Chicago Tacos: El Barco Mariscos
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.
El Barco Mariscos
1035 North Ashland Avenue, Chicago, IL (map); 773-486-6850; elbarcorestaurant.com
Must Try: Pescado Estilo Baja Califas
Other Options: Pescado al pastor ($9.93) is good, but the shrimp coctel ($8.25) is better.
Perhaps atoning for beef-centric run of no less than three La Pasadita's in a row, a few blocks south on Ashland Avenue you can spot a collection of Mexican marisquerias—establishments that focus on bright and flavorful fish and shellfish. I already explored the options at Mariscos El Veneno, but though El Barco across the street shares a few menu items, the two have very little else in common.
Whereas the former place is straightforward and humble, the latter is housed in what looks like an enormous boat, and inside enormous fish hang from the ceiling just waiting to bump the heads of the very tall. It is a place to celebrate, and gimmicks aside, it feels good to be there.
I'll admit right from the start that I'm not sure tacos are what El Barco does best. Most of the menu is dedicated to whole fish and shellfish. Also, you can score a range of freshly prepared appetizers, including a very good coctel camarón chico ($8.25), a glass full of plump shrimp in a cool and refreshing tomato and chile sauce.
But that doesn't mean the tacos aren't worth ordering, though I'll admit I was initially worried. The tacos have to be ordered in threes, and arrive wrapped up in foil on a large platter with guacamole and refried beans. It's more than enough food.
Even when I unwrapped the pescado estilo Baja Califas ($9.93), described as "Fish Baja California Style," I was leery, mostly because these didn't look much like any Baja fish tacos I'd ever eaten. Usually these tacos are all about the textural contrast between the soft and supple flour tortilla and the crunchy fried fish, but this version had neither element. The batter on the fish was light and unobtrusive, while corn tortillas were used instead of flour ones.
Yet, none of these finer points mattered much when I started eating. Though soft, the coating was flavorful and holds its own against the spicy sauce, managing to not turn into a sponge in a matter of minutes; plus it allows you to really appreciate the firm white fish. Also, the corn tortillas actually hold up well, staying soft without collapsing.
As you probably know, I'm an enormous sucker for anything labeled al pastor, even if I know it the offering doesn't use pork cooked on a vertical spit. While not a disaster, the pescado al pastor ($9.97) simply wasn't flavorful or distinctive enough, missing the vinegar tang from a good marinade. But the fish was well cooked, and with the addition of some of the very good blackened chile salsa, this turns into a good dish.
I really want to get back here to try some other offerings, especially since the atmosphere is so engaging. But mostly I'd suggest ordering a drink, taking in the scene, and enjoying yourself. That's what El Barco is really all about.