Slideshow: The Serious Eats Guide to Tacos on Chicago's South Side

Taco de Suadero at Coyote Cafe
Taco de Suadero at Coyote Cafe

If you like carne asada, you'll probably enjoy this filling, which is popular throughout Mexico City. The prep of the beef can differ from place to place, but the texture of the finished product is almost always similar to brisket. Many places just cook it through and chop it up, before a trip to the griddle where it's crisped and then placed into a tortilla. The more traditional prep is to cook the beef down until it shreds like carnitas. Coyote Cafe does a chopped version, but it comes with some deep beef flavor.

Coyote Cafe, 1451 W 18th St, Chicago, IL 60686 (map); 312-492-8059

Chile Relleno Taco La Casa del Pueblo
Chile Relleno Taco La Casa del Pueblo

The taqueria part of the La Casa del Pueblo empire (there's a carniceria a few doors down) is an old favorite of mine. It's one of the first places I visited when I got my driver's license and had a hankering for some tamales (also an old favorite of mine). Eating at this cafeteria-style restaurant is like chowing down at a big festival in someone's backyard, with all the food cooked by the ladies on the block. La Casa del Pueblo has been doing it this way since 1960. Some things are just better homemade, like their signature chile relleno taco. Poblano peppers are stuffed with cheese, battered, and deep fried until crispy. This is stuffed in a tortilla—the only way to eat one on the go—and topped with a pungent pico de gallo. It all makes for my favorite veggie taco in Chicago.

La Casa del Pueblo, 1834 S Blue Island Ave, Chicago, IL 60608 (map); 312-421-4664

Tacos de Sabinas at Nuevo Leon
Tacos de Sabinas at Nuevo Leon

The longtime Pilsen favorite featuring the heavy flavors of Northern Mexico hasn't changed a bit from my first to my most recent trip. The tacos de sabinas are always a reliable order for me. Nick already covered them, and here's what he had to say:

"The meat doesn't have much grilled flavor, but the hunks are juicy. Still, the beans are the highlight. Complex and creamy, they are speckled with whole cumin seeds, and absolutely loaded with pork fat. A light smear is all that is needed to transform each bite."

Nuevo Leon Restaurant, 1515 W 18th St, Chicago, IL 60608 (map); 312-421-1517

Beef Barbacoa Taco at El Mezquite
Beef Barbacoa Taco at El Mezquite

Staying on 18th street, you'll notice El Mezquite when passing by the Pink Line L stop. If you notice a taquero manning a little cooking station inside, I encourage all to stop and try the various cow parts he's cooking up. I haven't been able to get my Dennis Lee on with any heart, brain, or liver, but I really enjoy the gringo option of beef barbacoa. The taquero enhances the corn tortilla by dipping it in some beef fat before warming it up. The barbacoa has a smooth and succulent texture, which is offset by the complimentary red onion and carrot relish. It all makes for a great medley of flavors in the tortilla.

Taqueria El Mezquite, 1756 W 18th St, Chicago, IL 60608 (map); 312-733-0402

Puerco Adobado Taco at Del Toro
Puerco Adobado Taco at Del Toro

I'm a big fan of Del Toro on Halsted just north of Cermak. This is the classiest place we'll stop by on this tour, but it's still just a chill little bar serving some excellent Mexican options to many of the residents of Pilsen. I always get the pepino to drink and puerco adobado taco to eat. I love the pork's deep rich marinade and crisped-up pieces made juicy with the addition of house salsa. Nice to see that place has become a neighborhood mainstay.

