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Chicago Tacos: Can You Find Great Tacos at Whole Foods?

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[Photographs: Nick Kindelsperger]

As Roger proved a few months ago, though it's a grocery store, Whole Foods can occasionally serve some genuinely tasty dishes. With so much great produce about, plus a team of eager young cooks, it makes sense. And of any of the Whole Foods in the metropolitan area to test this theory out, the one in Lincoln Park is it. When it was built in 2009, this store was the third largest for the company in the world. And as shopping experience, it's hard to beat. As you descend into the building via escalators (the parking is on top), a bar greets you on the right, a wine bar awaits you in the back, and all along one side are a half dozen food stalls, where you can score anything from a sub to sushi.

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That's where you'll also find the Pilsen Taqueria, the grocery store's taco joint. Pilsen refers to the name of the neighborhood most traditionally associated with Mexican culture in Chicago (the National Museum of Mexican Art is located there). And, as I've found out, you definitely can find a great Mexican meal there. Of course, this Whole Foods is located in Lincoln Park, far from that southwest side neighborhood. But does it at least try to stay true to the name?

Nah. It doesn't even really try. Instead, this might as well be called "Whole Chipotle" for the way it rips off that burrito chain. Even the setup is basically the same, with fillings cooked ahead of time, dumped into metal containers, and placed on the line, along with rice, beans, and various salsas. But I went ahead anyway, mostly because I saw a working al pastor spit spinning. Sure, every other person in line was ordering a burrito—an ominous sign—but I went ahead and ordered six of the tacos.

Along with the al pastor and a few other familiar taqueria fillings—including grilled carne asada, steamed barbacoa, and braised chicken—you can also find vegan charro beans and something called chipotle lime tofu.

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The fish taco.

Usually I'd start rolling through the fillings, pointing out the ones that worked the best. But none of these really deserve it. That's especially true of the al pastor, which may have been cooked on a spit, but was then griddled and held in a metal container until it became dry and leathery. That wasn't even the worst filling. That honor goes to the fish taco, which resembled canned tuna.

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But it could have been the best al pastor in the city, and it wouldn't have really mattered, because the tortillas ruined each one. It's normal to stack two tortillas together for each taco, but here two are stacked and then tossed on the same press that warms up the enormous flour tortillas, where they fuse into one thick, gummy mess. It's a disaster.

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I feel bad about all this. My goal wasn't to strut into Whole Foods and take down the giant. I mean, no one ever claimed that the little taqueria in the food court served exceptional tacos. In fact, all I could find about the place was this very negative review from Time Out Chicago. This column should be about celebrating places that do things right. Still, this is baffling. With so many great ingredients around, why serve such lackluster tacos?

Whole Foods Market‎

1550 North Kingsbury Street, Chicago, IL 60642 (map)
312-587-0648
wholefoodsmarket.com

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