1515 West 18th Street
Chicago, IL 60608; (map); 312-421-1517; nuevoleonrestaurant.com
Must Try: Tacos de Sabinas
Cost: $8.00 for three
Other Options: Excellent corn chips (free) and Frijoles Sabinas ($3.50, small)
The world is better off because Nuevo Leon is around. That's the case even though when you squint, everything can seem like an average Tex-Mex joint. Plates are big, cheese is abundant, and grease might as well be a listed on the menu as an ingredient. But nothing here has been test-marketed or put on the menu to appease the margarita-soaked masses. In fact, Nuevo Leon doesn't even serve liquor. This Pilsen institution has just been doing things the same way since 1962, and if some things look familiar, that's probably because others places have tried to copy it, only to lose the essence along the way.
Plus, Nuevo Leon offers up one of the most delicious tacos in all of Chicago: tacos de sabinas ($8.00).
Each taco starts with a freshly made flour tortilla. Now, I know I've gone on about the excellent corn tortilla options in Chicago, and Nuevo Leon happens to be located next door to the excellent Sabinas tortilla factory. But these homemade flour tortillas are light and flavorful, making them the ideal carrying case for the fillings.
And they need to be strong, because each is stuffed with mounds of ribeye, grilled onions, tomatoes, jalapenos, cheese, and refried beans. That doesn't count the shredded lettuce, sliced raw onions, and two salsas served on the side. Add some rice to the mix, wrap it up, and you'd have yourself an over-sized burrito.
The meat doesn't have much grilled flavor, but the hunks are juicy. Still, the beans are the highlight. Complex and creamy, they are speckled with whole cumin seeds, and absolutely loaded with pork fat. A light smear is all that is needed to transform each bite.
The regular tacos (three for $5), on the other hand, are kind of disappointing. Though housed in the excellent corn tortillas from the Sabinas Tortilla Factory, the tacos I tried came off as greasy and kind of bland. That's especially true of the dry chicken. Luckily, these were the only misstep of the night.
In every other respect, Nuevo Leon tries as hard as possible to make you feel comfortable and at home. It's nearly impossible to leave hungry. Freshly fried chips come to the table crisp and steaming.
And before your order comes out, small little meatballs are also brought out.
But the atmosphere is probably the hardest element to replicate. When I was there, the place was packed with families, BYOB touting hipsters, and regulars who, in between bites, walked around to mingle with old friends. Yet, the staff managed to treat everyone with care. In fact, instead of simply presenting a cake to a large group celebrating a birthday, the staff turned off the lights in the whole restaurant and began singing. Unable to see the food in front of them, everyone else in the restaurant eventually joined in the celebration. That's Nuevo Leon.