Tortilla Triumphs: 25 Knockout Chicago Tacos

Ask people to name the top Mexican food capitals north of the border, and Los Angeles will surely pop up first, followed by just about everywhere in Texas. Yet Chicago actually has the second-largest Mexican population of any city in the U.S. (second only to L.A.)— and that means we also have a remarkable array of Mexican restaurants in nearly every neighborhood in town. As our part of Grub Street’s national series of taco slideshows, we’re going to take you on a tour of Chicago’s bountiful taco diversity, taking in everything from the north side to the south side to the west side, from Rick Bayless’s artisanal Mexican food to hole-in-the-wall stands. Our tour will begin with some places you’ve heard a lot about, and with the ubiquitous basics of carne asada (steak) and pastor (marinated pork), but it will branch out into every neighborhood and every kind of taco filling you can imagine. We’re sure there will be arguments as to whether these are truly the 25 best (and we’re happy to hear alternative suggestions in the comments), but at least we can testify personally that you’ll be very, very happy eating your way through this list and getting to know some of these spots in every corner of the city.

And when you’re done here, check out the most noteworthy tacos in Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

What to Order: Beef Shortrib Queso Fundido, Chicken in Sinaloan Pipian 445 N. Clark; 312-661-1434; See the Listing 25 years ago Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill set the pace for viewing Mexican food as a serious cuisine. And today it still does, taking the humble taco in directions like artisanal cheeses (the queso fundido uses Otter Creek organic cheddar from Wisconsin) and regional pumpkinseed moles over organic Gunthorp chicken. Few other taco-serving spots do anything quite so adventurous or anthropological with tacos, but don’t think he’s a world apart from more humble taquerias— his kitchens, like every upscale kitchen in town, employ Mexican-American cooks who move fluidly between these two worlds.
What to Order: Taco de Panza, Taco de Pescado 1531 N. Damen; 773-235-4039; See the Listing Paul Kahan’s Wicker Park taco and beer joint is about the hottest hipster hangout in town, and you could get a thesis out of why these particular affectations (blue-collar Bakersfield atmosphere, PBR specials, music on vinyl) speak so deeply to the hipster soul. But the tacos are no affectation, especially when they range outside standard territory to things like the taco de panza (pork belly), lamb tacos, or the maybe-best-in-town fish taco. Credit Kahan and chef Justin Large— but also credit the staff of Mexican cooks who bring their real experience to this artfully created experience.
What to Order: Grilled Ribeye, Pork Carnitas and Crispy Fish Tacos 1360 N. Milwaukee; 773-687-8697; See the Listing The name of the newest foodie taco joint in town suggests a return to authentic recipes of long ago, but actually “antique” just refers to the decor. These artfully-composed plates give classic taco fillings— pork, steak, spicy chicken— a new spin with quality ingredients and interesting toppings (like the smoked cabbage and sriracha tartar sauce on the fish tacos).
What to Order: Tacos al Pastor, Carne Asada, Barbacoa, Chorizo 1402 N. Ashland; 773-772-9804; See the Listing Long before places like Big Star and Antique Taco made tacos the hot food of the moment in neighborhoods like Wicker Park, however, they were the most proletarian of lunches. For proof of that, check out the taco counter and grill at the back of this grocery store, which in a pure workingman’s atmosphere knocks out hundreds of lunchtime carne asada (steak) tacos, crispy al pastor (marinated pork on a gyros-like rotisserie cone), and braised barbacoa tacos. Foodies have concocted elaborate theories about the best time to go (steak when there’s high turnover, pastor when it has time to crisp up), but frankly, it’s all good.
What to Order: Carne Asada 1132/1140/1141 N. Ashland; 773-278-0384; See the Listing Freshly-arrived twentysomethings who know nothing else about authentic Mexican food in Chicago know that La Pasadita is where you go for late-night steak tacos to soak up your drinking. There might be all of five or six things on the menu, but there’s really only one, which has all the beefy, greasy, salty virtues of cheap steak hot off the grill. This mini-chain has three locations side by side on Ashland and others around the city, but tacognoscenti know that the east side original is the minimalist champ.
What to Order: Tacos de Papa, Carne Asada, Pastor 5925 S. Pulaski; 773-581-9481; See the Listing You can smell the steak sizzling for blocks in every direction at the 59th street flagship of this small south side chain, which may be the best all-around, pure taco stand in the city. But it doesn’t stop there— the pastor is first-rate, and we have serious fondness for the comfort-foody taco de papa which deep-fries mashed potatoes in a crispy shell.
