Years ago, when I first discovered that you could talk with other people about food on the internet, one of my persistent questions was this one: we live in a city of literally hundreds of Mexican restaurants, how can you tell which ones are worth trying? What are the clues for narrowing down the field? Slowly I learned a few, often negative indicators—for instance, saying "Authentic Mexican Food" in English is a clear sign that it won't be, and so is stressing burritos (which gringos prefer) over tacos (which Mexicans eat).
Here's the storefront of a place on 26th street, D Chile, that I spotted a couple of weeks ago. First, of course, just the fact that it's on 26th street is a good sign over being at, say, Addison and Halsted. But there are plenty of other promising clues which you can spot from across the street. "Estilo D.F.," for instance, refers to the cooking style of the federal district (Mexico City), and regional specificity is good. Announcing pozole and menudo on the sign means they crank the ambition up for the weekend trade (both are hearty dishes with a reputation as hangover cures), another sign of dedication and authenticity. Other dishes like huaraches ("slippers," oversized tortillas) and guisados (stews) known mainly to non-gringos are good signs, too. But the best one of all is the phrase "Tortillas Hechas a Mano," tortillas made by hand.
All of that would serve as an enticement from across the street. As it happens, though, I didn't see any of that; I was actually walking down this same side of the street when I saw a lady making tortillas by hand in the window. Two seconds later, I was inside ordering tacos.
Not every place that makes tortillas by hand is great, but as with Neapolitan pizza crust, if you get that right it almost doesn't matter what else you do. Which was good because the next thing at D Chile wasn't so promising—they threw some skirt steak on a flattop and fried it without salt. I believe that beef doesn't have flavor until salt tells it it does, and I much prefer grilling over a gas grill to frying on a flattop (I'd prefer cooking over live fire even more, but apart from Maxwell Street I only know of one restaurant in the entire city where that happens).
I tasted the meat by itself and yes, it was bland. (A lengua taco—tongue—was better, meatwise.) But then I tried one taco with the salsa de lechuga, a creamy salsa with pureed lettuce:
and one with a salsa the color of some red chile:
Each salsa provided the saltiness lacking the meat alone; the tortilla provided the toothsome comfiness of fresh-baked bread; this taco was, in the most immediate and satisfying way possible, so much more than the sum of its parts. And that's the part you can't get from the signage outside. You'll have to venture in and sit down to discover that.
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