Crispy Tripa Taco at La Chaparrita
Birria at Birrieria Zaragoza
"Each bite from the bone was beautifully structured, the edges slightly crisp, the meat thoroughly juicy, and the occasional bit of rendered fat redolent of a distinctly goat-y flavor. Framed by the sweet but subtle consomme and mild mole, the natural taste of goat meat was pronounced in a way that was hardly gamy and wholly savory." Read more here >>
Cemita at Cemitas Puebla
"Why do I keep going back to Cemitas Puebla? Sure, there are other truly remarkable sandwiches in town. It's just that no matter how many cemitas I've consumed—and I've had many—I always manage to be surprised by some small detail. Occasionally, I'm struck by the flavor and depth of the housemade chipotles; other times I can't get past the creamy and tangy queso Oaxaca that is imported straight from Mexico. (Monterey Jack doesn't stand a chance against this stuff.) Certainly, I've never been disappointed by the crusty sesame seed roll." Read more here >>
Borrego en Mole Negro at Topolobampo
When it comes down to it, I'm not sure if there is a dish I adore more than mole negro. Forget the idea of a "chocolate sauce," I crave versions that are multilayered, dynamic, and haunting (the best versions linger on the tongue for minutes). A number of places in town put out a stellar mole, but I'm not sure another place puts together a more stunning plate than Rick Bayless's Topolobampo. 29 ingredients go into this dish, including the hard to find chilhuacle chiles, and the result is the best version I've had outside of Oaxaca.
Cecina de Venado Estilo Guerrero at La Casa de Samuel
"As long as it is listed as a speciality, it's bound to be delicious. That's definitely true of the cecina de venado estilo guerrero ($15.95) a plate of thinly sliced venison that comes with guacamole and beans. I've had some great cecina before, but none have been quite this funky and flavorful. You can tell the meat was properly marinated, because even though it comes sliced with the grain, the cecina is still tender. It makes sense that this is probably the restaurant's most famous dish, but for those who just want a sample, the cecina taco ($1.85) has all the elements rolled up and ready to go." Read more here >>
Al Pastor Taco at Manolo's or Rubi's
Even though it's my favorite taco filling, most al pastor makes me grumpy. If you want to see it actually done right, you'll need to make your way to the Maxwell Street Market on Sunday and find either Manolo's or Rubi's. Both do al pastor right, stacking the marinated meat, and cooking it slowly in front of a charcoal flame. Every time I go, I can't decide which one I prefer, so I usually just get a taco at both places. It's not a bad system.
Carnitas at Carnitas Uruapan
"What pork this is. If, unlike me, you remember to specify if what part of the pig you'd like, you can get a taco full of deliriously fatty cuts. But even if you forget, you're still in good hands. Usually the leanest parts of the pig dry and tough, but not at Carnitas Uruapan. Here the meat is tender and juicy, but not greasy, while the edges are crisped up and brown. You can tell they care about the product." Read more here >>
Carnitas Uruapan Restaurant, 1725 West 18th Street, Chicago, IL 60608 (map); 312-226-2654
Huaraches at Huaraches Dona Chio
Few places revel in the glory of fresh masa as much as Huaraches Dona Chio. While you can get wonderful tacos served on fluffy corn tortillas, to really experience this Edgewater stop, go for the namesake dish. The enormous oval of griddled masa is light, fragrant, and good enough to devour on its own. It's then topped with beans, salsa, and whatever filling you choose. Pictured above is a vegetarian combination of cactus and mushroom, but I also love the chicken tinga, asada, and chorizo and potatoes.
Huaraches Doña Chio, 1547 West Elmdale Avenue, Chicago, IL 60660 (map); 773-878-8470
Hot Chocolate, Churros, and Tortas at Xoco
I realize I'm cheating here, but how I am I supposed to pick? Honestly, all of the options at Xoco are worth trying, but three are absolute essentials. No place in Chicago makes hot chocolate like this. Xoco imports cacao bean from Oaxaca, roasts and grinds them in house, and then serves the five completely different options. Of course, if you're getting a hot chocolate, you are required to pair it with some freshly fried churros on the side. (Hint: Dunk them.) But how can you visit Xoco without trying a torta? Honestly, we love them all, from the woodland mushroom to the ahogada.
Taco de Papas con Rajas at Big Star
Chicago is blessed with dozens upon dozens of great taquerias, ones where you can fill up on cheap and satisfying tacos. But for the most part these are meat-centric affairs. So Big Star stands out for its high-quality vegetable taco options, including the taco de papas con rajas. For this taco, smoky chipotle chiles are tempered by cubed potatoes. As I've written before, it's hard to explain why this one works so well, but don't feel bad if you need to order a few more of these to find out.