Chicago Tacos: Taco Joint

Chicago Tacos

Reviews of tacos.

Editor's Note: This one is fairly self-explanatory, but here we go: Chicago Tacos explores the good, the bad, and the truly exceptional taco options in the Windy City--one taqueria at a time.

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[Photographs: Nick Kindelsperger]

Taco Joint

1969 North Halsted Street, Chicago, IL 60614 (map); 312-951-2457; tacojoint.com
Must Try: Estilo Baja and Arabe Tacos
Cost: $3 each
Other Options: Chicken Al Pastor ($3)

Taco Joint is a stylized "urban taqueria and cantina" in Lincoln Park—one of a number of restaurants that seemed to open in the wake of Big Star's (reviewed here) unbelievable success. For that reason, it's also the kind of place that I irrationally want to despise. You know, wild color schemes, overpriced tacos, communal seating, margarita specials, etc. But I can't. Believe me, I really tried, but it's pretty clear that Taco Joint has its heart in the right place.

Which isn't to say it's without faults (I'll get to those). But over the past year, it has seemingly found its groove. While it still can't quite equal Big Star's adventurous spirit, the Taco Joint is now a legitimately good option.

Of course, calling it overpriced seems a little disingenuous when none of the regular tacos cost more than $3. Plus, each comes to the table generously filled and dressed with its own specific salsa and toppings. Unfortunately, the tacos are also across-the-board mild, a sad state which is compounded by the fact that there are no salsas on the table. This problem can be corrected by ordering the salsa ahead of time. It's not a huge deal, even if it does seem a little odd.

The vibrantly colored homemade tortillas aren't quite as soft as I'd like, but they are flavorful and do a great job of holding up to the excessive fillings. (And no, I didn't adjust the color to make them that hue.)

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After weeks of searching, I feel like I finally tracked down a fish taco I can recommend. The Estilo Baja ($3) features crispy beer-battered tilapia, which is topped by an arbol cabbage slaw. The corn tortilla is small, but more than up to the task, containing the contents while lending a sweet masa note to each bite. Though far from perfect, it's well executed and, most importantly, crunchy. (I've eaten a lot of soggy fish tacos recently.)

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If you've read this column at all, you'll know that I have an inflexible addiction to ordering al pastor even if I know it's going to be bad. (It's a masochistic tendency, and I'm not proud of it.) Still, even that can't explain why I ordered Taco Joint's Al Pastor ($3) which is made with chicken instead of pork. (And thus can't technically be called al pastor, which is cut off of a rotating pit.)

So I'm having a hard time reconciling my own prejudices with the vibrant and perfectly delicious chicken al pastor taco I had here. It's certainly better than many of the marinated and griddled versions I've had recently, even if it pales in comparison to the divine glory of the al pastor I sampled in Mexico City. Anyway, let's move on.

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Instead, I'm wondering if Chicago's secret taco filling of choice isn't al pastor but arabe. This specialty from Puebla was influenced by an influx of Lebanese immigrants, which explains why it feels more Mediterranean, even though there is a definite chile presence. Cemitas Puebla has the most famous version in town, and though Taco Joint's isn't quite up to the same standards, it's still remarkably good. The restaurant even has foresight to serve the grilled meat on a pita-like flatbread instead of a tortilla.

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The other two tacos I tried were solid, if not quite up to those same highs. The Rajas ($2) looked gorgeous, but the flavors were a little muddled. The Cochinita ($3) had the flavor profile down, but none of the richness. It was also a little mushy and soft, a problem I had with some of the other braised tacos on previous visits.

Even after devouring all these tacos, I'm having a hard time summing up my own feelings about Taco Joint. None of fillings were the best examples of their kind in the city. And yet, with good tortillas, thoughtful toppings, vibrant salsas (which you have to order separately) and a few genuinely great fillings, it seems even more illogical to hate it.