Category: Restaurants by Cuisine
I accidentally stumbled upon La Diosa (Spanish for “goddess”), a little café in Lincoln Park that I did not remember having seen before. I was first curious about the name, and since we had already had lunch, we decided to go in for dessert.
I had no idea that I was really in for a treat.
We were greeted by La Diosa‘s owner Laura Martínez, a young Mexican chef trained at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. We exchanged pleasantries in Spanish (the restaurant had just opened in January). The pictures on the wall prompted more questions. I learned that Martínez honed her cooking skills while interning, and later working for Charlie Trotter.
As if these accomplishments were not already impressive, Laura Martínez happens to be the first blind chef to open a restaurant in the US.
The entire concept behind La Diosa, from the menu to the name, are both her idea and her dream. Losing her eyesight as a baby, Martínez is convinced that her condition pushed her to succeed. “Being a chef was not the easiest path for anyone in my situation, and I did not want anybody to tell me that I was not able to do something. I am the only one in my family with a degree,” she said.
Her kitchen is completely open and pristine, and watching her prepare empanadas with great precision, is nothing short of amazing. Her husband, Maurilio, doubles as both Martínez’s eyes and her sous chef. “Sometimes it can get frustrating, you wish you could see when it gets busy so that you can move faster,” she added.
Why La Diosa? Martínez said the name is a nod to her faith. As she spoke, I could not help but be reminded of her strength and resolve. Plus, if I could ever imagine of anyone embodying supernatural powers, it is her: Martínez masterfully wields a knife without sight.
If you visit La Diosa, please say hi to chef Martínez from us. We recommend that you try her tequila-cheese pie or the flan. The hot chocolate is heavenly indeed.
2308 N. Clark St.
8 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday
9 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday
11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday
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Por: Chef Betty Vázquez
“Honor a quien honor merece”, rindo un merecidísimo homenaje a este viajero maravilloso al rastrear sus andanzas desde esta nuestra cocina prehispánica hasta las mesas universales.
Gracias a las obras de Bernal Diaz del Castillo (primer historiador de la conquista española) y Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, se conocen muchos datos sobre el uso del chile en la dieta de los aztecas, “sin el chile, los mexicanos no creen que están comiendo”.
Es bien sabido que el Rey Fernando y la igualmente Católica Reina Isabel, se decidieron a patrocinar la expedición colombina con la esperanza de que don Cristóbal hallara un camino marítimo hacia las ricas islas de la especiería de las Indias orientales y que de ellas llevara a España oro y especias. No es de extrañar que el almirante, creyera haber llegado a las Indias cuando apenas desembarcaba en Santo Domingo, y que al ver y probar aquellas pimientas en vainas muy fuertes, pensara haber hallado la pimienta que buscaba.
El Dr. Diego Chanca, de Sevilla, quien acompañó a Colón en su segundo viaje como experto botánico, se asombró ante la variedad inmensa de árboles desconocidos que encontró. Conforme los europeos se adentraban en las fértiles tierras americanas, descubrían que los chiles se daban en todas formas y tamaños inimaginables: redondos, cónicos, largos, torcidos, en forma de botoncillos, de zanahoria, de pera, verdes, anaranjados, escarlata, amarillos, casi blancos y por supuesto algunos feroces y otros cuyo tamañazo pareciera portar mayor dulzura.
El chile fue repatriado por Cortés y de ahí llevado a diferentes lugares. Debido a que los chiles se hibridizan con facilidad, las semillas mexicanas se aclimataron y en todo el mundo se multiplicaron y desarrollaron nuevas formas y picores. Hoy podemos decir que hay por lo menos 3000 variedades de chile en el mundo.
