When it comes to al pastor in Chicago, eventually you have to talk about Tierra Caliente on Ashland. It's been a favorite of mine for awhile now (I first wrote about it two years ago), and obviously other people agree. In fact, it's gotten so popular that the taqueria opened a new location in Logan Square on Armitage, dubbed Tierra Caliente #2, which, retroactively, makes the first location now Tierra Caliente #1.
The new location is much, much closer to my place, so you'd think I'd be ecstatic. But sadly the no al pastor taco from TC #2 has ever delivered in the way that one from TC #1 has—at least, I hoped not. It was so puzzling that I wondered if my enthusiasm for #1 one was somehow misguided. It was time to find out.
Al pastor is a fickle beast, requiring constant attention, so while I could have simply stopped by each and made a judgement, I wanted to impose some kind of order over the proceedings. I decided to visit each location three times at very specific occasions, during both busy weekend rushes and on lazier weekday lunches. The general consensus is that al pastor is better the busier the restaurant is, since you can then be sure that the meat wasn't warmed up to order on the griddle. Taking that into account, I planned on stopping by each during the peak lunch rush on a Saturday. However, some people, including a group on LTHforum, claim that it's actually better on off hours, because that's when the meat is at its most caramelized. I decided revisit each latter in the afternoon on Saturday and on a Wednesday afternoon.
What resulted was statistical chaos, and I came away from the experience with no real insights about when its best to visit. The best tacos at each place were on a Wednesday. The most caramelized tacos were from TC #2 on a Saturday at 11 a.m., which was before the real lunch time even began. However, when I visited TC #1 15 minutes later, the meat had barely any mark from the flame.
Also, it didn't matter if the flame of the electrical spits were on. Sometimes fresh meat was cut off the spit, sometimes it wasn't. Honestly, it was kind of a disaster. The only thing I could gleam from the results is that much like gyros, it's kind of all about luck, which, I'll readily admit, sucks.
The only fact I know for sure is that TC #1 is better than TC #2 in about every way. Though the tacos over the three visits ranged in quality, the meat from #1's was always juicer, spicier, and sliced into larger chunks. It seems strange that the two places would prepare the meat differently, but it certainly tasted that way.
Not only was the meat not as flavorful, but even when the meat was freshly cut off the spit at #2, it was then tossed on the griddle, hacked to bits, and then smashed with a spatula. One time it was left on the griddle for so long that the meat came out nearly burnt, defeating the whole purpose of first cooking the pork on a spit. This also made me realize that this kind of extreme caramelization distracts from al pastor, and that juicy meat is just as important.
So, Tierra Caliente #1 definitely came out on top, but how does it compare to the rest of the al pastor around town? My search isn't done, but on my Wednesday visit to #1 I received one of the better al pastor tacos I've had in the city, even if it wasn't quite the best (more on that in the upcoming months). Of course, this was kind of marred by two average, if still enjoyable, visits. Honestly, I wish Tierra Caliente left the slices bigger, and didn't chop them up so much.
Either way, Tierra Caliente #1 is worth a visit, just as long as you prepare yourself for the random results.
Tierra Caliente #1
1402 N. Ashland Avenue, Chicago IL 60622 (map)
Tierra Caliente #2
2556 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago, IL 60647 (map)