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.
3619 West North Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647 (map); 773-772-8435; cemitaspuebla.com
Must Try: Tacos Arabe
Other Options: Hard to go wrong here, though the Orientales taco ($2.15) might be the second best.
Earlier this week I did the unthinkable: I walked into Cemitas Puebla in Humboldt Park and managed to avoid the sandwich the restaurant is named after. I know, what fortitude! That's like walking into Katz Deli in New York and avoiding the pastrami sandwich. Sure, it's been done before, but why subject oneself to such restraints? Why shun the crusty sesame seed dotted rolls, smoky house made chipotles en adobo, and the tangy mound of fresh Oaxacan cheese? Well, if you haven't noticed, this is a taco column, and though Cemitas Puebla is well known for cemitas—exceptional ones, I might add—there also happen to be a lot of tacos on the menu. It was time to try them.
Considering how carefully those cemitas are constructed, I knew that the chances were good that the tacos would at least be solid. That, however, wouldn't have been good enough. The cemitas are damn near transcendent, so anything less than great would be somewhat of a disappointment.
If you know about any of the tacos, you've probably heard of the tacos arabe ($2.75). Much like the cemita, this taco is also a specialty of Puebla, and what's particularly fascinating is that it serves as the missing link between Lebanese-style shawarma and Mexico City's al pastor. Plus it's freaking delicious. Just both of those, marinated meat is stacked on a tall spit and slowly crisped up by the flames. Unlike shwarma, pork is used instead of lamb; and unlike al pastor, it doesn't have the same bright red sheen from the achiote paste, but it's definitely still flavorful. Crisp and caramelized, the slices are cut straight from the pit on to the fluffy pita-like flour tortilla. There is a reason this made it to the Sweet Sixteen in our list of the best tacos in the country. I can't blame you if this is the only taco you order here.
But beyond that specialty are even more tacos, and though they may lack the same sense of surprise, there are some genuinely good finds. For example, take the Orientales taco ($2.15), which uses the same meat as is found in the arabe taco. It's also drizzled with the same smoky-sweet chipotle salsa, which is as thick as barbecue sauce, but earthy and complex. Thanks to the fresh tortillas, you can taste the caramelized meat even more here, though there is something to be said about the flour tortilla. Regardless, though I've had trouble finding truly excellent al pastor in Chicago, this precursor to the spit-roasted meat is the real deal.
Though the Orientales uses meat from a spit, the al pastor taco ($2.15) is just cooked on a griddle. Sure, it's one of the better griddled versions I've had, but considering all the other excellent options, it's not really worth it.
Instead, go for the cecina taco ($2.15), which features slightly salty slices of cured beef.
Or go with the pollo taco ($2.15). Instead of dry hunks of chicken, the meat is braised with chiles and other aromatic ingredients in a large pot and kept warm. When an order is put through, the meat is pulled out and only then shredded. That way the meat remains moist, making this one of the best examples I've had anywhere.
If you want something slightly more unhinged, the Gov. Precioso ($2.95) combines the forces of carne asada and freshly made chorizo to make one completely over the top, and yet strangely wonderful, taco experience. I would love to try to explain why the two meats work so well together, but I can't. This makes no sense. It just tastes good.
All the tacos are helped by three wonderful salsas: A tomatillo-based salsa verde, a relatively hot red chile salsa rojo, and the secret weapon of the entire enterprise, the smoky chipotle salsa. Testing to see which one works best for each taco is half the fun, though a little of each goes a long way.
If I've learned anything, it's that a person can survive a trip here without ordering a cemita and still walk out satisfied. But I wasn't expecting to feel so out-right giddy. Perhaps I was selling it short, but I left Cemitas Puebla wondering if this was the best all around taqueria in Chicago.