En los años siguientes a la conquista, ocurrió un sincretismo alimenticio, en las mesas de los mexicanos se podían ver la combinación de la cocina de los dos mundos, sin duda promovida por los criollos, que desde su nacimiento estaban acostumbrados a los sabores de las dos cocinas. Al incorporar el chile con jitomate, tomate verde y algunas plantas aromáticas como el epazote, el pápalo y el cilantro, nacieron las salsas, llamadas en náhuatl, chilmolli. Es muy fácil imaginar los olores y sabores en las mesas de los mexicanos, quienes hace’ian uso de chiles ahumados, frescos, verdes, amarillos, suaves, picantes y otros subidos de tono que hay que manejar con cuidado.
Las variadas cocinas regionales de nuestro país aprovechan con imaginación los chiles en moles y salsas de de riqueza de sus sabores, colores, grados distintos de picor. En 1776, el padre capuchino Francisco de Ajofrín, comentaba en sus notas, que las comidas del país, están cargadas de chile, con platos como mole, clemole, enchiladas, tamales, pipián y frijoles.
En el primer libro de cocina de la colonia “Historia de la comida en México”, de Armando Farga, se dejaba constancia de la continuidad del uso de los chiles en la dieta de los mexicanos pero pocas veces había una lista de los ingredientes o una descripción de la manera de preparar los alimentos, los recetarios como los conocemos en nuestros días aparecieron en el siglo XIX.
Tal como los botánicos clasifican a este fruto en géneros silvestres y domesticados, nosotros dividimos a los chiles mexicanos en nacionales y regionales. Los nacionales son los que han entrado en redes de comercialización y llegan a todos los rincones del país, mientras que los regionales son los que se consumen en sus zonas de producción.
Chiles nacionales: ancho, cascabel, chipotle, chile de árbol, guajillo, habanero, jalapeño, manzano, morita, mulato, pasilla, pimentón, poblano, puya , serrano.
Chiles regionales (tomamos solo uno de los más representativos de los estados productores de chiles): amash, bandeño, blanco, bojo, bola, caloro, carricillo, catarino, colorado, comapeño, cora (del estado de Nayarit ), corazón, costeño, criollo, cristal, cuicateco, chilacta, chilcoxle, chihuacle, chiltepe, chiltepin, chile de agua, de chorro, de la tierra, de onza o de ramos; guajón, güero, loco, miahuateco, mirasol, negro, pasado, pasilla axaqueña, piquín, tabaqueño, x-cat-ik
No hay que olvidar que cada uno de ellos, ahumados o secos, toman diferentes nombres que vienen a multiplicar las salsas y los guisos del país.
Chipotles, Pasillas y Guajillos
El chile ha sido una constante cultural, tanto en la dieta básica como en la vida de los mexicanos, pues ha aportado color, sabor y variedad s su dieta de maíz y fríjol desde hace miles de años.
El sabor picante de los chiles no ha disminuido, se considera el habanero como el chile más picante del país y este se produce en el sur de México. Sin embargo la comida de Yucatán casi no lleva chile. Los chiles menos picantes, como el guajillo, proporcionan un sabor muy especial a los platillos. El guajillo es suave, se agradece que existen chiles de todos los sabores y picores para complacer el gusto de todo comensal.
El sabor de un chile está concentrado en el pericarpio del fruto, que es su cubierta externa, lo picante se encuentra en la placenta del chile, los de color más subido tienen generalmente más sabor que los de tono pálido.
En cuanto a su aportación alimenticia, el chile es una fuente importante de nutrientes en una dieta balanceada, ya contiene vitamina C, vitamina A y pequeñas cantidades de vitamina E, P, B1, B2, B3.
El Chile, También es Cultura
El chile en México se suele relacionar con la virilidad y por ende con el machismo.
A lo largo de la historia, ha sido asimismo parte del instrumental de los curanderos y sigue siendo usado como medicamento. Los aztecas recurrían al chile para aliviar el dolor del oído infectado, el estreñimiento y los dolores del parto. En la colonia lo recomendaban para ayudar a la digestión, siempre consumido con moderación.
El chile como objeto ritual era usado en ceremonias prehispánicas en honor de la diosa de las plantas. En algunas fiestas religiosas del país, se usa para honrar a santos católicos, pero todavía contienen una parte importante de las creencias y ritos precolombinos. Se puede ver a San Francisco en su día llevar un collar enorme de chiles en el cuello, llamado masúchiles, palabra náhuatl que se puede traducir como manojo de flores.
