Most accurately, we should call this a tale of two taquerias, but “two tacos” scans better. Taco Lago, owned by local restaurateur Tim Lenon (Fuel), is located in Plaza del Lago on the far eastern edge of town, while The Trendy Taco can be found in the heart of downtown Wilmette, in the old Hotcakes space (Carla Connett owns both restaurants, along with Winnetka’s Greenbay Café). And while both new places are serving up tacos, there are as many differences as there are commonalities.
Both restaurants are counter-service establishments, meaning you order and pay at the counter, and the food is brought to your table. Taco Lago — designed by Blakedale Interiors — is a large, light-filled and open space, with bright blue accent walls, funky graffiti and long wood communal tables with rock gardens running down the center trough. I’m thinking they don’t want you to linger, because the seating is quite uncomfortable. In contrast, The Trendy Taco is a hole-in-the-wall space that has been jazzed up with southwestern art and reclaimed wood benches; the curvy Hotcakes lunch counter remains. Ironically, Taco Lago’s space is the “trendier” of the two.
Clearly they are aiming for different crowds. Taco Lago has a larger menu, which includes six tacos, two entrée salads (Mexican kale!), quesadillas, queso fundido, sopes (thick masa tortillas with toppings), and soups (Tortilla and Black Bean). Most tellingly, they have a liquor license, and serve Mexican beers, a red and white wine by the glass, agua frescas with a shot of Tito’s vodka, and house-made Rosemary Margaritas ($8.50 glass/$31 pitcher).
In contrast, Trendy Taco’s menu is more compact, offering six tacos, a burrito, a vegetarian torta, cheese quesadillas, chips and guac. Non-alcoholic drinks include freshly made horchata (a sweetened rice beverage) and limonada, Jarritos and some American sodas. Prices here are significantly lower: a three-taco platter with rice and beans will run you $11.50, while Taco Lago will charge you $14.95.
Most importantly, how do the tacos stack up? Neither place is making their own tortillas, and both opt for the two-tortilla method favored in most classic taquerias, which aims to prevent both breakage and spillage. While I prefer the corn tortillas served at Trendy Taco, which appear to be warmed and softened on a griddle, I have to give the fillings edge to Taco Lago.
In a head-to-head matchup, Taco Lago’s Al Pastor ($9/two tacos) — marinated and spit-roasted pork shoulder, diced and paired with grilled pineapple, topped with chopped onion and cilantro — was a fantastic balance of salty and sweet, crispy and soft. Their Carne Asada ($9/two tacos) and Pollo ($7/two tacos) were really juicy, and the Pescado ($9/two tacos), freshly marinated fish topped with pickled onions and vinegary cabbage slaw, made for a terrific little taco. The salsas, many made in house, were uninspiring and lacked zing.
Trendy Taco scored with their zesty Chorizo ($3 each), though I would recommend adding a little guacamole to it, and the favorite of the evening, the Camaron ($3.50 each). The plump shrimp were marinated in a spicy concoction, sautéed, then combined with red cabbage and a squiggle of lime crema. Their house-made salsas (verde and roja) had a serious kick; I added some to the vegetarian refried beans for a little extra oomph. In an interesting, cross-cultural twist, Trendy tops their guacamole with dried cranberries. Still trying to process that one.
If you desire a sweet ending to your taco fiesta, Taco Lago has a few options (including gluten-free cupcakes). While Trendy Taco doesn’t offer desserts, they are just a short block west of both Couture Cupcakes and Cocomero Frozen Yogurt, and around the corner from Panera Bakery, so you’re covered.
One town. Two taquerias. Is Wilmette big enough for the both of them? Time will tell, but I’m guessing so.
1515 Sheridan Road
The Trendy Taco
1195 Wilmette Ave.
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