Chicago Tacos: Masa Azul
Masa Azul has always been a great place to drink. Opened in 2011, the restaurant immediately stood out for its serious tequila list and inventive cocktails. To this day, if you're burned out on sugary margaritas, one drink here will cure you. While never offensive, the food has been overshadowed by the drinks since the beginning.
But something surprising happened two months ago. Masa Azul announced Jonathan Zaragoza as the new executive chef. Yes, the son of that Zaragoza. You know, the one that serves the greatest birria around? The move was completely unexpected, but, in its own way, rather perfect.
Zaragoza completely remade the menu, stripping it down, and removing the fussy plating that seemed to come with each dish. The new menu exudes a brash confidence, showcasing exuberant flavors for exactly what they are.
Mushroom tacos are usually the neglected vegetarian option, but the tacos de Champigñon ($7) could please anyone. The ancho-marinated mushrooms take center stage, arriving with only some crunchy fried onions and salty queso fresco. Instead of watery and flabby, these are juicy and oddly meaty. Two come with each order, but they are proportioned, so if you want to make this a meal, you'll definitely need to order more.
Luckily, you can pair this with the equally good cochinita ($8). A specialty from the Yucatan region of Mexico, this dish features braised pork rubbed with earthy achiote. There aren't many great versions of this dish in Chicago, and luckily this one avoids the mushy fate most fall prey to. The luscious meat is offset by crunchy and acidic pickled red onions. All that's needed is a fierce and fruity habanero salsa to hit the high notes.
Both of the tacos I tried would be great on regular tortillas, but these are far from normal. Let us pause to pay respect. "Our tortillas are made by hand," is proudly written at the bottom of the menu, and you can tell. Like the exceptional specimens from Birria Zaragoza, they are thick, yet also pliant and light. They properly hold all the fillings, while all the time lending a faint corn sweetness. They are an absolute marvel.
So is, for that matter, all the new options at Masa Azul. As far as the food options are concerned, this is a completely new restaurant, and it deserves serious attention. Some of the entrees I sampled were also worth ordering, but you can't blame me for focusing on the tortilla wrapped options. Tacos like this don't come around every day.