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Big Star

Critics' pick
1/5
Photograph: Martha Williams

Big Star

2/5
Photograph: Martha Williams

Big Star

3/5
Photograph: Jill Paider

Big Star

4/5
Photograph: Jill Paider

Big Star

5/5

Wicker Park

One of this city’s most worshipped chefs opens a new place…and tells you not to pay attention to the food. He teams up with the folks who operate the Violet Hour and presents a volume-driven cocktail list…that the crew says isn’t really the point. So what are you supposed to do?

Listen to them. There are some things the owners have no control over, true. They did everything in their power to present the place as downscale, but have you ever been to a dive bar where you have to hover for an hour to get a seat, then spend half an hour trying to flag down a slammed bartender? Thought not. Can’t blame Big Star for the fact that people want—desperately—to go there. And I’m one of those people: I’ve been to Big Star—ahem—four times, and while I’ve fallen hard for the surprisingly inviting atmosphere (good music and Christmas lights do a lot to warm up the minimalist space), if I’ve learned anything, it’s that the owners’ warnings are spot-on.

The tacos: They’re good…if you pretty much ignore them. If you go in ready to ponder the al pastor, you’ll spend the night wondering, “Does all this pineapple make this too sweet?” or “This tortilla, although fresh, isn’t that great,” or “This is probably cheaper than it has to be, but a little small compared to [Insert Your Favorite Pilsen Taqueria Here],” and you’re not going to have any fun at all. Don’t get me wrong: I like the fatty, pork-belly tacos; the wood-grilled taste of the chicken tostada; the queso fundido, with its spicy chorizo buried beneath a layer of greasy Chihuahua cheese. (Order the chips, perfectly salted and smacking of lime, to go with the queso; the soft tortillas don’t cut it.) It’s just not food that stands up to a lot of scrutiny—because it’s not supposed to.

It’s a more difficult situation with the cocktails. If you insist on looking for subtlety in these drinks, you’re going to give yourself a nervous breakdown. The best you can hope for is something vaguely balanced, which I found in the be-ginger beer’d Bakersfield Buck but not in the overly St. Germained San Antonio Sling.

In either case, you’re better off sticking with beer or straight bourbon or a killer Michelada (pictured). To assist you, here’s something not too difficult to wrap your head around: A 7-ounce pour of Schlitz for $1. Here’s another: a $6 glass of Buffalo Trace. Drink those till you can snag a seat, and then order the tacos. You’re finally ready to enjoy them.

Venue name: Big Star
Contact:
Address: 1531 N Damen Ave
Chicago

Cross street: between Wicker Park and Milwaukee Aves
Opening hours: Sun–Fri 11:30am–2am; Sat 11:30am–3am
Transport: El stop: Blue to Damen. Bus: 50, 56, 72.
Price: Average taco: $3
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