Michael Nagrant / 09.23.14

It seems like culinary suicide to open a new taqueria in Chicago’s tortilla nexus, aka the La Pasadita corridor near the corner of Ashland Avenue and Division Street. After all, La Pasadita has been the stalwart late-night carne asada beacon for the drinking masses and, more tellingly, many sober customers, for more than 38 years. Moving in on their territory feels a little like opening a hot dog cart outside of Hot Doug’s, a futile and likely fatal enterprise. And yet, not only did Felipe Caro, owner of Picante in Wicker Park, open his new taqueria, Authentaco, across the street from two locations of La Pasadita on the west side of Ashland, but he did so precisely inside the former location of the original La Pasadita opened by David Espinoza in 1976. Caro doesn’t give much credence to karma or competition though. “It’s like having Burger King across from a McDonald’s,” he said. “There’s enough business for everyone.” Considering that La Pasadita once ran three locations on the same block and still competes against itself with two storefronts, Caro is probably on to something.

The scene: Though it was the original, the former La Pasadita that Caro took over was pretty decrepit. The times I visited that location usually were preceded by at least two shots of Malort or a few glasses of bourbon. My experience was that the La Pasaditas on the west side of Ashland made the great tacos. This east side location served tacos with mushy under-seasoned fillings in a sickly-looking yellow and orange-painted room that felt held together mostly by the residue of decades of grease.

At Authentaco, Caro has transformed that interior in to a bright turquoise-, red- and gold-painted space outfitted with a counter made from reclaimed wood. “I did a lot of the construction myself. A lot of the wood comes from dumpster-diving in Humboldt Park and Michigan alleys,” he said. The reclaimed wood also makes an appearance on the back patio in the form of planters that sit under a pergola in front of a cool mural of a vintage truck filled with flowers and grass. It feels like a funky outdoor bar straight out of Key West.

The tortillas: The staff at Authentaco hand-pressed their tortillas from fresh masa and griddled them to order. You can watch them bubble up like little corn-perfumed balloons on the flattop while you wait for your food. The texture of the finished product is light, almost like a cross between a flour and corn tortilla, and speckled with caramelized dots. You rarely find tortillas this fresh and good outside of Chicago’s Maxwell Street Sunday market. “I don’t know what it is, but lady who makes our tortillas does some voodoo to the masa. She’s like pulling out a statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe and blessing that stuff,” said Caro, laughing.

The tacos: The taco, tostada and quesadilla offerings are equally split between vegetarian and meat choices, a clue that Authentaco is going after a different demographic than the meat-centric La Pasadita. Caro originally chose not to offer a steak taco at Authentaco because he didn’t want to be perceived as going head to head with La Pasadita, but that changed quickly. “In the first week, I think a hundred people walked in asking for carne asada and walked out, so now we have a carne asada taco and it’s here to stay,” he said. I’m glad for that, because the juicy, well-seasoned medium-rare bits of skirt steak were by far my favorite taco filling ($3.25). Authentaco’s carne asada is right up with Tio Luis and Taqueria El Asadero as my favorite in Chicago. The barbacoa (shredded beef) also was incredibly juicy and peppery ($3). The only real disappointment of the meat tacos was the pollo or chicken ($3). I loved the pulled pork-like texture and flavor, which is a result of roasting the chicken (at most taquerias, it is boiled), but it needed more salt.

The quesadillas: On the vegetarian side, the huitlacoche quesadilla ($4.50) was a rich mouth-watering bomb oozing with gooey chihuahua cheese. Huitlacoche is sometimes disparagingly referred to as corn smut. This is not a new form of Internet porn, but rather a grayish fungus that grows on corn crops in very moist conditions. Foodies in the know call it the Mexican black truffle, which is also a little bit of a misnomer, as it has very little of the funkiness of a French or Italian truffle. It’s more like the very rich essence of a great mushroom crossed with the flavor of a fermented black bean. It’s also hard to find at taquerias in Chicago, so it’s pretty cool that Authentaco offers it. Another rare quesadilla topping on offer at Authentaco is flor de calabaza, or chopped squash blossom. Squash blossoms are fairly flavorless (and as such are usually served in Italian spots stuffed with goat cheese and deep-fried); at Authentaco, they’re chopped and thrown in to the quesadilla ($3). They offer some texture, but that’s about it.

Other stuff: Elotes carts, which once seemed to dot the city like zebra mussels in Lake Michigan, seem more ephemeral these days. The good news is you can sate your fix for elotes with Authentaco’s version, a fine specimen, which includes a generous helping of steamed corn (off the cob) slathered with parmesan and mayo and sprinkled with chili ($3.25).

Bottom line: Authentaco is one of the better new taquerias to open in Chicago in the past few years. By offering plenty of vegetarian options as well as unique ingredients like huitlacoche and squash blossoms, Authentaco brings something unique to the taco landscape previously monopolized by the legendary La Pasadita empire located across the street.

Mini-review: Authentaco
1141 N. Ashland Ave. 773-360-7345
Rating: **

This article first appeared in Redeye in a different form.