Bring it on Down to Tacoville

Francis Lam, the great food writer, editor, and radio host, used to laugh at Avenues, the name of the defunct Peninsula hotel restaurant that launched the careers of Graham Elliot and Curtis Duffy. He told me he thought it sounded like a mall store or a jeans label. Maybe that’s why, despite Elliot and Duffy putting out some of the best American food of the era there, the dining room was rarely packed. Advertisements


Mod Mex

Pepe Barajas, chef/owner of La Josie, a new upscale Mexican restaurant in the West Loop, was practically born into the hospitality game. As a little kid in the ’80s, he was popping the tops off Jarritos and Coke for patrons at his grandfather’s Mexico City taco stand. When he was 7, he immigrated to Chicago and watched his single mother waitress for her brother, founder of the local Los Comales chain of restaurants. Seeing her struggle financially, Barajas dropped out of high school and helped his mom open her own taqueria, Los Comales No. 8.

Sweet Thang

Whoa-ah-oh-a-oh. Sweet thiiing! Go ahead. Try to take a bite of the Sweet Thang taco from Bronzeville’s Love Taco, featuring roast chicken, grilled pineapple, red onion, queso fresco, jalapeno and pico de gallo slathered in the house secret sweet sauce, without the chorus of Chaka Khan and Rufus’s 1975 single clanging around inside your brain. In my case it was the Mary J. Blige-version (when I think of Chaka, I’m more likely to sing “I’m Every Woman), but you know what I mean.

Lena Brava

Leña Brava, which translates to “ferocious wood,” might make a decent character name in the next “Magic Mike” flick. But in this case, it’s a nod to the fact that just about everything cooked at Rick Bayless’ new West Loop restaurant is wood-fired in a hearth or cooked over oak-stoked grills. That’s right; there’s not a single gas-fired dish coming from the kitchen at Leña Brava.

The Essentials: Rubi’s Tacos

The demand for Rubi’s at Maxwell Street Market is so real that when Mayor Emanuel stopped by a few years ago to buy tacos, he couldn’t find a place to sit down and eat them.

Rojo Gusano

“They asked me what they should change. I said everything,” said Dudley Nieto, chef and partner of Rojo Gusano.

Cantina 1910

God, I love a good chimichanga. And fried ice cream. And seafood enchiladas stuffed with krill-sized shrimp and fake crab meat smothered in sherry-cream sauce, aka Enchiladas Cancun from the now-defunct Tex Mex-themed franchise Chi-Chi’s (a chain founded in the authentic Southwestern town of Richfield, Minnesota)

Del Toro Burger

Before the artist boom and major gentrification, and before Kristoffer’s Cafe served up its transcendent slices of tres leches cake, Simone’s served its first PBR and Nightwood cooked up its first batch of crispy pig ears, the Garcia family settled in Pilsen.

Velvet Taco

Tacos for bros! I figured that might as well be the motto at Velvet Taco, a late-night taqueria that opened earlier this month in the Gold Coast. The folks behind this Texas import (other locations are in Dallas and Fort Worth) clearly have a fondness for frathouse-worthy double entendres. There’s the WTF taco (weekly taco feature), “backdoor” rotisserie chicken and, of course, the free stickers that say “I eat out Velvet Taco.”

The Essentials: Birrieria Zaragoza

When life gives you goats, make goat stew. That’s essentially how Birrieria Zaragoza, one of Chicago’s best goat stew and taco restaurants, was born. “I bought a new house before I sold my old one,” owner John “Juan” Zaragoza said. “I thought, hey, I’ll sell the old one quick. But that was during the housing downturn and I was stuck with two houses. So you know I got lemons, but made lemonade, or in this case I built an oven in the backyard to roast goats and started a catering business.”