Chicago Tacos: La Lagartija Taqueria
Editor's Note: This one is pretty self-explanatory, but here we go: Chicago Tacos explores the good, the bad, and the truly exceptional taco options in the Windy City—one taqueria at a time.
If yesterday's post about the Tortillas of Chicago was meant to celebrate the city's excellent masa foundation, than Chicago Tacos is the never ending quest to see how that masa is put to use. Sure, the hot dog may have been the mobile snack of 20th century Chicago (and I certainly still love them), but I'd say that we are now living in the age of the taco. And, unlike the hot dog, there are no rules one most follow, no allegiances to keep; tacos can be gargantuan or petite, messy or dignified, meaty or filled with nothing but vegetables. Diversity is part of the draw.
What is also exciting is that great tacos seem to be randomly distributed around town. You're just as likely to have a perfect bite in a gleaming new storefront as you are at a taqueria hidden in a grocery store. With such a range of options, where does one even start?
I struggled, but in the end, I decided to visit the one taqueria I've probably visited more than any other in the past year: La Lagartija Taqueria. Located in West Town next door to the Mexican Consulate, it was opened in 2010 by Luis Perea and Laura Cid-Perea. And, more than any other place in town, it reminds me of the taquerias I encountered in Mexico City.
La Lagartija also showcases a sincere attention detail. The tortillas are made in-house and come out soft but still strong enough to hold up to the fillings. But it's the salsas that get me every time. They make pretty horrible dips for tortilla chips (which must be ordered separately), but that's because they are specially formulated to perk up the tacos. The red chile de arbol salsa is especially addicting, though my wife always reaches for the avocado, serrano chile, and tomatillo one. Both are great, as are the pickled red onions.
Which isn't to say that La Lagartija is perfect or that it serves flawless tacos every single time. In fact, it has a strange habit of slipping up only on nights when I've brought friends along to show it off. It's just that when La Lagartija is on—and it is more often than not—it is one of favorite taquerias in town.
If there is one thing you must order, it is the shrimp taco ($3.25). It is easily La Lagartija's most celebrated offering and for good reason. Fried, but still delicate, it's crispy, flavorful, and remarkably not greasy. For a taqueria with a few consistency issues it is the one constant.
But the shrimp taco isn't always the best offering. In fact, it's my experience that it is usually the runner-up taco of the night, as one always somehow manages to transcend it. Unfortunately, I can never guess which one that will be. So I just order a bunch of different items and hope for the best. I am always surprised.
Occasionally it is the al pastor ($2.50). When La Lagartija's pit is running, it can be a wonder. Plump hunks of marinated pork are cut off, tossed in a tortilla, and then crowned with slices of pineapple. The result is meaty, slightly spicy, and ever-so-slightly sweet. (By comparison, I often find Big Star's admirable version too syrupy sweet.) Of course, when the pit isn't running, the pork comes to the table dry. Take a look before ordering.
The lengua ($2.50), on the other hand, is always a showstopper. I realize cow tongue is not exactly a first choice for most people, but La Lagartija's version is absurdly tender and beefy, with none of the funk and chew that usually comes along. Unfortunately, it's a daily special, and while it seems to be around more often then it is not, it's not always available. If it is mentioned as a special, order it.
I usually love their version of rajas de poblano with corn ($2.50) (roasted poblano strips with corn and cream), but as you can tell from the picture, it was a little too creamy this time. These are the hazards of eating at La Lagartija. Moving on.
With such interesting and varied fillings, I usually skip the skirt steak ($2.75). It is a solid version, with good sized hunks of flavorful meat, but there are other places around that do it better.
The same can be said of the portabella taco ($2.50). It always sounds good in theory, and it comes out looking wonderful. But it is overshadowed by the other options.
Even with the ups and downs, I've never left La Lagartija without being impressed by at least one of the tacos, and usually I walk away with a new favorite. It's that sense of discovery that probably explains why I continuously return.