Stepping into Chicago’s Pilsen and La Villita neighborhoods is like transporting yourself to Mexico; you can feel culture hit you through chatter of the streets, the endless tienditas and taquerias, the Mexican families going to work or taking their kids to school, and the coffee snobs enjoying their morning lattes and cafecitos.
As a Taco Journalist, (yes that is a thing in Texas), I love finding new taco joints and learning about the taqueros y taqueras that put so much love into this iconic Mexican food. With my friend El Titus from Chicago’s Tweets of Tacos in tow, I spent a day sampling the best that these neighborhoods have to offer.
The day’s tally was a total success:
- 2 espressos
- 1 visit to the National Museum of Mexican Art
- 10 sweet mural sightings
- 6 taquerias
- 1 tortilleria
- 14 tacos
- 5 beers and 2 whiskeys (at a bar that, by day is packed with paisas, and by night, with hipsters); and
- last but certainly not least: 1 best friend moment with Jorge, El Rey del Al Pastor!
Hereʼs just a sampling of the tacos we tried. Our only regret is that some places were closed (La Chaparrita, Carnitas Uruapan) and that our bellies were way too full by the end of the night.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2015, and has been updated to reflect more recent changes.
Carnitas Tacos - Mixtas
Nothing says “alla en el rancho grande” like a mix of carnitas – buche (stomach), cuero (skin) y la carnita pork meat. It kinda reminds you of the time your uncle forced you to watch the kill and well, then you ate it. Mixto is the best because the carnitas slide down with the help of the buche and are finished off with the crunch of the cuerito.
Where to Get Them: Carnitas Don Pedro (Pilsen)
A stuffed toro will eye you as you walk in, and if you give him a smile, you are greeted by Don Pedro himself. On display are the carnitas, chicharrones (skins con carne but mostly fat), some fried tacos, and of course options to buy the carnitas by the pound. The carnitas, although a little dry, went down well, especially with the oh-so-soft and slippery buche which slid right down into the belly. Carnitas Don Pedro is in Pilsen and you canʼt miss the big red “Desde 1981 Cochinito” sign.
Don Pedro is in Pilsen on 1113 W 18th Street.
Carnitas Tacos - Straight Up.
If you donʼt have the stomach for buche or cuero, you can always go with straight up carnitas. Slow cooked over itʼs own fat is always preferred and fried of course. Carnitas should be tender and pulled with a bit of crunch when itʼs fried to perfection.
Where to Get Them: Sabas Vega (Pilsen)
Sabas Vega has that Mexican cafe feel, with a hint of Pine Sol aroma in the air. But donʼt let that deter you from eating really good Mexican food, especially the carnitas. We were greeted with freshly fried tortilla chips/tostadas y salsa de Chile de Arbol, followed with carnitas from heaven. Man, I tell you what, these carnitas were tender, fatty (in a good way), and still had the crujiente factor which is muy importante in my taco book. Topped with Chile de Arbol, cebollitas and cilantro, these carnitas had me wanting more for sure.
Sabas Vega is in Pilsen, right off 18th street on Ashland.
Tacos Al Pastor
Al Pastor are the people’s taco, straight off the trompo with bright achiote pork and sweet pineapple chunks. The perfect Al Pastor is thin pork shoulder layered and cooked on a skewer with dried chiles, flores de achiote, and the sweetness of a pineapple sitting atop the trompo. Watch the piña juices slowly drip down over the meat as it rotates on the trompo.
Where To Get It: Taqueria Los Barrilitos (La Villita)
This is where I started my bro-mance with Jorge, El Rey del Al Pastor. All it took was one bite and he had me. Cooked to perfection, not only was the carne thinly cut and tender with sizzled ends, but it had a kick. The magic sauce was the Chile de Arbol. Al Pastor isnʼt typically cooked with chile de arbol molido but thatʼs Jorgeʼs style and I loved it – now that’s the best way to a Mexican manʼs heart!
Taqueria Los Barrilitos is in Little Village on 3518 W 25th Street.
Tacos de Bistec
A staple in any respectable taqueria, tacos de bistec are your go-to when you have carne cravings. Itʼs a thinly cut, and I mean very thinly cut sirloin steak, seasoned with garlic, pepper, salt and topped with onions and cilantro. Choose a red or green salsa and always on #doublecorn.
Where To Get It: Taqueria El Milagro (La Villita)
Double down as a tortilleria + taqueria and youʼll pretty much automatically get an endless line of Mexicans. This cafeteria-style joint has it all: lengua de res, puerco en salsa verde, chiles rellenos, guisados, rajas con queso and the thickest bistec tacos Iʼve ever seen! As big as your hand, heavily seasoned and charred, topped with salsa and a cabbage curtido, this half-inch steak packs a punch. I mean I know Iʼm in steak and potatoes country but daaaayum.
Taqueria El Milagro is in La Villita on 3061 W 26th Street.
Hailing from northern Mexico, Arrachera, or skirt steak, is a beef cut beaten down and tenderized, marinated, and preferably grilled to perfection. It’s best to accompany your arrachera with grilled cebollitas, quesadillas, guacamole and salsa.
Where To Get It: Nuevo Léon Restaurant (Pilsen)
A Chicago favorite, Nuevo Léon always tops Where to Eat lists (if you don’t mind the reasons for their temporary cerrado incident). Walking in, you definitely get the Mexican-American vibe, with rancheras on the sound system and mix of Latino and Anglo families enjoying their complimentary taquitos de papa with steaming red salsa and shredded queso Chihuahua. In true Nuevo Leon style, the Arrachera tacos (Tacos de Salinas) are made entomatado style, with picado de tomate, cebollas y jalapeños and topped with quesito Chihuahua. They’re served on fresh house-made flour tortillas, thinly made just like abuelita used to make ‘em, and spread with a thin layer of refried beans – what I call the Mexican Mayo! Just add Chile de Arbol and you got yo’self a damn good taco!
Nuevo Leon is in Pilsen 18th and Ashland.
UPDATE: In December of 2015, a fire tragically burned down Nuevo León, which was the oldest restaurant in Pilsen. In the aftermath, the Gutiérrez family, which owned the restaurant, opened a more upscale place called Cantón Regio across the street, which still serves arrachera. As of now, nearly three years since the fire, there is no confirmation as to whether the family will rebuild a new Nuevo León location.
Tacos de Bistec (Late Night Edition)
When the late night cravings roll around after a night out, El Traditional – Tacos de Bistec is your go-to at any taqueria. This is probably the thinnest steak you’ll ever eat in or out of a taco. Add some spices, pepper and salt and dress with cilantro and onions and you’re set. And of course, always on #doublecorn.
Where to Get It: Raymond Hamburger and Tacos (Raymond – just like the neon sign says)
It’s late on a Friday night and there’s no Waffle House nearby, where do you go? Raymond’s of course. You walk in to this Diner slash Mexican restaurant, sit at the bar and order the bistec tacos. And yes, they do make their tacos Diner style with lightly fried corn tortillas, a slice of American cheese in between (quesadilla style?) and top it off the seasoned bistec, lettuce and tomatoes. These, my friends are tacos de bistec Diner style and tasted as cheesy, salty and greasy as you would expect but after a night of drinking, they are excellent!
Raymond Hamburger and Tacos is in Pilsen on 2406 S Blue Island Ave.