Del Toro, 2133 S Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60608 (map); 312-733-7144

Beef Cheek Barbacoa at La Favorita #2
Beef Cheek Barbacoa at La Favorita #2

The same family with ties to Del Toro owns the shop on our next stop. Garcia family matriarch, Froylan Garcia, immigrated to Chicago from San Luis Potosí, Mexico and started buying real estate in the Pilsen area, including a corner grocery called La Favorita #2. Rosa Garcia has been making her house specialty, beef cheek barbacoa, for the last thirty-six years. It's only available Saturday and Sunday, and the restaurant goes through 600 pounds of it. The cheeks are salted and then placed in a big old simmering pot with garlic, where they cook until fall-apart tender. You buy it by the pound. Add on a package of freshly delivered tortillas, and they comp bags of chopped onion and cilantro along with some salsa. This meat makes for some great game day eats. It doesn't end there though. Make sure to pick up some of their homemade chorizo, which seems to have a lot less grease and much more flavor than most of the brands. If you don't make it on time for the barbacoa, the carnitas are sold the same way and are also some of my favorites.

La Favorita #2, 1925 South May Street, Chicago, IL 60608 (map); 312-666-8222

Crispy Tripas Taco at La Chaparrita
Crispy Tripas Taco at La Chaparrita

Don't trust any list of the best tacos in Chicago that doesn't mention La Chaparrita. This family-run taqueria in Little Village is one of Chicago's true treasures. Truth be told, pretty much any of their tacos de fritangas could be featured on this list. But I fell in love with some crispy tripas tacos from a street side cart while in Aquascalientes, Mexico, and always go back here to itch my fix. Tacos de Fritanga are yet another specialty of Mexico City. Various meats and organs are fried in a circular pan with a dome in the middle used for keeping the tortillas warm. I can understand not loving a tripas taco that hasn't been cleaned or fried right, but I can't get why anyone wouldn't love this crispy version. Order one just that way and tell me you aren't in Tacotopia.

La Chaparrita, 2500 S Whipple St, Chicago, IL 60623 (map); 773-247-1402

Tacos de Canasta at Don Pepe
Tacos de Canasta at Don Pepe

A few years back I didn't know of any places serving tacos de canasta, but in the past year I've uncovered a number of great spots. El Conde SA is a great place to try this specialty of Mexico City. It turns out there are a few other spots serving what can also be called Tacos al Vapor or "basket tacos". I find them to be a fine appetizer at Don Pepe on 26th street before indulging in a bowl of their super solid carne en su jugo.

Don Pepe Carne en su Jugo, 3616 W 26th St, Chicago, IL 60623 (map); 773-521-4444

Tacos al Pastor from Taqueria los Barrilitos
Tacos al Pastor from Taqueria los Barrilitos

We can never have enough specialties of Mexico City, especially when it comes to real deal al pastor places. It's believed that 2nd generation Lebanese immigrants started making tacos al pastor after growing up in Mexico city and becoming accustomed to the country's flavors. Nowadays you can find them all over the country.

I fell in love with al pastor on a trip to, of all places, Cancun, and a stop into Taqueria los Barrilitos brought back memories of the little stree tside taco shack that made me fall even deeper in love with Mexican food my freshman year of college. The dedication and precision of the trompo and its handlers and the wicked Chicago Fire-like flame are what make this place so special. I love the places that pick something and do it right; there's not much else on offer here. The perfectly sliced bits that have been crisped on the spit have a subtle but tongue tingling flavor. Add their pickled hot pepper and onion concoction and terrific house salsas to make your mouth sizzle.

Taqueria Los Barrilitos, 3518 W 25th St, Chicago, IL 60623 (map); 773-673-0102

Chicharron Tacos from Carniceria Aguascalientes
Chicharron Tacos from Carniceria Aguascalientes

[Photograph: Mike Gebert]

Teammate Mike G led me to this wonderful find. Here's what he said about the place:

"One thing I always look for when driving around a neighborhood with a significant Latino population is grocery stores... to see if there are any that have lunch stands or weekend (Fines de Semana) specials. For me these are arguably the best hidden-in-plain-sight food finds in Chicago... My favorite by far for this kind is in Little Village on 26th street—Carniceria Aguascalientes. And the reason for that is the handmade tortillas patted out by the taco ladies and fried on the flat top grill."

Just another example of how far one needs to dig to find all the worthy taco options in this wonderful city. I'll never stop searching.

