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.
Which is to say, names matter, especially when they’re the first impression, the only thing to go on. Studies have shown that names on resumes dictate who gets hired. You’re more likely to buy a product or donate to a cause which has the same first initials as your own name. People are likely to suffer academically or have higher incidences of depression depending on how odd their names are.
With regard to restaurants, I wouldn’t actually expect the burgers to be great at a place called Cheeseburger in Paradise (unless you’ve been to every Buffet concert since 1973). Paradise is located in hard to reach places where there are no cows and everything has to be imported by boat. At best, it’s most likely to be a very expensive, substandard cheeseburger in paradise.
As such, Chicago being the land of a thousand taquerias, I almost passed up the opportunity to stop as I drove by Tomatillo Tacoville on Irving Park. When I first saw it, I started humming that SNL Justin Timberlake ditty “Bring it on Down to Liquorville!” I did not need a taco from the Magic Kingdom of tacos.
But, the voices inside my head, the ones usually compelling me to sit on the couch and watch Netflix all day, made me stop. I’m glad I did.
Tomatillo Tacoville is a wonderland. It has a wall embedded with fake greenery in which a flat screen TV is implanted. It feels like some kind of odd movie night being staged on the right field wall at Wrigley. In this case, a bootleg copy of Jumanji (The Rock version) with Korean subtitles played. Each table had a tub of gratis escabeche, a spicy, vinegary mix of carrot, onion and jalapeno. For many this is a signal of some kind of authenticity. For me, it creates painful flashbacks of a drunken night in Bucktown whereby me and my good friend Aamir ate a whole tub of the stuff at a place called Chino Taco. I think their escabeche was infused with ghost pepper, because my body felt like it was burning from the inside for two days after. But, as an eater of goat eyeball tacos and things like that, I am brave, and tacos would be had: pastor, pescado, carnitas and asada.
The meats were well-caramelized and well-salted. The tortillas were griddled on the flat top. The onion and cilantro shower was just right. A spritz of lime is often the only salvation for a substandard taco, but these hardly needed it.
These days I’m lucky enough to tote a young critic with me on occasion, a six-year-old whose reactions are genuine and in direct proportion to the pleasure he is deriving from what he eats.
As he worked his way through each taco, I could see his pupils dilate and his grin grow in the following order: pescado, carnitas, asada, and pastor. I thought the carnitas were better than the asada, but otherwise I was in agreement. These are tacos worth stopping for. So, bring it on down to tacoville!
Tomatillo Tacoville 2943 W Irving Park Rd. Chicago, IL, 60618