Considering that Chicago has the largest Mexican population of any city in the U.S. aside from Los Angeles, it’s no surprise that it’s got top-tier Mexican restaurants. This is certainly true of the city's taco scene too, from chef-driven creations to simple street eats and everything in between. With Cinco de Mayo upon us, it’s an apt time to highlight some essential tacos.
Cruz Blanca: You can’t talk about Chicago tacos without shouting out Rick Bayless, whose empire of world-class Mexican restaurants includes Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and XOCO. One of his newest endeavors, Cruz Blanca, is a Mexican brewery and taqueria, heavily inspired by the “smoke alley” at Oaxaca’s Mercado 20 de Noviembre. There, billowing clouds of grill smoke whet appetites for succulent meats stuffed into fresh tortillas. At Cruz Blanca, diners grab a tray and fill it with tortillas and their choice of flank steak, red chile pork, chorizo, chicken or portobello. Opt for the Smoke Alley taco plate, which consists of three to four tacos served with wood-grilled knob onions, peppers, pasilla salsa and grilled nopal cactus.
Birrierria Zaragoza: Goat tacos are the way to go at this family-run Archer Heights mainstay. Birria is what this place is known for — slowly simmered goat consommé served with handmade tortillas for dunking or DIY tacos. Raw onions, cilantro, lime and chiles accompany each order, so you can jazz it up as you like. It’s straightforward, but when food is this honest and high-quality, bells and whistles are unnecessary.
Lonesome Rose: For as saturated as Chicago is with tacos, the city is surprisingly lacking in breakfast tacos. Which is why it was such a huge deal when Lonesome Rose emerged last year, bringing Southwest Tex-Mex vibes and breakfast tacos to Logan Square. Bundled up in warm flour tortillas, each taco comes stuffed with fluffy scrambled eggs and additions like crispy potatoes and chorizo verde. Each bite is best when dunked in housemade salsa.
Tallboy Taco: Burgers aren’t the only thing getting the inventive vegan touch (https://www.zagat.com/b/10-must-try-veggie-burgers-in-chicago). In partnership with Impossible Foods, which has primarily been popping up around Chicago in the form of meat-free burgers, Tallboy Taco recently added an innovative vegan taco to its lineup using the product that tastes shockingly similar to beef. Served in a housemade hard shell, the crunchy creation contains shredded lettuce, pico de gallo and pungent salsa arbor.
Del Seoul: Chicago’s quintessential Korean-Mexican fusion restaurant features some seriously innovative and offbeat flavors you won’t typically find enrobed in tortillas. The sesame-chili shrimp taco, made with panko-breaded shrimp and a habit-forming sesame-chili aïoli, is a winner, as is the grilled kalbi beef with cilantro-onion relish and toasted sesames.
Cemitas Puebla: The burly cemitas sandwiches may get top billing here, but don’t overlook the tacos. Especially the wholly unique tacos Arabes, unlike anything else you’ll find in a Chicago taqueria. Stuffed with juicy spit-roasted pork and onions and dressed simply with chipotle sauce in a soft flour tortilla, the texture, flavor and technique involved are reminiscent of Middle Eastern shawarma, smoky pork morsels and all.
Big Star: Tacos at Big Star are more than an essential nosh, they’re a rite of passage for Chicagoans. Perpetually packed, Big Star is worth the wait at least once to feast your way through tacos, chips, guacamole and pitchers of tangy margaritas. The al pastor is what it's best known for tacowise, and rightfully so. Enrobed in warm, freshly pressed tortillas, each taco contains a bundle of spit-roasted pork, grilled pineapple, onions and cilantro.
Antique Taco: When it comes to contemporary Mexican food, Antique Taco reigns supreme in the city. Along with its wall of antiques for sale, the Wicker Park eatery (there’s also a newer location in Bridgeport and an outpost in Revival Food Hall) thinks outside the box with novel tacos, sides, drinks and plates. There’s plenty to choose from, but be sure to try the potato-poblano taco, a mix of queso, smoked paprika, chipotle cream, scallions and crunchy potato skins that altogether tastes like a loaded baked potato.
L’Patron: In recent years, Logan Square’s L’Patron reached a fever pitch of popularity, necessitating a move to larger digs further west. The crowds aren’t wrong either. Served simply with raw onions and cilantro, these are tacos at their purest, especially the smoky carne asada.
Takito Kitchen: One of the most inventive tacos in town can be found at this Wicker Park restaurant and bar, where the modern Mexican food maximizes fresh, local ingredients and incorporates flavors from around the globe. Case in point: The fish taco is as tasty as it is colorful. Wrapped in a purple-hued hibiscus-infused tortilla, it’s made with crispy fish (the variety of fish changes depending on what’s fresh), cabbage slaw, coconut custard, basil and toasted coconut. Altogether, it tastes kind of like coconut shrimp, with added notes of cream and herbs.