1529 West Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL 60642 (map); 312-850-0288; mexiquechicago.com
Must Try: Coffee Braised Lamb Barbacoa
Cost: $9.95 for three
Other Options: Tilapia in Negra Moledo Batter ($8.95).
Do tacos from a restaurant with a Michelin star taste different? Do they taste worse? Normally this would be a theoretical question, one that, in Chicago at least, had no direct answer. Rick Bayless's Topolobampo may have a star, but it also has no tacos. As for the more rambunctious Frontera, the little red guide only lent it a Bib Gourmand. But this all changed a few weeks ago, when West Town's Mexique landed a star in the updated guide. I finally had my chance to figure this one out.
The excellent West Town restaurant is best known for combining Mexican and French cuisine, and, honestly, I didn't even know the place served tacos until I checked out the lunch menu. In fact, it has six different options, which makes choosing particularly hard. Much like Mercadito, you can't mix and match different tacos. Instead, each order comes with three of the same. It's a slight snag, but since all the tacos are under $10, it's not as big of a deal.
If you can only order one, you might as well go with the Coffee Braised Lamb Barbacoa ($9.95), which features tender lamb in a mole-like sauce. When you first bite in, you get the bitter notes from the coffee, but give it a few seconds and the spice lurking underneath begins to peek through. It's nothing less than stunning, and the handmade tortillas only add to the pleasure.
Also excellent is the Tilapia in Negra Moledo Batter ($8.95). Instead of overly crunchy and aggressive, the batter is delicate, making this one of the lightest fried fish tacos I've ever encountered. With three small nibbles, I completely polished off one of these, wondering only later where it all went. If I had known about these when I was putting together the fried fish taco guide, they'd have certainly made the cut.
Only the Al Pastor Guajillo Roasted Pork ($8.95) disappointed. But I should have known that since there is no spit in the open kitchen. The marinade is actually pretty good (and slightly spicy), but the meat lacks the smoky aroma from rotating in front of an open flame. It is far better than most non-spit versions I've tried, but compared to the other two tacos, it can't quite compete.
So, Mexique serves some very satisfying tacos, ones that definitely live up to high expectations. Still, the whole time I wondered whether the main courses were the way to go here. Unlike Masa Azul, where the tacos seem to be the heart of the menu, these have the feeling of being added after the fact. Sure, they are flawlessly cooked, but it's probably for the best that they are only available for lunch.