If you’re not from Chicago, it might come as a surprise that this Midwest city has such a robust Mexican culinary scene. From Rick Bayless‘ critically acclaimed restaurants to a glut of incredible corner taquerias, the city has some of the most diverse taco offerings in the country. Here, two tales of Chicagoans making their mark on this landscape:
OF LOVE AND TACOS
Five years ago, husband-and-wife duo Ashley and Rick Ortiz did what most people barely allow themselves to daydream: They ditched their respective catering and executive sous-chef gigs and traveled the world for three months. Without a hard itinerary, the Chicagoans breezed from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to Paris, France, to Italy’s Cinque Terre.
“We started a blog while we were in Mexico,” Ashley says. “It combined what we love and why we were there: tacos and antiques.”
Now, in 2016, the couple has for four years owned and operated Chicago’s most adorable, well-designed, cozy and delicious taco spot, named for that once-upon-a-time travel blog: Antique Taco.
The counter-service restaurant combines Ashley’s passion for design and antiques (manifested in funky plates and vintage signs and furniture) with Rick’s flair for seasonal, not-quite-traditional tacos—think sweet and spicy chicken tacos with curry, honey yogurt, pickled cucumber and jalapenos. The popularity of the original Wicker Park restaurant has sparked a second location in Rick’s home neighborhood of Bridgeport, with the potential for a third outpost in one of the city’s new food halls.
But Chicago has no shortage of Mexican eateries, from fine-dining restaurants to the delicious $2 taquerias of West Town, Logan Square and Pilsen. Where does Antique Taco fit in—and stand out?
“The main thought with Antique Taco is to feel very homey,” Ashley says. “That’s very Mexico. Wherever you go there, you feel like you’re walking into your mom’s house. It’s cozy and warm.”
As you sit on the patio munching on habanero-cheddar popcorn and sipping a tallboy from fellow Chicagoans Half Acre, you think, “Yeah, I get it. I could move in here.”
OUR FAVORITE BLOG: The Chicago Taco Tour
Titus Ruscitti started chicagotacotour.blogspot.com with a straightforward but lofty goal: “Literally, I want to visit every place with tacos and try them. I want to eat all of the tacos.” He’s well on his way: In two years, Ruscitti has catalogued (with tantalizing pictures and detailed tasting notes) more than 350 dishes from Windy City taquerias. Between meals, he shares salsa-topped wisdom on Twitter via @TweetsofTacos.
Why start a taco blog … in Chicago?
People who aren’t from Chicago don’t realize it, but aside from Los Angeles there’s no city that can compare to Chicago for Mexican food. We have the second largest Mexican population in the country after LA.
What makes a great taco?
Over time, I’ve learned that the first taco listed on the menu is usually the best, or what the house considers their best one. But first and foremost you gotta start with the tortilla, and places that make their own are obviously superior. Luckily in Chicago, there are more tortilla producers than in Mexico City—than anywhere in the world, I think. In Chicago, you’re never far from a fresh, warm tortilla.
Speaking of tortillas: corn or flour?
Definitely corn. That’s the standard outside of Northern Mexico. I have nothing against a good flour tortilla; it’s just that the store-bought ones are awful. But a hand-made flour tortilla is a thing of beauty. It’s light years different from the factory-produced stuff.
How do you spot a subpar taco?
A bad taco is about the fillings. Even if you have a great homemade tortilla, the stuff you put on it can ruin everything. The ones I really can’t stand are the ones that have steak or some other meat that’s just chewy or gristly—what I call “shady meat.”
What’s the weirdest ingredient you’ve seen in a taco?
During Lent, there’s a place that stuffs shredded sardines inside a jalapeno, because Fridays during Lent are no-meat. That one was pretty interesting. We’ve also got a guy who works on the West Side who’s made a killing doing jerk chicken tacos, which doesn’t sound so weird anymore because he basically started a trend.
Who’s making the best tacos in the city?
I started the blog partially because I wanted to see if there was any place as good as La Chaparrita [in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood]. I still haven’t found a place as good as La Chaparrita. It’s the taco king in Chicago.