Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
I went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and back then, we didn't have many options for Mexican food unless you had a car. And even then, the options were limited. There was Taco Bell, but sorry, an enchirito (aka the sad wet burrito) doesn't really count. I graduated ten years ago with a writing degree, and look where I am now! Unemployed and a human wreck. Good job, Dennis.
There was, however, La Bamba. La Bamba was open late, and they served tacos, burritos, and quesadillas to a certain drunk-ass troublemaker who may or may not have been me. I have fond memories of watching the sun come up on the weekend with sour cream and salsa smeared all over my face. Or...was that last night? In any case, there are actually two La Bambas in Chicago. One is in Lincoln Park, and the other just so happens to be in the Loop.
As it was back then, you still want to skip the tacos. All of them. The taco plate ($9.96) comes with three tacos, a side of refried beans, and Spanish rice. You can pick any filling for each taco. Out of the three I tried, the ground beef taco is the best—but not by too much; it's like supermarket-taco-kit seasoned beef, but with bigger flavor. The chicken is shredded and dry, and the pork is also dry and underseasoned (despite its red color). The toppings are sad shredded iceberg lettuce, mealy tomatoes, and raw onions. Curiously, they melt a small piece of cheese between the two corn tortillas of each taco, which is both baffling and intriguing at the same time. I suspect the cheese acts as a bit of melted tortilla glue.
However, not all is lost. La Bamba proudly advertises their super burrito ($7.32) as being as big as your head. That's a bit of an overstatement, but as you can see, the burrito is as long as my forearm. I didn't think putting the burrito against my forehead for a photo comparison was a good idea, because then you'd be forced to look at my face. Also, for some reason, I think measuring food against the size of any human body part might be the funniest thing ever. I'll take one forearm-sized burrito, please. With a side of baby fist rice. I'm on a diet.
The interesting thing about La Bamba's burritos is that they're more than the sum of their parts. The steak isn't particularly great. It's usually a bit chewy and dry from sitting in a steamer pan for a while, and the vegetables aren't the best, either. The entire combination of steak, refried beans, lettuce, tomato, onion, and cheese only makes for a mediocre burrito.
But what improves the package is the La Bamba hot sauce. I've never had anything quite like it; it's a rich red color with small shreds of cilantro. The salsa is salty, spicy, and most importantly, extra savory. It's squirted into the burrito by default as they're assembling it, and that's what makes the whole Mexican rollup so much better. Plus you can continue dousing the salsa on since they give you plenty more on the side.
If you're into guilty gut-busting, heart-clogging pleasures, the super nachos ($7.86) will be up your alley. The nachos use the most addictive processed pump cheese I've ever had. Rather than a neon orange, it's a pale white color, with more of a Monterey Jack flavor instead of ballpark nacho.
Again, go for the steak—even though it's not that great, it slightly edges out the other proteins. They'll also toss a bunch of refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and sour cream on there, along with pickled jalapeños. The whole styrofoam carton of chips will be soggy in three minutes flat, but showered in the salsa and that white cheese, you won't mind using a fork. The portion is also absolutely enormous and you'll do a lot better off splitting this with a friend.
If you were to head over now, you might not see La Bamba—the face of the building is undergoing construction and is boarded up with plywood—but it's still open. The food might not be the greatest in the world, but it brings back memories for me, plus you can tell your coworkers you ate a forearm for lunch.