Chicago Tacos: A Personal Letter to Mercadito
Oh, Mercadito. Why do you make things so hard? It doesn't have to be this way. Chicago had no shortage of great Mexican restaurants before you swooped in from New York, setting up shop less than two blocks from Bayless's Frontera empire. But where other interloping chains failed to bring the goods (ahem, Cantina Laredo), you've managed to keep the food genuinely interesting. Yet, I still seem to dread every visit.
Of course, I have no way to prove that you take pleasure in guests' displeasure, but it does appear that make things perversely difficult. I'll apologize right now for sounding like an old man, but I can't be the only one who's ears quake at the volume of the music inside. I'm used to lively and energetic, but last time I visited (at brunch, no less), it was so loud I couldn't hear someone sitting right next to me thanks to a speaker pointed directly at my skull.
Want more? Well, pull up a chair, sonny, because I can go for a while! It's dark. A small cup of salsa costs $3. Guacamole is $9.50. And, worst of all, you won't allow me to order individual tacos. Instead, you require guests to order four of the same tacos—absolutely no subbing allowed. If I want to try four different fillings, I'd have to order four taco platters, for a grand total of $62 (plus, I'd be so stuffed I'd have to roll home). Of course, I get it. You're located in River North, and to make it profit, prices need to be higher. Also, keeping orders to four saves money, too.
Don't take this the wrong way. Thing is, I wouldn't feel the need to complain if the food weren't so consistently good. Add to that swift and courteous service and sharp and strong drinks, and you have far more going for you than holding you back.
Take the carnitas tacos($15.50), which are actually the real deal—you know, pork cooked in pork fat. The tender and fatty meat provides concentrated bursts of pork with each bite. Instead of keeping things spare, you add a crunchy slaw and chopped peanuts on top, a combination that adds texture and depth to each bite.
As I explained in a recent roundup of fish tacos in Chicago, I also like your estilo baja tacos ($15.50), which differ from most fried fish tacos by avoiding an overly crunchy crust. Instead, the batter is delicate and just crisp, allowing the fish to truly shine.
As I mentioned above, the salsas aren't cheap, but I'd much rather have one expertly made salsa for three bucks than a variety of watered down and unbalanced options on the table for free. I liked the tart and thick grilled tomatillo salsa, thought the chipotle salsa was even better. It seems natural to want to scoop these up with chips, but these really work best on the tacos.
So, where does that leave us? I hope you've noticed that this comes from a place of genuine respect, as any place that serves good tacos is a friend of mine.