Taqueria Knockout

Michael Nagrant / 06.07.05

Tony Anteliz loves a good challenge. At his restaurant, Taqueria Puebla, the ceilings and walls are plastered with Mexican soccer and vintage Oscar de la Hoya boxing posters, which inevitably invite a quibble from his patrons. 

Anteliz says, “People come in here all the time and say De la Hoya’s soft.  I challenge them to find any fighter who’s taken on the challenges and moved through the weight classes like he has.  There’s no one he won’t fight.”

It’s no surprise that Anteliz likes to spar. It’s in his roots. His family hails from the Mexican state of Puebla, located 80 miles Southeast of Mexico. On May 5th, 1862, French troops intent on capturing Mexico City were repelled by a small, poorly armed militia led by Ignacio Zaragoza and Porfirio Diaz at the battle of Puebla. The victory was a rallying point for Mexican national unity, and a symbolic end to latent colonial oppression that is still celebrated as Cinco de Mayo.

Many of Chicago’s taquerias reflect the carne asada or pollo driven taco and burrito cuisine of Mexican States like Michoacan, Jalisco, or Mexico City, the kind of fare you’re likely to find at a Cinco de Mayo celebration.

The cuisine served at Taqueria Puebla reflects the melting pot of Puebla, which was settled not only by indigenous cultures, but also by Lebanese and Northern Italians.  That variety makes native Poblanos territorial about their cuisine.

Anteliz says, “This guy from Puebla came in, starts asking about the peppers, the cheese, how the meat’s prepared. He said we couldn’t be authentic. I told him to try the tacos Arabes. He ordered three more to go.”  He adds, “There’s nothing I love more than when a Poblano walks out happy.”

The tacos Arabes, served on a thick flour tortilla studded with spit roasted pork, carmelized onion, oregano, vinegar and other “secret” spices, are a close cousin of lamb schwarma and reflect the Lebanese influence. It’s also the dish that launched the restaurant.

Anteliz says, “In Puebla, they wrap the tacos in this thick brown paper, like newsprint.  Whenever I’d visit, I’d stuff the paper in my pocket, and when I was home (in Chicago) I’d keep smelling the wrapper to remind myself how good it was.”

A lot of taquerias throw their pre-cooked meat on to a flat top grill, squirt it with water and add a little salt and pepper, and because the meat is crowded on the grill and soaked in water, it steams into a gray tasteless mass.

In contrast, Anteliz cooks the pork for the Arabe on a flame roasted spit, where the juices from the meat self baste, while the flame develops a crust that provides a tongue satisfying textural contrast.

The other iconic dish at the restaurant is the Cemita. The Milaneza version is a sesame crusted bun filled with a thin butterflied and breaded pork chop, papalo, a leafy green similar to Cilantro but with a much bigger herby bouquet, smoky chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, and a mozzarella like string cheese, Queso Oaxaca. The sandwich is an Italian Mexican fusion that resembles a smoky spicy veal parmesan sandwich.

If you’re really adventurous, you can order the Cemita Pata which substitutes boiled cow’s foot for the pork chop.  Anteliz says, “I’ve never eaten it. I just can’t bring myself to do it, because I know what it is, but people love it.”

The linchpin that ultimately makes Taqueria Puebla standout is the commitment to authenticity.  The papalo is grown in the Anteliz backyard, the Cemita rolls are baked fresh by a local baker according to a traditional recipe, and Antonio, Anteliz’s father, travels to Puebla every two weeks, bringing back local Chipotle peppers (commercial brands fall apart in the restaurant’s adobo marinade) and Queso Oaxaca from a small Poblano town called Chipilo.

Anteliz will concede that the Taco Arabes in Puebla are wrapped in a thick shell that’s more like a pita, but he’s using the thickest corn tortilla he can find, one that’s “85% there”.  He vows not to rest until he finds the real thing.

Ultimately, native Poblanos and picky gringos will always drop in to challenge Anteliz, but they better be careful; Anteliz has got some serious cooking chops, and his food, like Oscar De la Hoya’s formidable fists, will probably knock you out.

Taqueria Puebla – 3619 N. Avenue- 773-772-8435