La gran variedad de chiles existente en México ha sugerido y permite la elaboración de innumerables, guisos. Además, es base fundamental del recetario nacional, que podemos dividir en encurtidos, moles, salsas, adobos, aderezos y su uso inmediato mordiendo el chile verde, así como su incorporación en ensaladas, ceviches y barbacoas, en forma de las tradicionales rajas: de poblano, cuaresmeño, chilaca.
Hoy en las mesas mexicanas, el chile nos acompaña en el desayuno, comida y cena, y se tenemos invitados los hacemos probar las salsas en diferentes picores, esperanzados a que disfruten como nosotros de las delicias de este viajero milenario que ha dado tanto a las cocinas del mundo, lo peor que puede pasar es encontrar que el paladar de nuestro comensal haya sido demasiado delicada y aquí aplicaremos el dicho,
“Pior es chile y l´agua lejos.”
Que lo disfruten y buen provecho….
La chef Betty Vázquez González, es propietaria y chef ejecutivo del restaurante “El Delfín” ubicado en el Hotel Garza Canela, en Nayarit, México. Educada en el Cordon Bleu en Paris, y posteriormente en España, para Vázquez, la calidad de los ingredientes y las técnicas gastronómicas de punta son elementales para darle vida a su visión culinaria: una mezcla de sabores tradicionales y métodos modernos que tiene como fin, elevar la percepción de la comida mexicana en el mundo.
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This is the first thought that came to mind when my dish was served – a beautiful combination of colors and textures that made me take notice. The impeccable service and a thoughtfully curated space overlooking Michigan Avenue added to the experience. Comfort meets class here, and you can´t help but feel charmed when you visit. I was hooked.
And beyond beauty, substance. Heart. You are after all at Saks Fifth Avenue… a model walking by each table with the latest designer jacket can be a reminder of your targeted budget or caloric intake. Chef Ron Aleman’s food is so good though, that somehow you feel welcome, not intimidated.
As I kept coming back I realized that something resonated within me. Just like shorthand, food is a secret language that transports you to a particular time and place. I knew the author of my meal was undoubtedly an artist. But, why did I think that this American fare spoke Spanish to my soul?
Chef Ron Aleman grew up dreaming of pursuing a career in the arts, perhaps painting or drawing (when I heard this, the artistic plating made perfect sense). Instead, he took a detour and graduated with a degree in business. As a successful salesman, at the age of 30, (when many professionals have consecrated themselves to their craft) Aleman was starting over. In his new position, tending to the chores assigned to the most junior staff, he took over washing dishes and mopping with pride. “I knew this was the path I needed to follow, and there was nothing to be ashamed of”, he said.
If you have tried Chef Aleman’s food, you have looked at a snapshot of his heart: “Family is at the center of food. Food is love… cooking for others is an honor.” It is precisely his family where Chef draws a lot of his inspiration. Aleman found his Mexican mother-in-law’s asada salsa so irresistible, that he recreated her recipe in his kitchen. Growing up with tortillas as a staple of his family’s meals, his point of view is down-to-earth yet uniquely cosmopolitan. If you visit, try his coconut bread pudding, a dessert that in Mexico, we call capirotada.
Like CliffsNotes on Chicago, Chef Ron Aleman’s dishes are a synopsis of the character of the city- elevated yet approachable; informally sophisticated; worldy American with just the perfect touch of heat.
Follow Chef Aleman on Instagram: @Ronaleman27
From the Series “World Class: Mexican Wine and the Hands who Make it”
Photos: Enrico Bellomo/Brenda Storch
I became fascinated by Valle de Guadalupe’s cuisine while following the recent opening of Lozhka Bistrot, a partnership between Pasión Biba’s Abel Bibayoff and celebrated chef José Bossuet. It was not until I spoke with Chef that I realized this prosperous little town, barely two hours south of San Diego, had been colonized by a group of Eastern European immigrants known as Molokans. In the early 1900s, fifty Molokan families fleeing from the Russian Orthodox Church sought refuge in this idyllic town. Serendipitously, while the Mexican government granted the colonizers permission to establish themselves and to own land, the story of Mexican wine found a way to not “die on the vine.”
