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[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

As us spicy food addicts know, there is a line between pleasure and pain, and we like to be teased. If either side wins out, you lose; the heat provides little more than shock value, covering up any ingredients that may be below. The best dishes hover between the two, all while letting you experience flavors you didn't know were supposed to be there.

No taqueria knows that line quite as well as El Pueblito. For some, the salsas here might as well be pure fire. But if you enjoy that dance, it can be captivating.

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The gauntlet is thrown at the beginning. Like most taquerias, a basket of chips and some salsas come out immediately, but never have I faced a lineup as fierce and punishing as this one. Both the tomatillo and red chile salsas are above average on the heat scale, yet both are made with care, so that while your tongue may tense up, it still appreciates the ride. And if you reach your limit, you have the option to dig into free refried beans, which function as a fire blanket.

What about the habanero-laced orange salsa? Well, it is legitimately crazy, but in a completely captivating way. With a distinct citrus note, it heightens your senses, allowing you to detect all kind of flavors before the burn sets in. Use it with care, and it will reward you.

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The habanero salsa works especially well with the cochinita pibil ($2.50). Though the filling doesn't look like any version I've had before, it's the best thing here, tasting fatty and slightly unhinged. Crispy bits mingle with tender hunks of meat, while the salsa helps cut through it all.

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The biggest criticism is that most of the tacos feel like vehicles for the salsas, which means that some options don't stand up well on their own. Thanks to a slight citrus note, the carnitas ($2.00) works well with the habanero salsa, even if it's texture is too mushy. The al pastor ($2.00) has the same textural issue, even if the flavor is there. Only the carne asada ($2.00) comes off bland.

Still by the end, my eyes were watering and I was sweating, which is how I like it. There is something refreshing and rejuvenating about the experience, even if it seems crazy to outsiders. I do wish El Pueblito put more care into its fillings, but as long as it keeps serving these turbo-charged salsas, I will be back.

El Pueblito

6712 North Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60626 (map)
773-381-1638

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