Carniceria Aguascalientes, 3132 W 26th St, Chicago, IL 60623 (map); 773-254-3466

Chicken Tacos at El Pollo Real
Chicken Tacos at El Pollo Real

If people want to know where to go for chicken tacos, I'm not your man. Truth be told there just aren't that many. I still like the ones from Taco Burrito Palace #2 of my youth more than most. It's hard to execute a good chicken taco—or so it seems from most of the ones I've had. So instead just make your own with the charcoal grilled chicken from El Pollo Real in Little Village. Meals come with a pack of tortillas, excellent house salsa, and all the other topping options needed to make an excellent taco de pollo.

El Pollo Real, 3823 W 31st St, Chicago, IL 60623 (map); 773-847-3907

Breakfast Tacos at Los Olivos
Breakfast Tacos at Los Olivos

I'm not sure why we don't see more places offering breakfast tacos, which are a Mexican-American creation courtesy of the great taco town of Austin, Texas. You'd think a city where people like to get fueled up early and often would have more carb-bombs in taco form. I mean they're the perfect thing to eat on the go before settling into the day's tasks. I don't know if the people at Los Olivos are from Texas, so I'll just start my own folklore on how their steak/egg and chorizo, potato and egg taco offerings came to be.

Cook County Sheriffs need to stay strong and they tend to flood the place. What a perfect snack to get some gas in you before a day of dealing with Cook County's infamous, down the road at 26th and California. I say the big boys in brown started asking for them and now they are on the menu. Totally made up, but cool nonetheless. The chorizo, potato and egg comes with avocado and all the other usual toppings, traditional and gringo. Some cilantro, onion, cheese, and avocado does the trick for me.

Los Olivos, 3400 W 31st St, Chicago, IL 60623 (map); 773-247-1002

Taco de Cecina at La Cecina
Taco de Cecina at La Cecina

Continuing down 47th street you'll find what I believe to be the best bang-for-your-buck taco in town. I was first attracted to La Cecina by the number of customers on a Sunday afternoon when walking by. It's pretty much always been jammed with neighborhood locals each time I go back. This is always a good sign. So was their taco de cecina when I first tried it. Cecina is dried beef, and here they chop it up and throw it in a homemade tortilla thick enough to withstand a spread of refried beans and a huge dollop of guacamole. Take one to go and they still give you chips and a smoky house salsa.

La Cecina, 1934 W 47th St, Chicago, IL 60609 (map); 773-927-9444

Birria Taco at Birrieria Zaragoza
Birria Taco at Birrieria Zaragoza

You'll find quite a few places serving birrieria (goat) in the city. A well known favorite of many is Birrieria Zaragoza on Pulaski in Archer Heights. Here they specialize in birria tatemada, which is unique to La Barca, Jalisco. It's rich but smooth and makes for a perfect taco filling. But the Zaragoza family takes every other element of a great taco seriously, from the thick housemade tortillas to the amazing roasted tomato salsa. So good.

Birrieria Zaragoza, 4852 S Pulaski Rd, Chicago, IL 60632 (map); 773-523-3700

Stuffed Taquitos at Favela's
Stuffed Taquitos at Favela's

Staying in Archer Heights, we head over to Archer Avenue, which is yet another great stretch of Mexican eating options. Favela's is somewhat new, and specializes in the food of the state of Durango. They eat a lot of meat there, including soup made with beef jerky, huge as your head hamburguesas, and gorditas stuffed with guisados and stewed meats. All of this is at Favela's, but I go for a smaller snack. The taquitos are a dollar and change, and feature an excellent tasting homemade tortilla stuffed with your choice of filling. The chicharron prensado (pork) in salsa verde as well as the desebrada (shredded beef) are great. I also like the papas con queso and chile pasado offerings. A hungry man can easily eat ten of these. They're so good you'll still want ten more.

