Standing Room Only: Tierra Caliente

"It may not be the prettiest-looking food but it's certainly one of the best examples of Chicago's great taqueria culture."

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[Photographs: Nick Kindelsperger]

Tierra Caliente

1402 N. Ashland Avenue, Chicago IL 60622 (map); 773-772-9804
The Short Order: Proper al pastor carved from a spit.
Want Fries with That? Time to pig out on pork.
Want Ketchup? Just some spicy tomatillo salsa.

From the outside, Tierra Caliente looks like a small and unassuming bodega—the kind of place where you can pick up some basic goods, not much else. It has all the charm and beauty of a car repair shop.

Inside it's cramped and limited, with narrow aisles and dingy lighting, but is one of the most peculiar and fascinating taquerias in Chicago. They have an honest-to-goodness al pastor pit and they know how to use it.

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I know what you're thinking, "but doesn't every taqueria have al pastor anyway?" Well, yes and no. See, al pastor is a very specific thing. It's marinated pork that's sliced then stacked onto a cone, much like shawarma.

This cylinder of meat is cooked on a vertical spit with a hunk of pineapple on top. As the meat turns in front of the open flame, fruit juice lovingly drips down over the meat, lacquering it in sweet, syrupy crust. The edges are sliced off with a large knife, and dished up, leaving the uncooked parts to have their time with the flame.

Most places cheat. They may have al pastor on the menu but it's usually just marinated pork quickly cooked on a griddle. It lacks the lick of a flame and that crucial sweetness. Tierra Calinete does it the right way. Rich with chile and just slightly sweet from the pineapple, the al pastor is the real deal. But that's not their only trick. It turns out to be only one kind of meat they are good at cooking.

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The carnitas were deep-fried wonders with crispy edges and loads of fatty flavor. Best of all was the weekend special of birria, a kind of goat stew that's remarkably tender and fragrant.

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The only problem with Tierra Calinete? The tacos are packed with huge handfuls of meat, think burritos-as-big-as-your-head sized portions, which dwarf the two small corn tortillas. This overabundance can be seen as a positive—more bang for your buck!—but it prevents the tacos from achieving a perfect balance of meat, salsa, and tortilla. I'd suggest ordering two tacos and asking for some more tortillas.

And the seating is limited to a few stools right in front of the spit and a rickety table in the middle of an aisle. They do have roasted jalapeños and a decent tomatillo salsa—the perfect acidic counterpoint to all the heavy meat—out for the taking.

But I'd suggest getting everything to-go. What you unwrap may not be the prettiest-looking food, but it's certainly some of the best examples of Chicago's great taqueria culture.