Chicago Tacos

Reviews of tacos.

Try Everything But the Tacos at La Chilangueada

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[Photographs: Nick Kindelsperger]

I visited La Chilangueada to try one thing, but that plan changed fast. I first heard about the taqueria in the western neighborhood of Belmont Cragin from Titus, who mentioned in the comment section of his post about the tacos de canasta at El Conde SA, that La Chilangueada served them, too: "Come to think of it, that might be another spot worth sharing on here." He was right.

Actually, Titus undersold it a bit. I couldn't help but try a good portion of the menu, and now I'm kind of convinced that La Chilangueada is one of the best all-around taquerias in Chicago, especially on the North Side.

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The feast begins moments after ordering, when three salsas, a basket of chips, and a small bowl of beans hit the table. Each of the salsas is assertively seasoned and very spicy. The green tomatillo and the red tomatillo salsas are thick and tart, which helps lessen the spice somewhat until the very end (and then it comes on strong). Sticking out is a darkly colored red chile salsa, which has nothing to temper its rusty, earthy, and slightly bitter profile. Honestly, they make for a pretty terrible dips for the chips, and that's okay. Set the basket aside and save the salsas to perk up and add dimension to the rest of the main courses, where they really deliver.

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Instead, head straight for the brothy beans, which are meaty and satisfying, with a surprising amount of heat. Don't be alarmed if your nose starts running before the rest of the meal arrives.

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No matter what you order, make sure to order a round of tacos de canasta, even if they are a bit puzzling. As Titus already pointed out, tacos de canasta are usually assembled ahead of time and stored in a covered basket, where they steam and soften. But La Chilangueada makes them fresh to order, so how do they differ from the taqueria's regular tacos? The only satisfying answer I came up with is that they are simply smaller and better. Instead of warming up store-bought tortillas, these tiny little tortillas are made by hand, which explains why thy are so supple and light—almost to the point where they seem to disappear when you bite in, letting you fully appreciate the fillings.

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Instead of the usual griddled meat suspects, the fillings are straightforward and vegetable-heavy. My favorite filling was the papas, which is nothing more than roughy mashed potatoes. They are waxy and have heft, without any grittiness. But all of them are good, including the papas con chorizo, rajas con queso, and chicharrón con chile. And since they are so small and so very cheap—each is less than a dollar—you won't feel bad about polishing off a bunch and then ordering more.

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Actually, you'll probably want save room one of the restaurant's huaraches ($4.95), which are oblong sheets of griddled masa topped with salsa, cheese, and whatever filling you want. Though the size of the plate it comes on, La Chilangueada's version is easily the most balanced and thoughtful huarache I've tried in ages. It's thin, maybe only a 1/4-inch thick, and tender instead of dry and crumbly. It sure as hell beats most versions that use pre-made masa bases, but I even prefer this to the over-sized ones served at Huaraches Doña Chio (only slightly, though). And I still haven't even discussed the filling. The carne asada is well seasoned, with a striking balance of caramelized and crispy edges to tender, juicy hunks. Much like the best cecina, it has a distinct mineral tang that is almost funky (which I know sounds downright unappealing, but I can't think of a better way to describe it).

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Considering how great La Chilangueada is with fresh masa, it makes sense that the quesadilla ($6.10) is another highlight. But once again the filling surprised me. You can find huitlacoche on lots of menus, but most of the time this corn fungus tastes kind of like what you imagine a fungus growing on corn would—musty, soggy, and just slightly off. But this one is inky, full flavored, and almost meaty.

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As I briefly mentioned above, the only thing I can't rave about are the regular tacos, which use store-bought tortillas. I mean, thanks to the excellent fillings, they would still best the options at 90 percent of the taquerias in town, but with better options on the menu, why waste time?

I've been to La Chilangueada twice in the past week, and each time I leave wanting to try more. I haven't even made it to the gorditas or sopes, but considering how skillful the restaurant is with fresh masa, there's no way those won't be worth trying, too.


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