Aside from tending to grapes and making wine, the new settlers introduced commodities that included geese, beehives, grains, cooking and farming techniques. Molokans forever changed the phenotype of Valle de Guadalupe, including its gastronomy.
Lozhka Bistrot is a brilliant, almost poetic summary of what this town is about- a contemporary, singular take on double the fusion (novo-Hispanic cuisine with Russian influences) where dual identities abound. Visitors of Valle de Guadalupe will be equally delighted with airy Molokan bread, and pan dulce.
At Lozhka, for example, I had the most memorable duck enmoladas. Bossuet explained the protein is a nod to the use of geese favored by Molokan settlers, replacing the more traditional use of chicken in this dish. If you visit Lozhka, Chef recommends pairing this glorious plate with Pasión Biba’s Zinfandel 2010.
During my stay, I heard the story of a lady who makes tamales out of Varenyky dough. I could not confirm whether or not this is just an urban legend, but after all, this is Mexico. Here, anything is possible.
Among a host of delicacies that words will only fall short to describe, I was treated to the most unforgettable compote made with yellow watermelons and freshly-picked tomatoes.
Farm-to-table is Valle de Guadalupe’s bread and butter. Many of the vineyard owners have partnered with well-renowned chefs to offer a complete culinary experience. Thanks to this effort, the collection of elevated eateries in this area is a true gem.
Past and future juxtapose in every detail- Lozhka means ‘spoon’ in Russian and the name of the restaurant is an homage to Abel Bibayoff’s grandfather Alexei, one of the Molokan founders of this town. In the halls of the family’s small museum, where handmade ‘loshkas‘ lie close to a few samovars, we see the next generation of Bibayoffs happily sleeping in a baby carriage.
It is very clear that tradition is a lifestyle for the Bibayoff family- it is tangible matter. It is alive. Viva.
After having the good fortune to be guided (by none other than Abel Bibayoff himself) through the process in which vines are coaxed into grapes and then turned into wine, the name of his label, “Pasión Biba” resonates. This play on words, which phonetically means “live passion”, says it all.
There are years of character, generational zeal and know-how in his wine. Each drop is nurtured, loved, intimately known. If it were possible, each would have a name that over and over again, would translate into ‘passion’. In every drop, Pasión Biba.
< Prior Article in the Series: World Class: Mexican Wine and the Hands who Make It
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Si estás en Chicago y te da un ataque de nostalgia, o si estás de visita y quieres descubrir un lugar diferente dentro de la ciudad, a sólo 5 kilómetros al sureste del “Loop” se encuentra el barrio de Pilsen. Fundado por colonizadores de Europa del este a fines del siglo XIX, Pilsen fue nombrado en honor a la cuarta ciudad más grande de Checoslovaquia. No fue sino a principios de 1960 que la comunidad hispana empezó a hacer de Pilsen su casa. Ya para los 70, Pilsen era, como les hoy, una colonia muy diversa y predominanemente hispana.
Virtualmente un museo al aire libre, quien visita Pilsen podrá descubrir una serie de murales que sirven como vehículo para el discurso social. Exilio, lucha e identidad son los mensajes predominantes de esta expresión de arte urbano. Si prefieres un museo intramuros, no te pierdas el Museo de Arte Mexicano. La entrada es gratuita.
La calle 18 es una puerta dimensional a una serie de negocios que van desde restaurantes, panaderías, dulcerías, hasta peluquerías. ¿Quieres pan como ese que probaste en las ferias de Acámbaro? Aquí lo encuentras. Estos personajes llegaron como recetas en los morrales de artesanos michoacanos y aquí se hicieron pan.
