Few people ignore Rick Bayless. Those who do usually get their ass handed to them—see Chef Ludovic Lefebvre on the first season of Top Chef Masters. For Laura Cid-Perea, the Mexico City-born Le Cordon Bleu Paris-trained pastry chef, things turned out a little differently.
In 2000, the former Frontera Grill cook asked her old boss what he thought about her dream to open a Mexican-style bakery. Though Bayless believed in his protégé, he told her he wasn’t sure Chicagoans were ready for a concept like that. He was probably right, for at that point if any non-Latino Chicagoan had stepped foot in one of the Near South panaderias, they’d be rewarded with leaden churros and stale industrial-shortening larded cookies. It would be tough to get past that reputation.
The weight of Bayless’ recommendation was heavy, for he knew something about launching a concept before its time. Back in 1987, when Clark Street was still a semi-seedy district, he opened a little regional Mexican joint, with his mother and mother-in-law’s retirement savings, called Frontera Grill. His first customer, expecting Tex-Mex style fare, warily scanned the menu, then got up and said, “This is not Mexican food. You’re going to fail.”
Telling Rick Bayless he can’t do something is a call to arms. Cid-Perea was much like her old boss and opened Bombon Bakery on 18th street in Pilsen in 2000. Pretty soon, folks were lining up outside the bright yellow bakery with the Jello-tin and baking-mold wall collage for her caramelized spiky meringue lemon tartlets and buttery conchas. Cid-Perea’s ambrosial cakes started showing up at quinceañeras, weddings and bar mitzvahs all over the city. A mini-empire of three bakeries and a café were built upon a tres leches cake that weeps tears of sweet milk faster than a miraculous Blessed Virgin Mary statue. Things hummed along until August of 2008 when a fire claimed the original location.
Cid-Perea and her husband Luis laid low and continued to operate their café in the West Loop and a bakery outpost in Little Village. At the end of June, they started rebuilding the empire with two new concepts, Bombon Cake Gallery in the Loop and La Lagartija (The Lizard) taqueria a few blocks down from the café on Ashland.
As a West Loop resident and as a food writer, I’m sort of ashamed. For years I’d been ruing the fact that there were no good taquerias (at least when sober, for I’d stumbled drunkenly over to Taco Burrito King on Jackson and Halsted and deemed it magnificent at 2am) in the neighborhood.
Turns out I was sort of wrong. Because Bombon Cafe looked like the Pilsen bakery with a little more seating, I’d never gotten past the sweets. But, Cid-Perea’s husband, Luis, a veteran of Lettuce Entertain You and a Culinary Institute of America graduate, was turning out fish tacos and roasted-pork sandwiches there the whole time. Thankfully, he and his wife opened La Lagartija and finally got through my thick skull.
I still don’t know how good the café’s savory fare is, but I do declare that La Lagartija is the best thing to happen to Ashland street tacos since La Pasadita. Luis Perea, who favors camo-shorts and a white chef’s jacket, is very proud of his al pastor, and were I not a sucker for Big Star’s, featuring braised sweet bursts of pineapple, and the charcoal-flavored versions at the Maxwell Street market, they might be my favorite. They’re marinated in sunburst-colored achiote paste and roasted. Once sliced off the rotating trompo, the crispy caramelized bits spit their spicy juices inside rustic fresh-house-made tortillas blistered with smoky griddle marks.
Most of the meats are cooked or cut to order, rather than steaming away in a pile in the corner of the griddle or pre-cooked and stashed for a quick-pre-heat when ordered. My favorite protein at Lagartija is probably the garlicky chili-spiked chorizo.
The accompanying table salsas, the kind you usually find moldering away in a plastic squirt bottle since the Harold Washington administration at other taquerias, are fresh here. The green smells and tastes like a spicy bright garden and the rusty-red salsa like layers of smoky-roast red pepper.
While the meat tacos elevate La Lagartija into the top five percent of Chicago taquerias, it’s the taco featuring plump briny shrimp coated in a crunchy tempura-like coating smothered in a creamy mayo and roast pequin chili sauce that makes this place a destination.
Agua-fresca, or “natural water,” often tasting more of water than fruit, is a cool rejuvenating elixir brimming with fresh strawberry and melon. The licuados are made with milk and real fruit, but you probably won’t crave these soupier mild shakes like the sugar-bomb cement-thick shakes served at your usual burger stand.
Big Star may have the edge on pastor, but the crock of poblano chili and corn-studded queso fundido at Lagartija is creamier and more comforting than the analog over at Wicker Park’s cinder-block-reinforced hipster warehouse. The Pereas are definitely doing their own bit of butt-kicking now. My guess is Rick Bayless couldn’t be prouder.
La Lagartija Taqueria, 132 South Ashland, (312)733-7772