Editor's Note: Each week Nick will explore the many masa-filled options around the city, all in search of the perfect taco. It's a never ending quest, but someone has to do it.
1531 North Damen Avenue, Chicago, IL 60622 (map); 773-235-4039; bigstarchicago.com
Must Try: Tacos de Papas con Rajas
Other Options: All the tacos are solid, but I particularly like the tacos de panza.
From the very beginning it was pretty clear that Big Star was an amazing bar; I just wasn't always sure about the food. The first time I walked in, I gasped at the perfectly realized concept and immediately predicted that this stylized honky-tonk would replicate across this whole city. Though it had just opened, Big Star Lincoln Park had to already be in the works.
At the time, my biggest criticism with the food was that while consistent, none of the offerings eclipsed the best tacos from around town. Sure, it was more comfortable and more fun, but there were better tacos elsewhere.
Over two years later and there is still only one location. Popularity certainly isn't the issue; Big Star manages to pack crowds in seven days a week. No, it's probably all the the kitchen's fault. Chef Justin Large has shown a willingness to experiment and push the menu forward in fascinating ways, and that doesn't lend itself franchising. Instead of a collection of amazing bars, we're left with a constantly improving restaurant.
During that time it's become evident that Big Star's best tacos tend to be the vegetable ones—a category that is grossly underrepresented in Chicago's taquerias. Notice I didn't say meat-free, because Big Star avoids the fake meat route that a shocking number of taquerias have taken. Instead, actual vegetables are used, and though the fillings change from time to time, each one I've tried has been balanced and addictive. (I particularly loved the rajas de poblano.)
Currently, the vegetable option is papas con rajas ($3), and some twists help elevate it. Rajas are simply chiles that have been roasted and then cut into strips. Usually, the chile is the poblano, but for this taco Big Star uses chipotles, which lend a smoky complexity to each bite. Though moderately spicy, they are tempered by cubes of potatoes. It's hard to properly explain why it all works. This is just one great taco.
Of the meat offerings, I've always preferred the taco de panza ($3), which features hunks of marinated pork belly. This visit reminded why: the rich and slightly fatty meat is nicely cut by the flavorful and spicy marinade.
I'm not as big of a fan of the taco al pastor ($3), which tastes a little too sweet to me. I'm probably in the minority on this, and my feelings still haven't stopped me from ordering it every single time I visit.
Though it looks beautiful, the taco de pescado ($3) is the only offering I wouldn't recommend. The coating lacks crunch, and the corn tortilla doesn't quite stand up as well to the toppings. Still, even this feels like nitpicking.
There's no doubt that Big Star will continue to improve, but here's hoping they do so be continuing to add more thoughtful vegetables tacos to the menu. That's my hope, at least.