Y si en tu paseo te da hambre, acuérdate de visitar Carnitas Uruapan, donde encontrarás desde chicharrón, hasta quesadillas de sesos y ensalada de nopales. Pasa a saludar al Güero Carbajal y díle que te recomendó tu amiga Brenda Storch de La Vitamina T.
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Whenever I visit Mexico, there is an additional ‘layover’ between the airport and my parents’ home in a suburb of Mexico City. Stopping for tacos al pastor or ‘shepherd-style’ tacos has become somewhat of an unspoken ritual. Luckily, no matter the time or day of the year, my sister is always prepared with a roster of recommendations that she has carefully curated in my absence. Count on her to rattle off an impressive selection that includes taquerías open on Christmas Day.
Despite the fact that taco stands abound, not all tacos are made equal. Ask any local. Finding the perfect taquería is almost a rite of passage for defeños*, one that speaks to the way we connect with our city and beyond- a Mexican’s relationship with their pastor is emotional… personal.
When Enrico came with me to Mexico for the first time, he joined me in our recently established ritual. We visited a corner taquería where my family knew Chucho*, the taquero. Enrico was a little nervous as he eyed the cilantro and the onion piling over the tender marinated pork meat and pineapple. As a tourist who visits Mexico for the first time, Enrico asked me if the food was safe to eat. Trying to leverage whatever I could think of to reassure him, I said, “You will be fine. The taquero’s name is Jesus!”
He was an instant convert.
I have yet to find a perfect spot in Chicago to have tacos al pastor. Recently, I was crushed to find that some places serve them with cubed meat. I am on a mission to find a place I can recommend!
In the meantime, if you have the good fortune to be in Mexico City, you must check out El Califa. Aside from their outstanding customer service, they are famous for the way they serve the meat and for their freshly-made tortillas.
You will see why I think that this taco is king.
* Defeño is a Citizen of Mexico City (D.F.)
**In Mexico, Chucho is short for Jesús, which is a fairly common name
Jonathan Zaragoza found his way into his destiny babysitting for his parents while they worked. “I saw how my mother and grandmother cooked at home and I had to quickly learn so that I could prepare meals for my siblings,” said Zaragoza. At the age of 12, he learned from his dad how to make birria tatemada, a Jalisco staple served at his family’s restaurant, and even how to butcher whole animals.
Now a rising star with several accolades under his belt, Jonathan Zaragoza says when asked about his career, “I was not looking for the kitchen. The kitchen found me.”
Appointed Executive Chef at Logan Square’s Masa Azul since 2012, the Chicago native taps into his Jalisco roots to bring to life Mexican-inspired dishes with a creative twist. To a nostalgic transplant like me, his dishes come across as a loving interpretation of a Mexican mother’s cookbook through the lens of a young Chicago urbanite- respectful, yet bold and accurately original.
Recently, Jim Beam tapped into Zaragoza’s talent to create an incredible menu crafted to introduce their new flavor-infused bourbon, Red Stag by Jim Beam® Hardcore Cider. Luckily for us at La Vitamina T, we were treated to a phenomenal dinner featuring small plates and pairings, of which we have secured the recipes. If you don’t like or have never tried bourbon before, you might just become a fan. Below is the first one of a magnificent series. Enjoy!
- 4 cups dried pinto beans
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 8oz applewood smoked bacon, sliced
- 6 oz chorizo, chopped
- 1 white onion, chopped
- 10 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 serrano chiles, seeded and minced
- 5 roma tomatoes, seeded and diced
- 1 bunch of cilantro, chopped
- 12 quarts of water
- 1 can of Mexican beer
- ½ cup Jim Beam Hardcore Cider
- Salt to taste
- In a large pot, combine beans, water, beer and Jim Beam Hardcore Cider and cook over medium heat until all the beans are tender (about 2 hours).
- In a separate pan, combine the oil, bacon and chorizo and cook meats until crispy. Remove the meat from the pan leaving the rendered fat.
- Add the onion, garlic and serrano chiles into the pan and cook until slightly caramelized (about 12 mins).
