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.
If you're unsure what Carbón does well, you probably aren't paying attention. See the flame-licked logo? Smell the grilled meat aroma wafting out of the door? This restaurant appears to be completely dedicated to the flame, albeit the gas-powered kind. And for the most part that is true. This place knows how to kick out a steak taco. But then I tried the restaurant's fish taco—a fried fish taco I might add—I began to wonder if the best taco here didn't spend most of its time in a vat of oil. But I guess I'm getting ahead of myself.
From the moment Carbón opened in a sort of no-man's land underneath the intersection of I-90, I-94, and I-55 back in 2007—I guess that's northwest Bridgeport?—its steak tacos have been mentioned as some of the finest examples in the city. Writing for Serious Eats back in 2009, current Sun-Times dining critic, Michael Nagrant, called it the best steak taco in Chicago, pointing out that instead of hacking grilled meat "to death," Carbón serves "juicy, thick, Texas-chili worthy caramelized hunks of steak glistening in their own peppery juices."
I am proud to report that even at Carbón's second location in West Town, the workers mercifully leave the steak in large slices, instead of manhandling them into size of petite peas. Luckily, they are also tender, so you don't have to gnaw through tough fibers just to take a bite. Save the aroma of real charcoal, this has just about everything you could want from a steak taco.
Considering how good the steak taco is, all the other grilled items have to be equally as delicious, right? Not exactly. Sadly, the other two grilled options confuse more than they satisfy. The grilled chicken taco ($2.95) claims to use meat that has been "tequila-lime marinated," but all I tasted was honey, because an unrelenting sweetness glossed over any sort of grilled flavor. Not even the restaurant's "spicy" salsa could fight against it.
The fire roasted vegetable taco ($2.95) had all the hallmarks of the "healthy" option, right down to the whole-wheat tortilla, which should be something of a crime. Though not the complete train-wreck I feared, it's largely forgettable.
Which brings us back to the fish taco ($2.95). It's not the best version in the city, but it's solid enough that it gives me up hope that the standard of fish tacos—which have been neglected around town for too long—is improving across the board. Freshly fried, with a crackly thin crust, what's most interesting about this version is how straightforward and basic it is. It's not elegant or precious; it's just freshly fried fish, topped with crunchy slaw, and a tequila and lime salsa. Depending on the size of my craving, I could probably down three or four and walk away happy.
Of course, I could say the same thing about the steak taco—the other stripped down option. Carbón may not be solely about the fire, but it has the simplicity thing down.