Chicago Tacos: Carne Asada from Los Nopales
4544 North Western Avenue, Chicago, IL 60625 (map); 773-334-3149; losnopalesrestaurant.com
Must Try: Carne Asada Taco
Cost: $9.95 for three tacos, rice, and beans
Other Options: Grilled Fish Taco ($5.95 for three)
Thanks to the warm and welcoming atmosphere, it takes approximately five seconds to feel comfortable at Los Nopales. Beyond the room, the real allure of this Lincoln Square restaurant is that you can enjoy parts of taqueria experience that are usually hurried over and unloved. Sure, its BYOB stance means that it doesn't have to devote any manpower to kicking out over-sized margaritas, but more importantly, it has a fairly concise menu for a taqueria its size. While burritos do make an appearance, you get the feeling that every dish might be worth ordering.
It's hard to visit a place called Los Nopales (Spanish for cactus) and not try the namesake salad. The chilled cactus slices have a pleasing bite with a nice bit of acidity. Honestly, the dish kind of reminds me of this mysterious appetizer from Lao Hunan. Though good on its own, the salad also makes a great addition to the tacos.
While I didn't find one knockout, the two tacos that I did try were totally solid. The three tacos in the carne asada dinner ($9.95) each come out covered in lettuce, tomato, cheese, and crema, which is a little more than I normally prefer. (I'm more of an onions and cilantro kind of guy.) But reflexively admonishing the toppings discounts that they can work if lightly applied, which is mostly the case here. The freshness of the lettuce and tomato help lighten each bite, though the crema kind of got in the way.
Luckily, the hunks carne asada were surprisingly juicy, standing out even with all the toppings. They could have come with a little more char from the grill, and the pieces were occasionally a little too small, but overall this definitely worked, even if the carne asada from nearby Taqueria el Asadero still edges it out.
Though I was a little concerned, I also tried the appetizer portion of three grilled fish tacos ($5.95, with no beans or rice). It's been my experience that grilled fish tacos are especially precarious creations—even more than fried fish ones—as they have no crunchy coating to stand up to the salsa. They often show up at the table mushy and unappetizing. But as you can probably tell, an aggressive sear on the fish helped this version avoid most of the normal pitfalls, even if the texture got kind of lost between the two corn tortillas. While admirable, they still didn't completely win me over.
I do wonder if some of the entrees would be a better place to start here. Has anyone else had good luck here?