- Once the beans are tender, fold in the crispy meat, caramelized vegetables, and the tomatoes and cilantro, and cook for 10 mins so the flavors can marry.
- Finally, season with salt.
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Inocencio Carbajal becomes emotional as he shares a very personal story. In the late 70s, as a recent transplant from Uruapan, Michoacán, he had to make the decision to let go of his most precious possession- a medal of the Virgin of Guadalupe. “I asked Her to bless my choice,” says Inocencio, his eyes tearing up. “We bought our first piece of equipment with that money.”
Fast-forward four decades later, and Inocencio’s hardship has paid off. As we arrived at the Pilsen eatery, a long line of patrons had already assembled. Marcos Carbajal, Inocencio’s son, kindly invited us to tour the kitchen while we found a spot to talk.
The state of Michoacán in southwestern Mexico, is famous for its carnitas, one of Mexico’s favorite folk dishes. Usually cooked in large copper containers brought in from a specific neighboring town, it is not uncommon to find this treat also being prepared in large stainless steel pots. “In many villages, eating carnitas is a Sunday morning ritual,” said Marcos, who periodically visits family in Uruapan, his father’s birthplace. “People know to arrive early, as typically only one pig is prepared, and they gather to eat after church. Many of our customers still follow this custom, but we cook a fresh batch every two hours.”
Although he kept in his heart the desire to go back to Michoacán at some point, Inocencio’s family and his growing business kept him in Pilsen. “All of a sudden, Marcos was ready to go to college, and I was happy that he had the opportunity,” said Inocencio. For Marcos, the word “pigskin” is not merely a seasonal one- with a degree in Economics from the University of Michigan, and thinking of helping his dad, Marcos left his corporate job to work in the restaurant full time, while also pursuing a Master’s Degree in Entrepreneurship from Northwestern University.
Although Inocencio has not returned to Uruapan, he has brought Uruapan to Chicago with him. The path he chose was not easy but, he says smiling, “I would do it all over again”.
His eatery’s menu is perfectly simple, with many well-achieved crowd pleasers. From mouthwatering pork carnitas, to menudo, chicharrón en salsa de tomate ( chicharrón in tomato sauce, of which I took a big container home), cacti salad and even quesadillas de sesos (brain-stuffed quesadillas), this place is the real deal. In fact, the cueritos I tried here are the best I have ever had in both, texture and flavor.
Carnitas Uruapan did not disappoint. My stomach was full and happy, and after talking to Inocencio and Marcos, my heart was too.
1725 W 18th St Chicago, IL 60608
Claim your free carnitas taco with your to go order and and free order of chicharrón if you check-in on Facebook.
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If you visit New Rebozo, chances are that aside from a remarkable meal, you will be delighted by owner Chef Paco’s warm and exuberant personality. After more than 20 years of success at his Oak Park location, where Chef Paco (A.K.A. Francisco López) is already a fixture, this Mexico City native decided to bring his creativity and passion for authentic Mexican food to Chicago’s Gold Coast.
Chef Paco equates food to the dynamics of everyday life: “Life can be sweet and sour… even salty, add love to it and you will strike a balance.” His philosophy spills into every corner of his restaurant. There is definitely love in New Rebozo, named after a shawl Mexican women wear. From the cozy fireplace to the thoughtfully picked art, the dining room and patio embrace you like welcoming Mexican embassies. Do not expect to find cultural clichés here. New Rebozo is the real deal both in form and content. “My work is about making people happy,” said Paco. “That’s my ultimate goal.”
Full of flavor, depth and whimsy, it is so fitting that mole is one of Chef Paco´s specialties. Very few words say fiesta and Mexico as loud and clear as mole does, particularly in the countryside, where this traditional dish is served during important celebrations such as weddings and christenings. Chef Paco´s mole Poblano is so good, I have no doubt that my Pueblan grandma, who was often charged with making the mole for her village’s fiestas patronales*, would have approved.
