If you think a taco consists of a crispy taco shell with some sautéed chopped meat, shredded cheese and iceberg lettuce, this is not your article. Move along. I’m talking about the real thing, not some Tex-Mex travesty.
Listen, I’m not asking for much: A homemade, soft corn tortilla; a piece of grilled or battered fish; some cabbage slaw and chipotle mayo…a few simple ingredients, but when done right, the stars align and what happens in your mouth is taco alchemy.
It used to be that you had to go to Pilsen or Humboldt Park (or, of course, Frontera Grill) for a true Mexican-style taco, but in the last few years, Chicago has seen a taco explosion. You’ll find them everywhere on menus from Lincoln Park to Rogers Park, from Evanston to Lake Forest. And not just at dedicated taco establishments—of which there are many—or Mexican restaurants. Tacos have hit mainstream menus (Hi, Chipotle! Hey there, California Pizza Kitchen!) and show no sign of stopping.
Why all the fuss? Well, because deliciousness. And texture contrast. And flavor. And portability. Each ingredient has the opportunity to shine; you can eat a few at a sitting and the price is right. It’s the perfect dish in our small-plate world.
So, let’s talk taco. Here are some (but emphatically not all!) of the Chicago-area restaurants currently doing a righteous taco.
Don’t be distracted by the Duck Fat Flautas or the Horchata milkshake at this Wicker Park hipster hangout. Eyes on the prize: the River Valley Market Mushroom Taco (two to an order, $7), topped with vinegary escabeche and cilantro cream on a house-made tortilla. Distinctive and delicious. 1360 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, 773-687-8697
I’m a sucker for chorizo (spicy pork sausage), so I opt for the Chorizo with Sweet Potato Pastor and Crema Taco ($3)—so many textures!—but the Alambre Taco (carne asada with bacon, onion, rajas and cheese) is another solid choice. And those tortillas! Dios mio. 1141 N. Ashland Ave., Chicago, 773-360-7345
So many good things to eat here…including (but not limited to) the Coffee-Braised Beef Tacos (four per order, $16), served on a “beer tortilla” and topped with cherry tomatoes, Oaxacan queso, jalapeños, cilantro and peanuts. Not a meat lover? Opt for the Brunkow Cheese Tacos with pickled jicama, avocado and aji peanut sauce. 201 N. Morgan St., Chicago, 312-888-9485
I’m torn here, because they are all SO FRICKING DELICIOUS. But the Taco al Pastor ($3) is truly a thing of beauty, sporting marinated and spit-roasted pork shoulder, caramelized grilled pineapple, sweet grilled onion and fresh cilantro. They’ll even take the show on the road for parties of 10 or more (Big Star Taco Bar)! 1531 N. Damen Ave., Chicago, 7773-235-4039
I came down here for the first time in 1995, but they’ve been open since ’75, serving up tacos filled with crispy chunks of pork Carnitas, along with classic Michoacan side dishes like chicharrones (crispy pork cracklings), home-style refried beans and cactus salad. Incredibly tasty and authentic, but be forewarned: they are cash only, and closed on Thursdays (random, I know, but you don’t mess with genius). 1725 W. 18th St., Chicago, 312-226-2654
While they don’t make their own tortillas (they use El Milagro), they do have incredible Braised Goat tacos served with smoky beans, Chihuahua and Cotija cheese, cream and house salsa. And did I mention the Beef Brisket tacos? We forgive them. 5757 & 5759 N. Broadway St., Chicago, 773-769-2900
If you’re looking for great tacos on restaurant row, look no further. I’m partial to the Battered Shrimp Taco ($3.75 or three for $10.25) with avocado crema, red onion, avocadoes and cilantro, or the crazy-good Duck Confit Taco with spicy corn salsa, queso fresco and cilantro. Bonus points: fresh-muddled Coconut Mojitos. 816 W. Randolph St., Chicago, 312-455-8114
The tortillas here, like at the Mother Ship, Frontera Grill, are made by hand. The Chipotle Chicken Tacos ($3.95 each/two for $7.25) are juicy, smoky and a little bit spicy, topped with roasted onion, Jack cheese, avocado and cilantro. The Short Rib Tacos ($4.50 each/two for $8.75) are sinfully rich. Westfield Old Orchard, Skokie, 847-329-2638
Listen, I realize that this isn’t a taco place. But they do seafood here, including some of the best Fish Tacos ($13 for three) I’ve ever had. Garlic-marinated and tempura-fried mahi mahi shares the love with chipotle aioli, frisée lettuce and a sprinkle of crushed chicharron for added salty crunch. Wow. 531 N. Wells St., Chicago, 312-929-3501
The Taco Plate ($6.95 for two) comes with your choice of two meats, among them lengua (beef tongue) and tinga (shredded chicken and onions simmered in chipotle sauce), and topped with shredded lettuce, chopped tomato, onion and cilantro. Rice and beans included, and for that I am eternally grateful. 2014 First St., Highland Park, 847-433-7400
Don’t get confused. You’ll just feel like you’re in California when you sit beneath their glass roof eating the Surfer-Style Fish Tacos ($23.95 for four build-your-own tacos), blackened and wood-grilled mahi mahi to be piled high in warm corn tortillas with guacamole, cabbage slaw and salsa verde. Dude, they are RAD. 1954 N. Halsted St., Chicago, 773-634-4100
This is our office treat when we have been very, very good. The Vegetariano Taco ($2.50 each) feels substantial, with crispy potatoes, poblano rajas, mushrooms, Cotija cheese and cilantro sharing space in the warm tortilla; or try the Pato en Mole Negro ($4 each), duck confit in mole with pickled red onion, queso fresco and sesame seeds. All that, plus fried plantains! 1743 Orchard Lane, Northfield, 847-386-7159
Tucked inside Nacional 27, this newcomer is making a strong showing. They get the brisket for their Cowboy 12-Hr. Smoked Brisket Taco ($4) from fellow Lettuce Entertain You property Bub City then goose the flavor with salsa de arbol and cilantro. Predictably, I loved the Chorizo con Rajas Taco ($3.50), with lots of caramelized onions and a sprinkling of queso. Good news: the full Nacional 27 drink menu is available. 325 W. Huron St., Chicago, 312-488-4917
Hand-pressed tortillas here have a nice heft to them, especially when paired with the braised beef Barbacoa Taco ($3) with roasted red jalapeño salsa or the Yucatan-style Cochinita Taco ($3), pulled pork with pickled red onions and habanero salsa. 1969 N. Halsted St., Chicago, 312-951-2457; 158 W. Ontario St., Chicago, 312-337-8226
Possibly the most extensive taco offerings ($2-$3 each) around, including carnitas, barbacoa, tongue, eggs & chorizo, al pastor, shrimp, chile relleno and ground beef picadillo, all served in classic style in doubled soft corn tortillas with chopped onions and cilantro. Back to basics here; sour cream, avocado and cheese are extra. No frills but super tasty. For the curious, soft flour or hard-shell tacos are available upon request, but HAVE I TAUGHT YOU NOTHING? Multiple locations including Libertyville and Waukegan