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.
My favorite kind of taco? That's easy. It's all about al pastor—just not the kind that I've eaten in Chicago. What often passes for al pastor in this city would make someone in the D.F. weep (even if we apparently have better tortillas). The problem? Most al pastor here is simply marinated pork that is griddled to order. Now, as I've found, there are a few places that manage to do an admirable job at this, but they are the exceptions. In a perfect world, all al pastor would be stacked up on a huge spit, where it would rotate lazily around a flame (preferably a charcoal fire), caramelizing and cooking, before being sliced straight onto an awaiting tortilla. Hey, a man can dream. Of course, this dramatic process is expensive and time-consuming, so it's understandable why most restaurants balk.
Still, I'm on the lookout for the passionate taqueria that will take on al pastor and stand as a shiny beacon of grilled pork for the rest of the city. In that respect, Taqueria Uptown in Edgewater should be one of the good guys. It has been serving honest-to-goodness al pastor for years. In fact, some time a ago, it was picked as the best place in the city to find al pastor.
With expectations so stratospherically high, I was bound to be disappointed when I didn't discover an earth-shattering al pastor taco. What I found was a passable version, one definitely better than most of the griddled versions around town, but not by that much. Though the marinade was flavorful enough, the meat was dry and had none of the crispy, flame-licked edges that al pastor should have.
It could have been my timing (that's been an issue before), but the joint was completely packed. It could have simply been my order. Al pastor can be tricky, and I could have gotten the dregs from the spit. Would I order it again? Sure. But it's definitely more of a neighborhood highlight than a destination.
Taqueria Uptown also serves a range of standard taqueria fillings, most of which are straightforward and satisfying. Of the three I tried, the crispy and funky carnitas (middle left) were my favorite, even if some hunks were a little too chewy and tough, preventing these from reaching Carnicerias Guanajuato-levels of deliciousness. The same can be said about the cabesa (far left), which the menu translates as beef cheek. Sort of like a cross between extra-tender lengua and beefy barbacoa, it was undoubtedly tender, if also fatty and greasy. One taco would probably be the limit for me. The only dud was the carne asada (middle right), which came so chopped up and manhandled I thought I had unintentionally gotten ground beef.
So, it's not quite the homecoming to al pastor I had hoped for. But this has given me the final push to start this al pastor search for real. It's time to find the best al pastor in the city. If you have any suggestions please let me know. I need them.
1144 West Bryn Mawr Avenue, Chicago, IL 60660 (map)