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[Photographs: Nick Kindelsperger]

Taqueria Ricardo

4429 W. Diversey, Chicago, IL 60639 (map); 773-292-0400
Must Try: Grilled Chicken Taco
Other Options: Carne Asada Taco, Al Pastor Taco, Ceviche

As I made my way through the tiny Carniceria Ricardo, passing boxes of locally made tortillas on the left and glass cases of enticing little pastries on the right, I figured that all I had to do was follow the smell of smoke to find the taqueria. Usually, this just means some grill man can't deal with all the flare-ups, and the poor meat is being marred and neglected. But as soon as I passed through the door to Taqueria Ricardo, I realized this wasn't just some standard gas-powered grill, but an honest-to-goodness hardwood fire. I nearly wept.

I'll get this right out of the way at the beginning: if something says that it is grilled on the menu at Taqueria Ricardo, you should order it. The joint does other things surprisingly well, including a whole range of ceviche, but if you stick with the grilled options you will never lose. (I like those kinds of odds.)

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For tacos, that basically leaves you a choice between carne asada and pollo. Usually I'm all about the former, and there is certainly nothing here to scoff at here. The thin sheets of beef are tossed on the grill and cooked until browned, before being moved to the griddle and chopped up. I wish the meat wasn't so chopped up, but at least it's not manhandled like some versions around town. Thing is, since the carne asada is so thin, it cooks very quickly, and doesn't have time to pick up much flavor from the grill.

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The chicken, on the other hand, has to hang out for a while to cook, and when it comes off the grill, it's redolent of smoke, tasting almost like great barbecue. The outside gets crispy and laquered, while the inside stays juicy. But it's not just about the smoke. Before it ever hits the grill, the chicken gets a deeply flavorful adobo chili rub. When chopped up and added to two corn tortillas, it all adds up to the best chicken taco I've had in Chicago thus far, and one of the better tacos you can find in the city.

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Al Pastor, Lengua

Taqueria Ricardo has an al pastor spit, but it wasn't running when I stopped by during a busy dinner shift. The marinated hunks of pork were decent for the griddled variety, but nothing special when set up against the grilled offerings. The lengua, sadly, was rubbery and funky, and not in a good way. Moving on.

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Half a chicken with fries, beans, jalapeños, and rice.

So, one exceptional taco, a couple solid ones, and only one to avoid. That's not a bad average. But I'd suggest skipping the superfluous and jumping right to the main event by ordering the whole or half grilled chicken. Along with the gloriously grilled meat, the platter comes with a side of molten hot refried beans, Mexican rice (the tomato and chili kind), some oddly crispy fries, griddled jalapeños, and a stack of steaming corn tortillas. Then you can make your own tacos. (I'd suggest a smear of the beans, a few slices of jalapeño, some of the meat, and a drizzle of the tomatillo salsa.) The half is still an absurd amount of food for two people.

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If you're still feeling a little peckish, Taqueria Ricardo has a whole range of seafood dishes, including a very good ceviche mixta tostada. This cool and refreshing dish acts as a good counterpoint to all the aggressively seared and seasoned food.

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It's no big secret that every other Mexican grocery store in town features a little taqueria tucked inside. Thing is, most of them feel and look exactly the same. Taqueria Ricardo is one of the only ones that feels like a restaurant with a grocery store attached. I wish other grocery store taquerias were as colorful and delicious as this one.


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