What to Order: Carne Asada; Bistek con Rajas; Cochinita Pibil 6712 N. Clark; 773-381-1638; See the Listing So you like steak tacos, but you also want some real heat, not just a dash of the house salsa? Hit this Rogers Park taqueria for the marinated steak taco with peppers, which is plenty spicy. And if you still want more heat, get a cochinita pibil taco, which tastes like they dumped a whole bottle of El Yucateco Habanero in it.
What to Order: Carne Asada; Pastor; Grilled Chicken 4429 W. Diversey; 773-292-0400 A standout among supermercado taquerias for the ramshackle atmosphere which really makes it feel like Mexico— and for the woodburning grill. Whole grilled chicken is the main dish here, but the steak tacos off the grill, the pastor tacos off the cone and the steamed cabeza (cow head) are all first-rate, too.
4418 W. 63rd; 773-284-1003 What to Order: Tacos al Pastor and Carne Asada So what are tacos al pastor, exactly? Inspired by middle-eastern doner kebab, pastor meat is thin slices of pork, marinated and stacked on a spit, often topped with onion or pineapple (the juices of which run down the meat), crisped over charcoal (in Mexico) or on an electric rotisserie spit like gyros (in Chicago), and then shaved off the outer edge with a knife. As you might expect, this spot named for pastor near Midway offers a textbook example, proudly displayed right in the front of the kitchen for all to see.
What to Order: Tacos Àrabes 3619 W. North Ave.; 773-772-8435; See the Listing Tacos al pastor evolved out of an earlier style which can still occasionally be found—”tacos àrabes.”In the 1930s, taco makers in the state of Puebla started offering an imitation of a middle-eastern shawerma sandwich roasted on a rotisserie spit. Over time these “Arab tacos” became less Arabian and more Mexican, and today’s taco àrabes have abandoned tahini sauce for a spicy chipotle BBQ sauce and lamb for very un-Muslim pork, keeping only the spit and the soft, flatbread-like flour tortilla.
What to Order: Lengua, Crispy Tripas, and Longaniza Tacos 2500 S. Whipple; 773-254-0975 As ubiquitous as steak and pastor may seem in Chicago’s taquerias, a tortilla, like a slice of bread, has almost infinite possibilities as a receptacle. And like any peasant culture would, Mexicans have put everything on one at some point. This Day of the Dead-themed (but incongruously cheerful) taqueria inside a small grocery in Little Village does wonders with earthy peasant cuts like lengua (beef tongue), longaniza (housemade sausage), mollejas (sweetbreads) and bacon-succulent crispy tripas (intestines).
What to Order: Carnitas 1725 W. 18th; 312-226-2654 Pastor is far from the only way Mexicans enjoy pork on a tortilla. On the weekends, Mexican families line up in Pilsen and elsewhere for carnitas, deep-fried hunks of pork (fried whole, in massive kettles) piled high in the windows of popular spots like this one. (We took our picture toward the end of a long day.) Take it home and assemble it into tacos yourself, or if you can snag a table, do it on the spot.
What to Order: Pork in Mole Rojo, Chicharron in Mole Verde 3132 W. 26th.; 773-254-3466; See the Listing > Another way Mexicans put pork on a taco is in a guisado, a stew. This cafeteria in a grocery store just inside the Little Village gateway serves a number of richly flavorful guisados. But the main attraction here is the ladies patting out tortillas by hand and freshly frying on the cafeteria line. You could put a gym shoe in their handiwork and it would taste fantastic.
What to Order: Taco With Chicken in Mole, Beef and Pork Guisados 3050 W. 26th St.; 773-847-9407; See the Listing A block or two east of Carniceria Aguascalientes is another place offering guisados on tortillas that could hardly be fresher— since it’s in a tortilla factory. Compared to some of the family restaurants on this list, this place can feel a little corporate-cafeteria-ish, but  the best guisados with the hot-off-the-press tortillas are at least small miracles.
What to Order: Birria Tatemada 4852 S. Pulaski; 773-523-3700; See the Listing Another popular meat besides beef and pork is birria— roasted goat. This cute birria spot in a former diner is devoted to perfection in what’s basically their one dish, falling-apart tender goat in a chile broth and eaten on steaming, freshly-handmade tortillas. While Mom and Dad run the restaurant (and a new location in suburban Melrose Park), son Jonathan is expanding into the broader dining scene— watch for his occasional collaborations on birria sausage with Rob Levitt at The Butcher & Larder.
