South Side Eats: Tacos de Canasta at El Conde SA
When I saw some new banners announcing the arrival of tacos de canasta at El Conde SA in the cool old-school building that sits at the northeast side of Western and Ogden, I returned the next day to try them. For those not familiar with tacos de canasta, the name means "basket tacos" in English, which is basically what they are. Pre-made tacos served out of a basket are one of the most common eats you'll find in Mexico City, but for whatever reason we don't have many offerings of them of here in Chicago. There's only one other brick and mortar spot that I know of serving them.
They are also called tacos al vapor and tacos sudados. The latter translates as "sweaty tacos" which might not sound all that appealing at first, but it comes from the the fact these are made in the morning and then placed in a basket where they steam until served. So you could also think of them as slider or tamale-style tacos. (If you get out and about to Chicago's bars, you've probably heard of the tamale man, but in the nightlife areas all around Mexico "taco men" slinging these are common.)
Fillings vary, but you'll usually find beans, mashed potato, stewed meats, or a combo of a couple. Chopped hot dogs, aka "chilango," are a common filling in Mexico City. But you don't have to go there to try them now that Alex and Iris have opened El Conde SA.
Alex Manjarrez has quite the story. This isn't his first rodeo. Formerly the owner of four Chicago area restaurants, Alex went back to his hometown of Teloloapan, in the Mexican state of Guerrero, where he ran for mayor and won. He led me to a little story featured in the Chicago Tribune from 2007, where he talks about wanting to bring the stability he achieved in Chicago to his people back in Mexico. He and former Mayor Daley are still associates. I'm not sure if Richard has stopped into try some of Alex's tacos de canasta, but I have and they're an authentic taste of the streets back home.
Four flavors are offered—Chicharrónes, Chicken Mole, Potatoes and Chorizo, and Refried Beans—which I just listed in my preferred order. You could buy just one ($1.50) if you wanted to try a taste, but remember these are like sliders and thus eaten by the 3s, 4s, 5s, and so on. They're sold in orders of four for $6 (Say you read this Serious Eats Article and get 1 off!) and also in orders of 18 for $25.
When I asked, "Why tacos de canasta?", and he said, "Because it's a taste of home people miss," I realized Alex was legit. Whether building schools in Mexico or bringing tacos de canasta to Chicago, he's always trying to help his people. Gotta love it.
Note: Iris makes the papusas, El Conde SA's other house specialty, which I haven't got to try because they sell out early. But I look forward to my next trip there, so go check them out!