Editor's Note: This one is fairly 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.
1436 North Ashland Avenue, Chicago, IL 60622 (map); 773-772-5266; Carniceria-Guanajuato/Facebook
Must Try: Carnitas ($1.79) and Cecina ($2.02)
Other Options: Very good chicken tacos ($1.79) and carne asada ($1.99)
If there is one thing I've learned from writing Chicago Tacos, it's that everyone has his or her own opinion on where to find the best. Most friends can rattle off a half dozen or so places that are near and dear to their hearts, which I have to try immediately and without pause. (Urgency and tacos go hand in hand.)
But of all the grocery store taquerias in the city, none has been as recommended to me quite as often or as enthusiastically as Wicker Park's Carnicerias Guanajuato. Like many Mexican grocery stores in town, this place has a taqueria stuffed inside, serving a range of grilled and griddled meat in a bare room with zero fuss. So, why wasn't I running over there at great speed?
Thing is, I've already been. And, contrary to the enthusiastic praise heaped on the place, I left more or less unimpressed. The tacos weren't atrocious, but they were underwhelming, and that is a serious flaw when Tierra Caliente is located just a few doors down. But after another round of glorious praise, I began to wonder if another factor could explain my poor first impression.
The Taqueria Timing Issue
Two things are important to remember: (1) Taquerias in grocery stores tend to do most of their business during lunch; (2) the food is almost always better the busier they are. With the high turnover rate, you have a better chance at getting meat that is freshly off the grill or griddle. During slow times, many places cook the meat ahead of time and keep it in tubs to reheat later.
So when did I stop by Carnicerias Guanajuato on my first visit? Oh, at about 7:30 p.m., which is approximately 30 minutes before closing time. Only one guy was behind the counter, and his spotless station told me that the last thing he wanted to do was dirty it up for me. The meat shoveled into my tacos had likely been sitting around for awhile by that point.
Compare that to this last visit when I found the kitchen in a constant whirl of motion, with a fleet of cooks chopping and grilling as quickly as they possibly could. All the tables were filled, as customers circled around the perimeter waiting for spots to open up. I knew that this time had to be different. My wife and I ordered one of every taco, and slid into a small booth seconds after a couple stood up. If these didn't live up to the hype now, they never would.
By ordering one of every filling, I covered all my bases. If there wasn't one great taco in the bunch then I'd be able to call of these friends liars. But, that was not the case. The tacos may have lacked any sort of finesse, but they were still way above normal taqueria offerings. With the exception of one filling—which wasn't even that bad—each taco had something going for it.
- Carnitas (Left): The carnitas were rich and wonderfully funky—no doubt due to the mix of pig parts chopped up and thrown in. Outside of Pilsen, I can't think of a better carnitas experience I've had recently.
- Lengua (Middle): A little soft, but it more than made it up for a slightly mushy texture with a strong beefy backbone. It almost had a luscious barbacoa thing going on. I actually prefer my lengua to have more stability, but this was definitely good.
- Chorizo (Right): This is the only taco I wouldn't recommend, which isn't to say that the chorizo here is bad. It just needs a partner in crime (potatoes, by the way, are always a good choice), and when presented by itself, it feels unbalanced.
- Lomo y Cebolla (Left): Instead of bearing the mark of a fresh sear, the steak here was kind of grey. Though slightly concerned, the textural contrast between the steak and the onions was surprisingly addicting.
- Cecina (Middle Left): Aggressively seared, nicely salted, and extra beefy, this filling was everything I want cecina to be.
- Carne Asada (Middle Right): Nicely caramelized and still moderately juicy, these were totally solid and better than many versions I've had recently. Still, with so many other great toppings, I probably wouldn't come back to these.
- Chicken (Far Right): Most chicken tacos are dry and bland. Not these. Braised with tomatoes and chiles, the chicken is tender juicy, with a wonderful complexity.
That's a good rundown, eh? I mean, with the exception of the chorizo, I'd be happy to sit down with any of these tacos again, though I'll probably return first to the carnitas, cecina, and chicken. Of course, as I've mentioned above, timing is everything at Carnicerias Guanajuato. But the effort pays off in some truly solid tacos.