I've traveled all over the city for Chicago Tacos, but I can safely say that I've never set foot in a place quite like Cantina Lardedo before. First, it's a chain, one with dozens of franchises across the country. Second, the brand new outlet in River North is a gleaming, gargantuan place—all hard edges, sleek seating, and subdued lighting. Walking in, I wondered if it cared at all about the food or if it was just trying to attract a crowd. There was even a fireplace along the back wall absolutely roaring, even though it was a sweltering August day. Considering I usually spend my time in humble taquerias, this was like walking into an alternative universe.
I certainly can't fault the service. Within seconds of seating, drink orders were taken, and though we were given the hard sell for guacamole—which is made table side for show and thus expensive—our server couldn't have been nicer. Or faster. Not five minutes after ordering, out our tacos came, fully dressed and ready to go. For any restaurant it was fast, but for one as large as Cantina Laredo, it was downright impressive.
Of course, speed is one thing, but how did those tacos taste?
To me, they are sort of exactly as you'd expect from a place that looks like this: carefully arranged, very restrained, and lacking fireworks. Both tacos I tried were missing heat and acid. At least the tacos de carnitas ($13.49) were well seasoned and intricately spiced. I just have a problem with the name. Compared to the full frontal pork attack of Carnitas Urapan, these tacos were downright tame. But if you think of them simply as a very good braised pork, you'll be fine.
Unfortunately, I have no advice on how to enjoy the tacos de pescado ($13.99). The grilled mahi mahi was totally hidden by the mound of cabbage, jicama, onions, queso fresco, and cilantro. But that may have been on purpose, because you don't really want to come face to face with the fish, which is mushy and soft. Oh, and it's also under seasoned. What a waste.
Of course, you don't visit Cantina Laredo just for the tacos. This is place to have a drink and take in the scene. The food is as solid as it needs to be, and if you find yourself here, go ahead and order the carnitas. And if you can't imagine wasting calories on the serviceable, there are always Rick Bayless's three great restaurants just two blocks away.