Where Alice Waters Should Get Her Tacos Next Time She’s In Chicago

Michael Nagrant / 12.06.07

The cookbook pimps are out in full force. As is the case every fall, publishers aiming to capitalize on the Christmas shopping season and the subsequent loosening of foodie purse strings, release a trove of culinary related tomes and celebrity driven cookbooks. The authors of said cookbooks get sent on book tours, drop in on big food cities, sign some of their wares, and, depending on their celebrity, get courted in various media outlets and at hot local dining spots. As such, authors return the hospitality by giving a shout out to their hosts and friend’s restaurants in whatever city they are visiting. According to the Chicago Tribune‘s excellent food blog, The Stew:

Alice Waters, owner of California’s famed Chez Panisse restaurant, told us her favorite Chicago stops: ” … I always like to go have a taco at Frontera Grill.”


Fiona Beckett, the British food and wine journalist, at a recent book signing and tasting at The House of Glunz for her latest book “Food, Wine & Friends.” Her top stop in Chicago? “Frontera Grill is pretty special,” she said.

God bless Rick Bayless, chef-owner of Frontera Grill. Excepting Diana Kennedy, no one’s done more nationally to bring awareness to regional Mexican cuisine, and get America beyond chimichangas and burritos as big as their heads. They also make a pretty fine taco. Still, the consistent drumbeat for Frontera from writers flitting in and out of our city smacks a bit of bad culinary tourism. I expect the culinary tastemakers of this nation to be intrepid and focused on finding some serious under-the-radar eats instead of parroting something everyone already knows. Since she’s a Brit who probably doesn’t spend a lot of time in the Windy City, I’m willing to give Beckett a pass, but Waters? She’s been to Chicago many times, and as an idealist, a vocal proponent of the small guy, why isn’t she exploring our rich Latino neighborhoods, like Pilsen and Humboldt Park, in search of first-generation–run storefront taquerias committed to crafting everything from scratch?

Forget the taco trucks in Los Angeles and the green-chile spots in New Mexico, when it comes to finding the best regional Mexican dining outside of Mexico, Chicago, especially with regards to street food from the states of Jalisco, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Aguascalientes and the Distrito Federal (Mexico City), is the best spot in America. So with all due respect to Berkeley’s farm queen, Alice, here’s where you should try some tacos next time you’re in town.

Sol de Mexico

Mom may not be in the kitchen at this relative newcomer, but owner Carlo’s Tello’s Mother-in-law Clemintina Flores, most definitely is. She spends days handcrafting Oaxacan style moles including a grassy mole verde studded with roasted pumpkin seeds that accompanies crispy lacquered duck and house-made corn tortillas. 3018 N. Cicero Avenue, Chicago IL 60641 (map)

Maxwell Street Market

Almost every stand in this Sunday only street market has a good taco, but the mole rojo or red mole slathered pork tacos on charcoal roasted fresh made tortillas or the charcoal fired Tacos al Pastor (shepherd style pork tacos) slathered in spicy achiote and punctuated with a hint of oregano are the two best. Corner of Canal and Taylor Streets (map)

Taqueria Uptown

Speaking of Tacos al Pastor, the best in town (I know, I once tried 17 different tacos al pastor in one day to prove it) can be found on this shabby corner spot featuring fake adobe colored window coverings. In addition to all the usual spices, achiote etc, the vinegar tang on the spit roasted meat here sparks the most jaded tongue. 1144 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue, Chicago IL 60660 (map)

Don Pedro Carnitas

With pig pictures and paraphanelia lining every square inch of this Pilsen neighborhood joint, this is a palace of all things porcine. At $6 bucks a pound you can get your fill of porky product, everything from fresh crackling skin to grilled offal to standard cuts of flesh. 1113 W. 18th Street, Chicago IL 60608 (map)

Birreria Reyes de Ocotlan

If you don’t care for pork, maybe Jaliscan style goat is your thing. The sign on the building says, “la mejor birria del mundo” or “the best birria in the whole world.” It’s not an idle boast. Featuring tender goat meat steamed for six hours in its own juices along with smoky anchos and a dash of cinnamon, what is usually a stringy, rangy meat is transformed into super melt in your mouth hunks of goodness. Served with lime, cilantro and onions you can get your goat shredded in a steamy consomme-style broth or on top of fresh tortillas. 1322 W. 18th Street, Chicago IL 60608 (map)

Cemitas Puebla

Celebrating the melting pot nature of the state of Puebla, this spot melds the best of its Lebanese immigrants and its indigenous cultures with its taco arabe, a thick flour tortilla similar to a pita studded with oregano, garlic and chili slathered spit-roasted pork, caramelized onion, vinegar, smokey and chipotle salsa. If there’s any doubt about authenticity, feel free to accompany the owners, Tony Anteliz Jr and his father Tony Sr. on one of their monthly flights to Mexico where they procure stringy fresh queso from Chipilo, a small poblano village, as well as indigenous chilis from Oaxaca for the restaurant. 3619 W. North Avenue, Chicago IL 60647 (map)