotlan
1322 W. 18th, (312)733-2613.
Burrito Joint #2
Admittedly this is a post-bar-hopping-stomach-lining or a pre-Victory Gardens Theater-binging establishment, but the free salsa’s pretty good, and the meat is griddled, ensuring your binge won’t end as a greasy gut-bomb goodnight.
2221 N. Lincoln, (773)529-0176
This one gives the others a run for their money. Not as well known as some spots, Chavas delivers on all levels of Mexican basics—from the tacos to the burritos to the quesadillas to the horchatas—and, at a startlingly cheap price, probably offers the fullest taco dinner in the area. You get your money’s worth with the three-taco presentation, but the rice and beans portion are plenty and, afterwards, you really can’t see yourself eating tacos ever again, you’re so full. We especially recommend the chicken.
2351 W. Grand, (312)226-1129
Don Jose Tamaleria and Taqueria
They don’t speak much English at Don Jose, but if you ask “Cual es la Mejor” or “What’s the best?” they’ll be sure to point you to the Queso con Rajas Tamales, a light fluffy corn masa-perfumed purse (not your average Wicker Park bar gut-bomb from a sketchy igloo cooler) filled with fiery jalapeno and melted cheese, or the Flor de Calabaza, squash blossom quesadillas, a freshly griddled corn tortilla folded with stringy piping cheese and tangy orange and green edible flowers.
2000 W. 34th, (773)927-4252
The Lakeview joint, if you couldn’t tell, specializes in tortas, offering more than fifteen kinds to choose from, but, although a bit pricey, holds its own with tacos as well. It’s not perfect—they could certainly spice up the meal a bit, add a bit more cilantro or make the jump and add cheese automatically (and give a kickstart to that bland hot sauce!)—but for the neighborhood, it’s more than passable.
3057 N. Ashland, (773)871-8999
1570 N. Damen, (773)772-1997
Green House Steaks
This is the gringo-friendly but still-authentic antidote for the Maxwell Market organ-meat taco stands, where you can score deep-fried gordita shells or huaraches (masa flatbreads) piled high with grilled steak, sour cream, tomatoes and lettuce, quesadillas de papa filled with creamy melted Chihuahua cheese, and a side of gooey carmelized plantains. Green house still isn’t Taco Bell, and so you’ll still find adventurous treats like huitlacoche quesadillas. Huitlacoche is an earthy inky-black fungus that grows on corn husks, sometimes called the Mexican truffle, and it’s rich and earthy, studded with golden corn kernels, and tastes like a mixture of rare morel and chanterelle mushrooms.
Maxwell Street Market, a block south of Roosevelt
Better known for its burritos—yes, bigger than your head—La Pasadita, at all three of its locations (located within one block of each other) also trumps most with its taco selection. Seasoned skirt steak, cilantro, onion—simple, clean and efficient—are the foundation for the fistfuls of meat and tortilla, and the selection of three separate toppings, pico de gallo, red salsa, green salsa, lets you specialize.
1132 N. Ashland, (773)384-6537; 1140 N. Ashland, (773)278-0384; 1142 N. Ashland, (773)227-2203
When put in competition with neighboring Arturo’s, Lazo’s always comes out on top. The tacos lack a bit of ambition—standard fare here—but the setting is what makes Lazo’s a destination. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, Lazo’s offers a quite spacey home for Mexican cuisine, a dine-in section and a take-out section, TVs tuned to futbol and, sometimes, live music.
2009 N. Western, (773)486-3303
You can follow your nose to Manolo’s. The smoky corn masa waft of freshly grilled tortillas is like a gastronomic pied piper. A deeply tanned woman pats down chalky white balls of corn mash and places them on the grill, where they bubble up like toasted corn blimps. Once you place your order, one of those tortillas will be plucked from the grill and filled with the protein of your choice. The mole rojo, a garnet blend of dried ancho and pasilla chilis, toasted nuts, oregano, cinnamon, with a hint of chocolate blanketing fat chunks of roasted chicken is a star.
Maxwell Street Market (Stand near Canal and Taylor)
The Wicker Park hut provides the neighborhood’s best tacos with the least amount of space. A traditional grab-a-taco-and-run joint, Picante goes easy on the toppings and allows you to savor the strongest of flavors—the meat, cilantro, onions, lettuce—without bombarding your taste buds with overdoses of cheese or sour cream. No seating inside (but a nice signed photo of Minnie Minoso), but the outside patio’s nice, and in the summer, a pleasant, cheap dining-out experience.
