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May 24, 2011

Food Fight: Take a walk on the taco side

This is the second installment of Food Fight, a competition we're having to find next year's food columnists. We will make our decision based on a combination of reader and Maroon editor feedback. Give us a comment voice your opinion!

For those who have already been to Pilsen and exhausted the more popular Mexican food options around 18th Street, there’s no better experience for a food-lover than the taco tour. Tacos are as Mexican as the Aztec ruins or Selena, but only when done in the right way. Just glance at the menu options and evidence of the authenticity will reveal itself: Beef tongue taco (lengua), chicken breast with mole sauce taco (pechuga de pollo o mole), etc. To say that there is a taco that appeals to every kind of person may be an overstatement, but the variety is not to be underestimated. But what exactly is a “taco tour”? The idea is simple: Choose a couple of taquerías, try one taco in each, hit four or five locations, and stop when satisfied. Sadly, while the idea has caught on in other major U.S. cities, Chicago has not yet jumped on the taco tour bandwagon yet. My recommendation? Plan out your own tour.

For my taco tour, I started down at the end of South Blue Island Avenue and West Cullerton Street at an established taquería called El Milagro. A colorfully decorated cafeteria-esque joint next to a tortilla distributor store that bears the same name, this particular stop is very much hit-or-miss. Quesadillas, ranch-style eggs, and beef stew dot the menu but turn out to be unimpressive in their bland and dry flavor. The key here is to keep your eyes on the prize—tacos. The stuffed pepper (chile relleno) taco is an exquisite blend of crunchy egg-battered green pepper and creamy Oaxaca cheese melted into the pepper’s center. Laid atop one of their tortillas, fresh from next door, and sprinkled with pico de gallo, which adds just a slight spiciness, this taco is as refreshing as it is satisfying. Other options of note include the steak taco, which features a generous portion of tender meat paired with onion, herbs, and some more pico de gallo, and the chicken taco with mole and large pieces of chicken slathered in an accentuated poblano sauce—an acquired taste for those who have not had it before. Order well at this taco stop and your rewards will be great.

Having already eaten two and a half tacos by this point on my trip, I found my second, and last, taco stop of the day near the corner of Blue Island and 18th Street. Taquería La Casa del Pueblo, another small cafeteria run by the Latino supermarket next door, is a gold mine of authentic delicacies. I bit the bullet on ordering and asked for another two tacos, effectively ending any further “touring” for the day. The choice was well worth the sacrifice. The food at this modest establishment is reasonably priced, well- portioned, and astronomically diverse. Go for the more unusual options here. The pork rind taco (chicharrón) stole my heart with its whole strip of succulent pork rinds still attached to the fat and covered in green salsa, a deadly yet delicious combination best compared to a well-done piece of fried chicken. Next was the beef tongue (lengua) taco. It consists of a pile of tender tongue slices marinated with some of the broth in which they were cooked and then topped with onions and salsa. For those not familiar with the taste of tongue, imagine eating unstrung pulled pork, but instead of barbecue sauce on top, think herbs and salsas. My only regret about eating at La Casa del Pueblo is that I could only finish two tacos.

All right, so my two-stop taco tour may not be the best example for those looking to attempt one, but isn’t a critical part of having a “cultural experience” making it your own? Both the taquerías I described come well-recommended from my end, but it’s also important to try new places. Taco touring is a personalized experience that should be as well-researched as it is spontaneous. Explore long enough and you’re sure to find the taco of your dreams.

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