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Chicago Tacos: Excellent Grilled Cecina at La Oaxaqueña

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[Photographs: Nick Kindelsperger]

It feels wrong to visit La Oaxaqueña and not order something with the restaurant's excellent mole. Believe me, it really does. The family-owned shop serves up a genuinely satisfying mole, which is jet black, fragrant, and intoxicating (at least for me, but I realize that I may have a problem). It's the first thing you smell upon entering, and the very idea of passing it by slightly broke my heart.

See, I was there to eat tacos. No matter how much the aroma teased my nose, I kept strong and stayed away. (Such self control!)

Luckily, this self-imposed limitation allowed me to see that La Oaxaqueña knows how to grill. In fact, if you see a menu item that spends time over live fire, by all means, order it.

If you can only order one thing, make it the cecina taco ($2.25). It's an absolute knockout. Instead of chopped up bits of manhandled meat, the cecina comes out as one glorious sheet of caramelized meat. The salted and cured meat has a rich and beefy flavor, with a slight mineral tang, but it's also remarkably tender.

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If the cecina celebrates the simplicity of expertly grilled meat and soft corn tortillas, the Tacos de La Oaxaqueña ($2.75) tries to impress with excess. The grilled ribeye arrives topped with beans, rice, and dressed lettuce. Eventually, I just scraped the vegetables off, so I could enjoy the main event. Flying solo, the steak comes across as mighty and meaty, if also slightly chewier than the cecina. Next time I'll just order the carne asada taco.

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The fillings that skip the grill still are worth a look, even if they ultimately fail to satisfy in the same way. Despite my general rule that chorizo needs to be paired with another ingredient, the chorizo taco ($2.25) works, if only because the sausage is made in house. As for the taco de camarones ($3.25), the shrimp have a nice marinade, but come off kind of bland next to the other fillings.

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No post about La Oaxaqueña would be complete without at least a mention of the three excellent salsas on the table. Each of the roasted chile salsas have real depth and a complex heat. Honestly, I tried to pick my favorite, but I like them all.

I have to admit that this was all a pleasant surprise. My last visit was well over a year ago, and I left far less impressed. Obviously, other people feel the same way; the restaurant was even removed from LTH Forum's Great Neighborhood Restaurant list. But this last visit proved that La Oaxaqueña can still kick out some seriously good items. I can't wait to get back, though this time I'm bringing a fried so I can at least get a taste of what made this restaurant famous in the first place.

La Oaxaqueña

3382 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, IL 60641 (map)
773-545-8585

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