A Sandwich a Day: Torta del Pastor from Carmela's Taqueria
I've never been to Carmela's Taqueria after a long night of drinking, but I have a feeling it's that sort of place. The cramped Uptown storefront is barely more than two counters, a flattop, and a speed table of sorts that defiantly blocks the flow of traffic from the entrance to the register. The short order cook operates in 180s: he turns to take your order, then turns back to griddle it off. Handing it back over his shoulder is merely an afterthought; it's already the next customer's turn for his attention. But in this type of place, you're not there for pleasantries, you're there for fast-as-you-can-order food to soak up as much booze as possible.
The al pastor spit dominates the taqueria. Central in its placement and comically oversized for its surroundings, you'll spot (and smell) its wares halfway down the block. You'd be missing the point not ordering something sliced from the orange-hued cone. The tacos are quite nice, but for our purposes, I went with the Torta del Pastor ($4.00). A thoroughly griddled bolillo roll is loaded with a generous pile of al pastor, lettuce, tomato, almost an entire sliced avocado, and a tight-fisted squeeze of crema.
While the pastor is certainly better than your average taqueria's, it's not as good as people say it is. The still-pale meat is shorn prematurely from the cone into a large heap, where it awaits an order. It's then finished on the flattop before being stuffed in the roll. While Nick has stated repeatedly that this practice breaks al pastor rule number one, it doesn't really bother me (though I haven't had proper in-Mexico al pastor tacos like he has). However, my issue is with the technique—they don't leave it on the griddle long enough for the edges of the meat to sufficiently crisp. Still, while I wouldn't recommend Carmela's version to be filed in the "transcendent" file of Chicago Tacos, I'd gladly end any night, sober or not, with one of their al pastor tacos or tortas.
1206 W Lawrence Avenue Chicago, IL 60640 (map)