Carne en su Jugo at Los Gallos
Let's start this off with a bang. If there's one spot I always take an out of town guest visiting over winter to, it's Los Gallos. It usually works out perfectly, since two of their three locations are within reach of Midway. You'll notice that at every location they have a large sign outside that proudly displays "ESPECIALIDAD CARNE EN SU JUGO." That's exactly why we're here.
I was introduced to this manly soup over at LTHforum by Rob Lopata. I learned that it's a specialty of Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco, which is where a lot of Chicago's Mexican population is from. So naturally there's quite a few places in the cityscape that serve the dish, though for many spots, it's a weekend thing. At Los Gallos it's all day, everyday. Carne en su Jugo translates to meat in it's own juice. The base is beef broth with steak. Other standard ingredients served in the bowl include avocado, bacon, and pinto beans. Depending on the place serving it, you also typically get a plate of garnishes like chopped onions, cilantro, sliced radish, and a few dried chile de arbol chilies for you to reach the spice level you desire.
Los Gallos includes all of these options. There are a few things that can separate a good bowl from a bad batch, but the most important factor is the broth. At Los Gallos they have an almost clear brew, with just the right amount of real beef flavor in it—no bouillon here. When eating some with tiny bits of crisped up bacon and small chunks of crispy skirt steak it only gets better. My favorite bowl of soup in all of Chicagoland, I've tried to recreate it at home and even sought out a well known spot while in Mexico, but I still find Los Gallos hard to beat.
Caldo de Res at Tio Luis
Tio Luis has been a neighborhood favorite since 1992, and they have a lot to offer. The steak tacos have been named best in the city by the Tribune, and they also serve a respectable bowl of carne en eu jugo. However, those are not why I stop in for anymore.
Thanks to the advice of Mike Sula at the Chicago Reader, I always go for a bowl of the caldo de res. What this beef stew lacks in looks it more than makes up for in flavor. The broth is on point due to large hunks of shank that simmer away until fall apart tender. The straightforwardness of the dish continues with big chunks of potatoes, chayote, carrots, cabbage, corn, and green beans, all of which maintain their texture because they're added in separately, which is a common practice at most spots I've been to.
Carne de Seca at La Placita de Durango
Another tip of the cap to both LTHForum and Mike Sula who have given La Placita Durango the attention it deserves for bringing the specialties of Northern Mexico to Chicago. Perhaps the most Norteno dish of all of them on the menu is the caldo de seco. Chopped dried beef is joined with potatoes, cactus, and onions. It all sits in a dark green broth that obviously has some fat and salt in it. But it's also very satisfying.
There probably aren't many people in the middle when it comes to first hearing of Beef Jerky Soup. I think most folks are going to think either, "Awesome!" or "Eew!" I'm on the sweet sounding side. Still, it's probably best split with someone, so you can also try some of the other regional winners on the menu.
Mole de Olla at Q Sazon
In my never ending quest to try out all the local mom and pop Mexican spots, I came across Q Sazon, which also happens to be next to South Side staple, Vito & Nick's. While I thought the taco options were all very good, the soup section is where the restaurant really shines. The offerings vary by day, but if you happen to see the Mole de Olla on the menu I'd recommend ordering it.
"Pot mole" is a classic Mexican soup made with a variety of chilies. Q Sazon's version is made with beef shank, zucchini, and potatoes, along with some housemade mole. The intensely flavored broth tastes like it took hours to make. I felt as though I was eating at a family's place when sipping this one.
Consommé with Meat from Birrieria Zaragoza
Who didn't see this one coming? Not anyone who's ever ate the Birrieria Tatamade sitting in tomato consommé at this South Side favorite. It's been a hangover cure for me and neighborhood folks since Juan Zargoza decided he wanted to bring a taste of his childhood to Chicago. No doubt the roasted goat meat is the star here, but I've always ripped my serving into small pieces and added onions and cilantro to make it one sensational soup. It just can't be duplicated, and I believe the broth is a big part of the reason why.
Pozole at El Pozolito
The way I see it, if a place's name includes a Mexican dish that isn't tacos or burritos, you might want to stop in and try that particular item. El Pozolito serves both a green and red bowl, but the guy working recommended the red, because he likes a little extra spice. I went with a small bowl, and was surprised when I got a huge bowl with tons of hominy. The pork meat in it was just okay, but the broth itself shined. It's served with an array of toppings, including a large chicharrón, a couple tostada shells, sliced avocado, limes, radish, cabbage, and dried chile de arbols. With everything thrown in, it had just the right amount of spice to get your nose dripping.
Caldo de Polllo Estilo Guerrero at La Quebrada
There's certainly no shortage of places serving chicken soup around town, so how do you go about digging out the good ones from the rest of them? Research. La Quebrada came to my attention via an old Chicago Tribune article from 1992 about Mexican Chicken Soups. Bone-in pieces of chicken are stewed in a broth spiced with guajillo chilies. The chicken comes out fall apart tender, while the broth rests on the stove. Sliced zucchini and green beans are cooked separately, and only go in at the end, ensuring they don't turn to mush. The enormous bowl—big enough to serve two—comes with homemade tortillas and a side of rice, as well as onions, cilantro, and limes for garnish. You might want to add a little bit of salt, but I don't see this as a bad thing. It's better than not being able to take some out.
Caldo Tlalpeno at Takito Grill
Not to be confused with Takito Kitchen on Division, Takito Grill is a Mexican eatery on 43rd street in Canaryville. It's a newer kind of neighborhood taqueria, reminding me a little bit of Q Sazon and also El Solazo. I guess you could say they're getting somewhat of an upgrade as far interior looks and presentation on all fronts goes.
At Takito they offer a daily soup special that's always homemade. I've found both the caldo arriero and the caldo tlalpano very tasty, especially when paired with one of their signature Takote Tacos. Caldo tlalpano is a popular dish in Mexico City, and while its exact ingredients can vary, usually has chicken meat in a broth seasoned with chipotles. At Takito they also include crisp carrots, potatoes, chickpeas, onion, and cilantro. It's a perfect way to get warm on a cold winter day.
Caldo de Camaron at Mama Nena's Shrimp House
I spent more time than I should trying to locate a place with a great shrimp soup. The South Side has too many marisco joints to count, but they come and go like Southwest Airlines flights out of Midway. I swear just the other day I spotted two newly opened spots, but this was after deciding I should return to Mama Nena's. In case you missed the feature on them, they're a shrimp shack, and during the colder months they feature a shrimp soup special on Friday's. The recipe includes lots of potatoes, carrots, celery, zucchini, and onion, as well as a chipotle pepper floating in the bowl. I was hoping for a more potent broth, as it had a subtle shrimp taste, but the bowl itself had plenty of shrimp in it and the portion was more than fair.
Menudo at La Justicia
Sometimes you just have to tell it like it is: Menudo just isn't for me. I prefer my tripas crispy. But if menudo is your stuff, I'd check Justicia's weekend offering out. It came recommended by two cooks from two different spots that I frequent.