Chicago Tacos: Zocalo

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]

Zocalo

358 West Ontario St # 1A, Chicago, IL 60654 (map); 312-302-9977; zocalochicago.com
Must Try: Tacos al Carbon
Cost: $15 for three
Other Options: Fajitas ($17)

Zocalo in River North is managed by Edgar Castañeda and Marcos Castañeda, the same two guys who also happen to run Taco Joint in Lincoln Park (reviewed here). As you may remember, I left more than a little impressed from that latter joint a few weeks ago and have been plotting my visit to Zocalo ever since.

The two restaurants may share the same managing partners, but they couldn't be more different inside. Where Taco Joint is tiny and cramped, Zocola is open and epic, with an enormous bar and multiple large dinning rooms. In eating terms, it's the difference between a snack and a feast, with Zocalo taking the festive atmosphere truly seriously. (More on the margaritas later.)

What the two do share is a way with tacos, which is great when you're talking about the sincere attention to detail, and slightly unfortunate when you're talking about a few of the filling choices.

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First, the good. The steak in the tacos al carbon ($15) arrives crisp and juicy, which is an especially tough balance to strike. The mound of lettuce is a little over the top, but the grilled onions are a nice touch, even if they'd be better chopped up for a more convenient bite. Still, it's hard to deny the irresistible charred flavor from the grilled meat, along with the funk from the onions. It's both more explosively flavorful than the majority of steak tacos around town and also more balanced.

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I wasn't sure to expect from the chicken fajitas ($17), but they came sliced and sauced, looking almost like chicken mole, which is a far cry from the sizzling cast-iron pan presentation used at most Tex-Mex joints. Of course, those places probably don't serve chicken that is still succulent and juicy like Zocalo's version. These come with flour tortillas that are totally adequate, if not quite as soft and pliant as the very good corn tortillas.

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And the disappointing... At Taco Joint, I noted that the grilled fillings seemed to work much better than the braised ones, and the same is true here. Sadly, that includes all three of braised options I tried in the tacos en cazuela ($16). The barbacao, cochinita pibil, and carne adobada all had a texture bordering on mushy. The barbacoa and cochinita pibil at least had dynamic sauces to help them out, making them solid if not particularly exciting. The same couldn't be said about the adobada, which just ended up slightly bland.

Luckily, it's easy to stick with the grilled options here. Plus, any place that serves margaritas by the pitcher which are also balanced and relatively affordable deserves some kind of special award.