Editor's Note: The Vegetarian Option explores the meatless options at Chicago's best restaurants.
Long before this sentence was saved to our servers, it was already official: we love us some tacos at Serious Eats: Chicago. (Tortillas, too.) The powers that be here at The Vegetarian Option—better known as yours truly—felt it was time to dip into that deep well of affection and bestow some on a plate of vegetarian tacos that, I think, can satisfy and delight even the most devoted meat eater. I'm referring to the Hongos tacos ($10.50) at Mercadito.
Piled atop a trio of fresh tortillas are juicy, smoky mushrooms (a.k.a. hongos) tossed in a citrusy, black-beany sauce, bright and tangy minced pickled onion, salsa verde, huitlacoche, and crispy manchego cheese. Allow me to elaborate on those last two. Huitlacoche, also known as corn smut, is a fungus that grows on stalks of corn. Mexicans realized a long time ago that, instead of chucking huitlacoche'd corn plants, they could still make use of the stalks by incorporating the remarkably tasty fungus into their cuisine (viva Mexico!). To make crispy manchego cheese, the kitchen at Mercadito—led by chef/partner Patricio Sandoval and executive chef Aldo Ayala—grates the cheese into discs on a baking sheet and bakes them until they're golden, wafer-thin rounds. Crush those into bits, and you have one damn fine way to salt (and add a crunchy texture to) a dish.
Mercadito is, in fact, extremely veggie-friendly, with the telltale "(V)" appearing all over the menu. Another rich and layered vegetarian dish I enjoyed recently at the restaurant is the Corn Masa Quesadillas ($10.50). Three folded, pocket-style quesadillas sit on a bed of slow-cooked black beans, salsa verde and rich crema fresca, which all mixed together create a delicious sauce to swipe your quesadilla through. The quesadillas have Chihuahua and Oaxaca cheese inside and out, and their filling includes roasted poblano peppers, zucchini and corn. Gather all the elements into one glorious forkful to really experience the great balance of savory, acidic and vegetal umami flavors in this dish. It'd be great if the fried shells were a bit crispier and less oily, but that didn't stop me from turning in a clean plate.