If you visit New Rebozo, do not miss the cochinita pibil tacos, a delicacy straight from Yucatán. There is a piece of Mexican heaven in every perfectly flavorful bite and they are surprisingly not greasy. The watermelon mojitos are also quite memorable- one sip of those glorious cocktails had my entire table exclaiming in unison: “Oh my God!”
*In Mexico, fiestas patronales are a village’s most important celebration, and are typically dedicated to the patron saint the village is named after.
46 E. Superior
Chicago, IL 60611
Open Mon-Sun 12-10 pm
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A few weeks ago, I set out to find the best taco al pastor (‘shepherd-style’ taco) in Chicago. This down-to-earth, charismatic delicacy is a dietary staple of defeños*, and despite the fact that in Mexico City taco stands abound, any local will tell you that not all tacos al pastor are made equal. Finding the perfect taquería is almost a rite of passage, one that speaks to the way we connect with our city and beyond- a Mexican’s relationship with their pastor is emotional… personal, mystical.
Finding good tacos (let alone authentic ones) north-of-the-border is not so easy. Our taco al pastor story in April made me aware of the fact that I am not alone in this realization. I asked La Vitamina T readers and friends to submit their favorite al pastor destinations in Chicago. A few Facebook posts and tweets later, I had a list of 18 different establishments endorsed by locals, among them, several Mexican transplants. Similar to how my friend Dave from New Jersey can recognize a good Philly cheesesteak, I figured recommendations from Mexicans added instant credibility to the suggestions.
This is how my search began.
Below is the final list of nominees. I visited every establishment on this list without letting the owners or staff know my intention, as I thought this might influence the quality of the service:
- Atotonilco (I tried the tacos in both locations, Joliet and Chicago)
- Big Star
- De Cero
- El Pastor
- El Tío Luis
- El Solazo
- La Ciudad
- Los Comales
- Los Gallos
- Mercadito (tacos al pastor are only a seasonal item, so we did not get to try them)
- Rubi’s Market on Maxwell
- Taco joint
- Taquería Juanito
- Tierra Caliente
- Zacatacos (Berwyn location)
Several Pepto Bismol doses and 3 extra pounds later, my wandering through the streets of Chicago and its suburbs came to an end. Dozens of tacos have been sampled and scorecards have been tallied!
Each taco has been carefully evaluated based on criteria that we believe brings to life un taco al pastor “hecho como Dios manda.” (according to God’s orders)**
I am now ready to “go tell it on the mountain”!
* Defeño is a Citizen of Mexico City (D.F.)
** Mexicans say something is made como Dios manda (according to God’s orders) when something is accurately accomplished.
If you, like me, have lived in Mexico for the great majority of your life, you will be perplexed to hear what has been smuggled into menus, and sold and passed up across the country for the real deal: some of the most popular and readily available counterfeit versions are stuffed with ground beef and covered with cheese or something resembling cheese; others are called tacos al pastor, and are served with sliced lettuce and tomatoes. Heresy! In certain places, you might be given a choice of hardshell or softshell taco. During my search I found that even some of the taquerías in predominantly Mexican neighborhoods have lost their way- in their attempt to to cater to a non Mexican palate, they have begun serving some of these apocryphal versions.
This leads me to provide the following word of caution: If you are visiting Mexico and you are looking for a hardshell taco, you will give yourself away as a tourist. We simply don’t have them. We have tostadas, which have a crunchy surface similar to a totopo, which is considered a completely different plate.
In the northern part of the country, flour tortillas were made popular by the Jewish settlers in the area. Still, you will find that most tacos in Mexico are made with corn tortillas.
Treating oneself to tacos al pastor is an experience that entails a known ritual. Taquerías usually go from the very informal ´hole-in-the-wall’ joint, to fancier establishments featuring a more elaborate set up. The dynamics are the same across the board, and patrons know what to expect: quick service, dinner and a show. Taqueros (half cooks, half ninjas) conjure up juicy tacos with meat and pineapple they shave off from a giant spinning skewer, to then catch the pieces in a tortilla with quick, precise movements. They do this gracefully, while keeping tallies, processing new orders, and sometimes, giving change and even interacting with the crowd.
