A Tortilla Tale: St. Jude delivers the goods at Carbon

Michael Nagrant / 08.03.09

Painted up in a post-apocalyptic vision of what it might look like if a volcano erupted underneath the Loop, the Pilsen taqueria Carbon is hard to miss. However, what you can’t see beneath the neo-arty-graffiti-style façade is that there was once a somber mural on these walls of Jude the Apostle that stood guard over the nearby freeway overpass and the building that now houses the taqueria. Though the mural is gone, there’s still a cornerstone embedded in the east side of Carbon that also invokes St. Jude. Both of these facts might explain a lot.

Lately I’ve been having intense pregnant-lady-like cravings, and one of those has been for a good taco. As one who’s driven all over to find good tacos, including eighty-five miles one afternoon to Geneva (Bien Trucha—worth every mile), I know where they are. But, lately, because of gas prices… OK, I’m lying, what I really mean is because I’m lazier than a rented mule who just broke in to Snoop Dogg’s weed stash, I haven’t wanted to venture too far from my West Loop home to find one.

You’d think living in a city with a taqueria seemingly on every corner and, actually, since I live so close to the Mexican enclave of Pilsen, there’s a taqueria almost every five feet, such laziness would be no problem at all. But, it turns out just because your great-great grandma and all her descendants hand-patted and fire-roasted their own tacos and made mole sauce from scratch, that’s no guarantee that their progeny can cook. That’s not to say there aren’t some good Pilsen taquerias, but it’s surprising how many of them serve under-seasoned poorly griddled (i.e. steamed) meat on mealy days-old corn tortillas.

And so, unless it was Sunday and Rubi’s at the Maxwell Street Market was serving up their charcoal-spit-roasted al pastor, or I could really rouse myself to make it over to Don Pedro on 18th for some succulent deep-fried pork carnitas and a chicharrón (pork rind) as big as Gary Coleman, the effortless taco run felt like a lost cause.

And imagine if that craving was for a fish taco? Fugghedaboutit. Students of the fish taco know that finding an excellent specimen in Chicago is about as rare as finding an alderman who votes against a Mayor Daley-backed initiative. Two years ago Tribune scribe Kevin Pang organized a fish-taco movement and sent out thousands of teal Lance Armstrong-style rubber bracelets that were engraved with the phrase “Fish Tacos” to spur a local culinary rally to get more chefs to make them. This too was the epitome of the lost cause.

But, St. Jude, it turns out, is the patron saint of lost causes, and wouldn’t you know it, Carbon just happens to serve up one of the best local fish tacos I’ve ever had. The flour tortilla here is fresh, though not particularly special. The innards, which include a golden fried plank of flaky tilapia sporting a crown of crunchy shredded cabbage and oozy creamy rivulets of tequila lime sauce, are spectacular. One bite transports you from the nearby greenish waters of the south branch of the Chicago River to the sunny climes and azure waves of the Baja Peninsula.

Since I’d actually heard rumblings from Pang and others about the fish taco, the biggest surprise at Carbon actually turned out to be the steak taco. The local standard, even on the best versions, is usually to grill a skirt steak well done and then chop it up serial-killer style into a mass of nondescript bits of flesh and gristle. If you’re lucky, you’ll get one fresh, but often those bits will be re-griddled hours later. At Carbon, however, you get thick, juicy, Texas chili-like hunks of steak glistening in their own succulent peppery juices. Though I usually prefer a charcoal roast, and Carbon uses a gas grill, there’s still an inherent smokiness that uncoils through the meat.

While the tacos are exciting, the house condiments (excepting the tequila lime sauce), like watery-tasting pineapple salsa and under-salted guacamole, are better left in their containers. Thankfully the freshly fried chips here are so tasty they need no sprucing up. While I put the last of these flaky, airy, fried flour-tortilla remnants in my mouth, I noticed quite a few of Chicago’s finest walking through the door of Carbon.

It used to be if you needed a cop in these parts you’d head next door to the deep-fried-steak-sandwich emporium and unofficial police precinct Ricobene’s. It seems, though, that with tacos like this, Carbon and St. Jude have plenty of backup to keep an eye on things.

Carbon, 300 W. 26th, (312)225-3200

This article first appeared in Newcity in a different form.