Favela's Restaurant, 5004 S Archer Ave, Chicago, IL 60632 (map); 773-424-4126

Char-Broiled Steak Tacos at Zacataco's
Char-Broiled Steak Tacos at Zacataco's

Zacatacos started off as a small little taqueria similar to many others in town. What set them apart from the rest (allowing them to expand into six Chicagoland locations) was their char-broiled steak. It's some of the best on the South Side. Unlike tacos al pastor, which you want to eat when a place is empty, carne asada is best when a place is packed. Zacatacos gets enough business at both their Chicagoland locations (71st street and Pulaski near Midway) that the steak is most always being grilled fresh and rarely steaming in a tray. Hunks of skirt steak are thrown onto a cutting board where they're chopped into chunks, then tossed in a warm corn tortilla and topped with cilantro, onion, and salsa verde. Probably my favorite style of taco to this day.

Zacatacos, 3949 W 71st St, Chicago, IL 60629 (map); 773-582-9701

Tacos al Pastor at Mario's Tacos
Tacos al Pastor at Mario's Tacos

You can find al pastor on almost every taqueria menu in town, but many never use a spit to roast their meat. Even the places that do only do so a few times a day, cutting off the pieces and rewarming them on the griddle when ordered. While some styles of this variety can be good, none come close to the authentic spots that cook the meat until crisp while on the spit and then thinly slice it off before being placed in a warm tortilla. Rob Lopata did an article in the Tribune recently about this problem, eventually finding only a couple spots doing them the fully right way. Mario's on 63rd is one of them. I first tried theirs after spying a trompo in the sign, and because they take the time slice the meat off to order, the al pastor has a great thin and crispy texture. The pineapple is love/hate with al pastor, but I don't mind it.

Mario's Tacos, 4540 W 63rd St, Chicago, IL 60629 (map); 773-582-8226

Deep Fried Taco Night at Loncar's Liquors
Deep Fried Taco Night at Loncar's Liquors

Wednesday night is Taco Night at Loncar's Liquors. This isn't just any guilty pleasure taco, it's one of the city's great tacos altogether. Tucked away on the Chicago's Southeast Side, the no-frills outside hides a super friendly inside bar, which has been supplying drinks to the hood since before prohibition. Nowadays the owners, former longtime customers, sling some amazing deep fried tacos for $1.50 on Wednesdays. They take chopped hamburger meat and throw it in a soft corn tortilla, then put a toothpick through to hold it all together. Stored in the fridge until ready, they're dropped in the deep fryer and cooked through til crispy. Toppings (lettuce, tomato, cheese) go on after.

You just know they're not healthy because they're so damn good. Any "best of" taco list in the city should include these gut bombs. Truly the perfect compliment to a bottle of Old Style. While they do come with a red salsa, make sure to put some Hienie's Hot Sauce on them. The unique radiation-red colored mustard sauce is a popular condiment in these parts, whether for chips or fried chicken. Splattered on deep fried tacos at Loncar's is my favorite.

Loncar's Liquors, 3201 E 92nd St, Chicago, IL 60617 (map); 773-734-3933

Shrimp Taco Dorado at Memo's Taco Mex in Highland, IN
Shrimp Taco Dorado at Memo's Taco Mex in Highland, IN

Across the border in Northwest Indiana there's an entire different area of restaurants to explore; many of them are Mexican these days. I've done some wandering and will continue to do so, but it's going to be hard to top the shrimp taco dorado at Memo's Taco Mex in Highland. It's a family run business with some great people always looking to take good care of you. Their taquito alambres, cochinita pibil tacos, taco campechano (steak and chorizo), and other taco dorado offerings are all awesome, but their shrimp taco dorado is king. Fresh shrimp go in a corn tortilla, which is held shut with tongs and then deep fried for a few minutes. It comes served with mango habanero salsa on the side and a little pinch of slaw on top. It's a top taco in my book, crunchy on the outside with excellent tasting insides. One of the best in all of Chicagoland.

Memo's Taco Mex, 2128 45th St, Highland, IN 46322 (map); 219-934-7300