Tacos al pastor must meet the following criteria:
1. Must be roasted vertically in a spit called trompo (top), which is clearly visible.
2. Should be made with pork meat, seasoned with a variety of chilis and achiote, which gives them their color.
3. These tacos are served in small tortillas (about 4 1/2 inches in diameter).
4. Tacos al pastor must include a chunk of grilled pineapple, chopped cilantro, raw onion and limes.
5. Salsas are very important in taquerías, and often times they become and element of differentiation.
6. Lime should be abundant and readily available.
Each taco was evaluated using a scale of 1- 5 points for a total of 30 points in six different categories:
- Meat quality
- Meat flavor
- Tortilla size and quality
- Portion size
- Accuracy/freshness of ingredients
- Quality of salsa
Points were assigned using the following scale to score each taco:
4= Really good, but not extraordinary or the real deal
5= Perfect. ¡Órale! Am I in Mexico?
And the Winner is..!
De Cero – 28/30 Points
De Cero (The Loop)
Meat Quality: 5 Meat was absolutely fantastic. We did not see the trompo, but we asked and confirmed it is indeed there.
Meat Flavor: 4 Flavor is really nice, but the meat has a bit of a kick to it.
Tortilla Size and Quality: 5 Tortillas were fantastic. Perfect size!
Portion Size: 5 Perfect ratio. This bundle of joy offers the perfect burst of flavors in each bite.
Accuracy/Freshness of the Ingredients 5 Really fresh ingredients, a check for cilantro, onion, pineapple (although cubed) and lime! The ratios were so good in each bite, I did not let the cubes deter me.
Salsas 4: I got red salsa with my order which was really, really good.
First Runner Up
Big Star – 27/30 Points
Big Star (Wicker Park)
Meat Quality: 4 Really good and not too fatty. Meat was a bit chunky, which is why we did not rate it a 5.
Meat Flavor: 4 Flavor was really nice, maybe a bit sweet, but really good. Saucy, not dry as it should be.
Tortilla Size and Quality: 5 Perfect size. Tortillas were great.
Portion Size: 5 Perfect portion
Accuracy/Freshness of the Ingredients 5 Really fresh ingredients. I loved to see pineapple on them, which is not easy to find, so I did not allow the cubes to worry me.
Salsas 4 Salsa is good and they have chiles toreados (grilled jalapeños), as well as pickled peppers and carrots. But, you will have to order them separately, as they do not come with your order.
We waited for about 3 hours to get a table at this famous eatery, which was even more difficult considering the aroma around the restaurant teases you with a preview of what is to come. There is a walk-up window with considerably faster service. The bar is quite a bit noisy, so if this is where you want to hang out, you will have to be prepared to forego conversation and focus on your food, which is well worth it. Bring cash with you. They only take cash! Service from the greeters might be a bit rough, but will improve once you sit down.
Second Runner Up 25/30 Points (Tie)
Taquería San Juanito (Albany Park)
San Juanito was the only place where the meat was not saucy. I found their meat flavorful, but the taco had no pineapple, which lowered-down their score. Green salsa was particularly memorable.
Zacatacos in Berwyn features the most tender meat you can possibly imagine. The tacos are a bit bulky and a come in a bigger tortilla, but are still really good. Salsas are amazing.
Bien Trucha (Geneva)
I really liked the concept of Bien Trucha, a modern-looking Mexican restaurant that reminded me of the vibe of restaurants in Mexico City. Food, not kitsch is the focus here, and the execution of the tacos spoke to quality. Also, Bien Trucha was the only establishment that got the pineapple right, as they had just a chunk of it vs. the cubes I found in other restaurants. I don’t remember getting any salsa with my tacos and had to ask for lime, but if you have had enough of taco talk, try their guacamole of the day or their Pulparindo cocktail! The photo below is not the best because I did not have very good lighting inside the restaurant.
Del Seoul (Lincoln Park)
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