2016 1/2 W. Division, (773)328-8800
Taco Burrito King
Eat the cheaper-than-cheap tacos, drink the horchata, probably see some sort of drunken brawl involving the Harlem Avenue players and, well, someone they’ve just picked a fight with. We’re not talking the emperor of meat quality here, either—though the tacos come fully loaded with ample sour cream, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and hot sauce, and the Mexican rice might be the best on the North Side—it’s the atmosphere of the three Harlem TBK dives that make the stop worthwhile, late-night preferable, when tacos after a night of drinking seem like a fantastic idea. Note: there are several Taco Burrito King’s across the great city of Chicago, but the three on Harlem are the best ones. Simple rule: Not on Harlem, not good enough.
5509 N. Harlem, (773)467-0692; 3216 N. Harlem, (773)637-3200; 4427 N. Harlem, (708)457-0457
Taco Burrito Palace #2
If you want enough food to fill a keg, TBP #2 is the place to go, offering a wide array of equally satisfying Mexican mainstays, often complementing your taco selection with style (get the biggest nachos they offer, top ‘em with chicken, and share with a friend). The taco meal offers only two, as opposed to the conventional three, but trust us, it’s enough. Word to the wise: make this a late-night pit stop, the day cooks and night cooks are different, and in our opinion, the night crew reigns supreme.
2459 N. Halsted, (773)248-0740
Taqueria la Oaxaquena
While you pore over the menu, a trio of salsas—roasted red chili, tangy tomatillo and a smoky rust-colored—and fresh corn-perfumed tortillas always await. The adobo sauce is smoky, the mole sweet and rustic, and the meats roasted and slightly charred. Almost everything, from the nopales asados that combine zingy lemony cactus with griddled onions and fiery jalapeno, to the pulpy, creamy chunks of tender citrus-marinated octopus, is a delight.
3382 N. Milwaukee, (773)545-8585
Taqueria la Poblanita
Spit-roasted meats crowned by pineapple rings and marinated in orangey-red Achiote paste or oregano-perfumed tacos arabes with a hint of vinegar served up on thick flower tortillas with cinnamon scented salsa is the thing. Don’t forget the Mexican Coke, which is still served up in glass bottles and brewed with cane syrup (instead of high-fructose corn syrup like the American version). The cane syrup has a caramel undertone and offers a full-bodied mouth feel. If you grew up in the eighties, it’ll be a chance to recapture a taste memory from your youth.
4171 S. Archer
If you’re looking to score a taco or a clock bearing the logo of your favorite Mexican soccer team, Taqueria Puebla’s a one-stop shop. The walls and ceiling are wallpapered with soccer posters, photographs and vintage Oscar de la Hoya posters. The spartan and eclectic decor belies a cuisine that, much like De la Hoya’s powerful fists, will knock you out. Taco arabes, a thick flour tortilla studded with spit-roasted pork, caramelized onion, oregano, vinegar and assorted spices, is a close cousin of traditional Middle Eastern lamb schwarma, while the cemita milaneza, a sesame-crusted grilled bun filled with a breaded, butterflied pork chop, papalo (a leafy green similar to cilantro), chipotle peppers and a mozzarella-like string cheese reminds you of a smoky veal parmesan sandwich.
3619 W. North, (773)772-8435
Sidle into red melamine booths and chow down under a glass mural of a sombrero-topped Rhett Butler swooning with a Latina Scarlett. The smoky tomato salsa is the perfect complement to the steak taco which has tender bits of lightly charred and heartily seasoned carne asada and is served in a grilled corn envelope dotted with herby cilantro. The tabletop escabeche, or Mexican style giardiniera, really heats up the roast pork tacos.
3856 S. Archer, (773)843-0098
Tiny little hole-in-the-walls are the best places to drink, and now eat. Zacatacos, small enough to be your kitchen, cooks some of the best char-broiled tacos in this city—which says a lot when you consider the large number of taco joints in this city. They offer cheaply priced tacos—steak, chicken or pork—as well as burritos so big that they are a workout to pick up and eat, and nachos so good that the heart-attack that may ensue is well worth it. Open late on the weekends, it’s a perfect destination for late greasy treats to soak up any alcohol you may have in your system.
5925 S. Pulaski, (773)581-9481; 3949 W. 71st, (773)582-9701
(Tom Lynch, Lorenzo de Jesus Martinez and Michael Nagrant)