Standing Room Only: La Pasadita
1141 N. Ashland Avenue, Chicago IL 60622 (map); 773-278-0384
The Short Order: Oddly beefy grilled steak tacos.
Want Fries with That? No sides are needed. Save room for tacos.
Want Ketchup? Just bottles and bottles of bright and spicy tomatillo salsa.
Let's get right to the reason I've eaten here twice in the past week. La Pasadita serves carne asada (steak) tacos that are gorgeously browned on a hot grill, chopped up into little bits, and stuffed into corn tortillas. They are then topped with a sprinkling of onions and cilantro, and squeeze bottles of tomatillo salsa are available for a little heat. That's it. No syrupy margaritas served in medieval chalice-sized cups. Just simple food, grilled to order, in a room about the size of most bathrooms.
Sure, they serve a few other items, but I don't much care for big burritos. Their barbacoa is fine, and the lengua (tongue) is delicious. But all pale in comparison to the carne asada.
For a menu that is so easy to navigate, the hardest part is finding the correct La Pasadita. As you stroll south on Ashland from Division, you may think that La Pasadita owns the whole block. No less than three restaurants bare the same name. The one I've fallen in love with is on the east side of the street in a small yellow building.
The space is very small, with no tables. There are two chest-high counters and about nine stools if you happen to include the one snuggled up to the Ms. Pac-Man machine. (I figured it should be written about for this last fact alone.)
It feels more like a bar than a restaurant, and that suits me fine. The limited menu and lack of waitresses means we can skip the usual gimmickry of bad chips and salsa and get straight to the tacos. The bare room means that no one lingers. I wouldn't want it any other way.
A steak taco shouldn't be rocket science, but I'm amazed at how many bland, gray heaps of carne asada exist. La Pasadita cooks their beef to order on a grill. The rolling flame is a perfect complement to the fatty meat. The little hunks are oddly both juicy and slightly crunchy, never chewy and tough.
There are probably more expertly prepared carne asada tacos in the city. Fellow Chicago correspondent Michael Nagrant pointed us to Carbon last week, where they look especially good. But if you're in the mood for a quick lunch with minimal pretense (and atmosphere), it's hard to beat this place.