What to Order: Shrimp Taco 132 S. Ashland; 312-733-7772; See the Listing Laura Cid-Perea worked under Rick Bayless before she and her husband Luis opened the wonderful Bombon Bakery. La Lagartija may not be as wonderful, more like an easy place to get pretty good tacos and a beer before Bulls games, but if there’s one item that comes close to perfection, it’s the shrimp taco— a fat crustacean batter-fried and topped with gooey crema and chipotle salsa.
What to Order: Shrimp Taco 1024 N Ashland; 773-252-7200; See the Listing Most shrimp tacos seem to be battered and deep-fried, but this Nayarit-style seafood mini-chain, which also has a few outposts around the south side, is more like Mexico’s answer to a Maryland crab shack, serving up big platters of simply boiled or panfried seafood to a usually-packed house. Bizarrely, the name is a display of Latin machismo toward spicy heat that literally means “poison seafood,” but we have lived to tell you that this brightly flavorful shrimp taco is neither deadly nor dangerously hot (unless you make it so from the impressive array of hot sauces on each table).
What to Order: Sesame-Chili Shrimp Taco 2568 N. Clark; 773-248-4227; See the Listing Los Angeles’ Korean taco truck craze spawned a handful of local imitators, but seemed more stunt than serious fusion cuisine… until this one hit paydirt with their gooey, tangy-sweet shrimp taco, bathed in a spicy peanut sauce set off by crunchy kimchi and lettuce. It’s a long way from anything Mexican, but it works.
What to Order: Eat the free ceviche first 3752 S. Kedzie; 773-247-9110 Okay, so the package says tostada, not taco. It’s masa in a circle with some stuff, whatever. Anyway, there are Mexican seafood joints all over the south side, and they all start the meal with a freebie— maybe a cup of seafood broth with a whole shrimp in it, maybe some ceviche to eat off tostadas. Think of it as a test, as in— if the freebie isn’t impeccably fresh, throw a couple of bucks on the table and get out. And if the ceviche is better than anything you actually pay for… well, at least you got the ceviche.
What to Order: Fish Taco With Blueberry, Green Onion and Jicama, Goat Taco 3023 N. Broadway; 773-296-6901; See the Listing Converted to authentic Mexican by an internship at Frontera Grill, Natalie Oswald took over this romantic Mexican hole-in-the-wall when Top Chef-testant Chuy Valencia moved on. Here she gives the classic fish taco a seasonal twist from the bright flavors of farmer’s market fruit and pickled vegetables.
What to Order: Guajillo-Roasted Pork, Salmon/Corn Pudding and Duck Confit Tacos 1529 W. Chicago Ave.; 312-850-0288; See the Listing Mexique gives Mexican food a dash of classic French technique (justified by the French presence in Mexico in the 1860s) without losing the authentic funk of Mexican regional cuisine— as the range of taco fillings shown here, from very French duck confit to very American grilled salmon with corn pudding, demonstrates.
What to Order: Taco Indio, Fish Taco 6346 26th St., Berwyn; 708-749-3581 Vegetarian tacos can be hard to find, and often just consist of rice and beans or guacamole, which we think is sort of like calling a bun with ketchup on it a veggie burger. This homey restaurant in Berwyn does a wider variety of tacos than most places and does them well, from one of the best fish tacos in town to the “Indio,” a hearty cactus taco.
What to Order: Roasted Beet, Sweet Potato Tacos 1143 N. California; 773-772-8895; See the Listing This Humboldt Park bar belies its Texas roadhouse theme with some surprising (and tasty) vegetarian options on their housemade tortillas, including roasted beets with grilled onions and grilled sweet potato with pickled cabbage and roasted corn.
What to Order: Mole Rojo Taco, Taco al Pastor, Carne Asada Taco DesPlaines north and south of Roosevelt Rd., Sundays only If you really want an immersion in Mexican culture and all the varieties of tacos available, there’s no better place than ground zero for the Mexican immigrant food experience, the weekly Maxwell Street Market with its wide range of food stands. Manolo’s and its sibling Rubi’s have been praised by none other than Rick Bayless for their mastery of steak tacos, pastor, and guisados.
What to Order: American Tacos 1026. N. Milwaukee; 773-687-8280 After all this authenticity, though, you may just crave comfort… the comfort of the classic American taco with its ground beef cooked in a packet of Taco Seasoning and iceberg lettuce, stuffed in a hardshell taco. The Butcher & Larder occasionally does a version that upgrades the hamburger to grass-fed, but otherwise leaves your childhood memories of what “Mexican” food is intact.
Tortilla Triumphs: 25 Knockout Chicago Tacos