Sweet Potato Tacos at Bullhead Cantina ($3)
The grilled sweet potato tacos feature slices of the charred vegetable loaded onto a house-made corn tortilla and topped with cabbage, grilled red onion, corn, and an avocado salsa. Sweet, spicy, and crunchy, there's enough different flavors going on to keep things exciting, but not too many to distract from the sweet potatoes. If you've ever suffered through an uninspired vegetable taco at a joint around town, then this is the antidote.
Sambal Fish Taco at Del Seoul ($3.95)
May I present the Sambal Fish Taco, a tempura fried piece of haddock topped with pickled red onions, Napa slaw, and a spicy sambal sauce, all housed in a fluffy flour tortilla. The tempura frying method is an inspired choice, since it produces a particularly crackly crust. It easily stands up to spicy sambal sauce, losing none of its crunch along the way, while the crisp cabbage just adds to the harmony of textures.
Lengua Taco at La Lagartija ($2.50)
The lengua is always a showstopper. I realize cow tongue is not exactly a first choice for most people, but La Lagartija's version is absurdly tender and beefy, with none of the funk and chew that usually comes along. Unfortunately, it's a daily special, and while it seems to be around more often then it is not, it's not always available. If it is mentioned as a special, order it.
Papas con Rajas at Big Star ($3)
Currently, the vegetable option is papas con rajas, 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.
Al Pastor at Birria Huentitan ($1.90)
Birria Huentitan serves one great taco. And, as you can imagine, it's all about the al pastor. The pork is sliced off in large hunks and mostly left that way, so that the pieces are both crisp and juicy. As some have noted, the marinade is on the mild side, which does hold this taco back from being the transcendent experience I dearly want it to be. Still, I'd much rather have my al pastor on the mild side and also have it this well prepared. I will be back.
Estilo Baja Taco at Taco Joint ($3)
The Estilo Baja features crispy beer-battered tilapia, which is topped by an arbol cabbage slaw. The corn tortilla is small, but more than up to the task, containing the contents while lending a sweet masa note to each bite.
'Colorful' Taquitos de Papa at DeColores ($6.95 for four)
Only a restaurant that doubles as an art gallery could kick out taquitos de papa as simply gorgeous as these. I mean, taquitos de papa are just corn tortillas stuffed with mashed potatoes that are folded over and fried. Don't get me wrong; I happen to love them. But at DeColores in Pilsen, they are listed on the menu as "colorful taquitas," and that's no joke.
Carne Asada Taco at Taqueria el Asadero ($2.20)
The carne asada at Taqueria el Asadero is cut thinner than most versions around town, which is a definite plus in my book. When cut too thick, the meat can often end up chewy and greasy. But the thin shards here are nicely caramelized and tender—a tough sweet spot to find.
Cecina Taco at La Casa de Samuel ($1.85)
I've had some great cecina before, but none have been quite this funky and flavorful. You can tell the meat was properly marinated, because even though it comes sliced with the grain, the cecina is still tender. It makes sense that this is probably the restaurant's most famous dish, and it's hard to fault the cecina de venado estilo guerrero ($15.95) but for those who just want a sample, the cecina taco has all the elements rolled up and ready to go.
Tacos de Sabinas at Nuevo Leon ($8.00 for three)
Each taco starts with a freshly made flour tortilla. Now, I know I've gone on about the excellent corn tortilla options in Chicago, and Nuevo Leon happens to be located next door to the excellent Sabinas tortilla factory. But these homemade flour tortillas are light and flavorful, making them the ideal carrying case for the fillings. And they need to be strong, because each is stuffed with mounds of ribeye, grilled onions, tomatoes, jalapenos, cheese, and refried beans. That doesn't count the shredded lettuce, sliced raw onions, and two salsas served on the side. Add some rice to the mix, wrap it up, and you'd have yourself an over-sized burrito.
Tacos al Carbon at Zocalo ($15 for a platter with tortillas))
The steak in the tacos al carbon arrives crisp and juicy, which is an especially tough balance to strike. The mound of lettuce is a little over the top, but the grilled onions are a nice touch, even if they'd be better chopped up for a more convenient bite. Still, it's hard to deny the irresistible charred flavor from the grilled meat, along with the funk from the onions. It's both more explosively flavorful than the majority of steak tacos around town and also more balanced.
Carnitas Taco at Carnicerias Guanajuato ($1.97)
The carnitas (on the far left) 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.