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Best Mexican restaurants in Chicago

From Rick Bayless' empire to tiny taco joints, these are the best Mexican restaurants Chicago has to offer

Photograph: Martha Williams
With a menu of Pueblan specialties, Cemitas Puebla is one of the best Mexican restaurants in Chicago.

Chicago has a thriving Mexican food scene that ranges from high-end dishes at Rick Bayless' Mexican restaurants to single al pastor tacos in Pilsen to tamales peddled in coolers at bars. Whether you're looking for spicy moles, cemitas, the best tacos or margaritas in Chicago, your next great Mexican meal isn't far.

RECOMMENDED: Full list of the best Chicago restaurants

Best Mexican restaurants

14

Nuevo León

Since 1962, the Gutierrez family has been running this mecca of Mexican food, starting every dinner in the bright, whimsically decorated space with an unexpected amuse-bouche. Taste, but don’t fill up—there’s a lot more where that came from, like roasted chicken pieces covered in a thick, dark, intense mole, and tacos de chorizo (housemade chorizo scrambled into an egg and wrapped in one of the famous housemade tortillas). The waitresses hustling back and forth between two smoke-free rooms are cheerfully brisk but will bring anything you ask for. Except alcohol—you’ve gotta bring the mezcal yourself.

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Pilsen
13

Mixteco Grill

The mole at this bustling BYOB steals the show. Seafood tamales are topped with Oaxacan yellow mole, and the wood-grilled chicken breast is served with mole verde. In truth, we don’t really need any of the proteins here. All we need is some mole, a bowl to put it in, and some handmade tortillas to sop it all up.

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Lakeview
12

¡Salpicón!

This swanky Mexican spot is known for perfect margaritas and chef Priscila Satkoff’s traditional salsas, queso fundido and earthy mole served with handmade tortillas. A weekly specials menu brings seasonal change, with offerings like grilled duck breast with Oaxacan black mole or squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese. Take some time with the massive tequila menu or impressive wine list, which the staff knows from front to back.

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Old Town
11

Birrieria de la Torre

What this counter-seat-only birria (goat stew) joint lacks in size, it makes up for in flavor. Though all of the soups (birria, posole and menudo) are way better than average, it’s the carne en su jugo that kills. A rich broth, chock-full of creamy beans, bacon and chopped-up skirt steak, hits the spot every time. Tacos and tortas round out the tiny menu but seem completely unnecessary when faced with a giant bowl of steak soup. If the restaurant has them, order the homemade tortillas and fashion your own bacon-steak tacos.

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West Lawn
10

La Oaxaqueña

With hundreds of Mexican joints to choose from, why do we love this one? Maybe it’s the Huatulco torta, a sandwich that layers housemade chorizo, caramelized onions, a slather of pinto beans and fresh avocado atop cecina, thin beef that’s marinated for two days and then grilled. Or maybe it’s the roasted Cornish hen smothered in Oaxacan mole or the crispy red snapper hiding under pickled red onions. Maybe there are too many reasons to count.

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Irving Park
9

Sol de Mexico

Clementina Flores is a mole goddess, a woman sent from the heavens to create sauces so rich and complex, you’ll want to ingest them with a straw. Formerly the mole master at Chilpancingo and Ixcapuzalco, she now combines her mole with chef Carlos Tello’s food, and magic happens. For each season, mole-doused entrées take on new flavors. Try the signature borrego en mole negro, which matches a New Zealand rack of lamb with a classic Oaxacan black mole sauce, mashed potatoes, jack cheese and green beans.

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Portage Park
8

XOCO

Breakfast at Rick Bayless’s most casual spot yet is quiet perfection: a cup of masterfully concocted hot chocolate, a flaky egg empanada, one hell of a sugar-and-cocoa-coated churro. Lunch here is no less delicious, but it’s a frenzy: Lines extend out the door for tortas filled with fatty, crispy pork carnitas. The crowds keep up at dinner, when caldos like braised-short-rib soup and chicken stew with toothsome posole are the ideal prelude to… another churro.

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River North
7

Birrieria Zaragoza

Thick handmade tortillas, salsas made to order, cinnamon-laced coffee. You can get all of that here. Their only purpose, however, is to accompany this restaurant’s signature platters of chopped goat meat. As opposed to other birrierias, this goat doesn’t touch a consommé until it’s plated, when some of the tomato-based broth is spooned over it. At that point, a good dousing of the restaurant’s intricate hot sauce, and maybe a squeeze of lime and some onions, is all you need for one of the city’s best goat tacos.

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Archer Heights
6

Las Quecas

Tucked in the back of La Catedral Cafe & Restaurant is Las Quecas, the only Chicago outpost of the quesadilla chain (there are also locations in Carpentersville and Melrose Park). The tortillas are made right in front of you and it shows—they're thick, fresh and perfect vessels for fillings that range from carne asada to squash blossom. Chicharrons are tender and cloaked with a vibrant salsa roja that ofers a slow burn, while a spin through the salsa bar reveals some excellent, piquant sauces. 

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Lawndale
5

Topolobampo

Topolobampo ("Topolo" for short) is the most sophisticated and upscale of Rick Bayless's restaurants, and the one most frequented by President Obama and his family. (What, you thought they were eating tacos next door at Frontera?) As with all of Bayless's restaurants, the products used here are local and seasonal. So whether you're eating from the marisquera (sustainable seafood bar) or choosing one of the platillos fuertes (usually a protein—hen, lamb, lobster—dressed in a complex, chili-based sauce), you know you're eating the best the season has to offer. An ever-changing menu means it's hard to predict exactly what will be on offer day to day—but because Bayless is involved, it never really feels like a gamble.

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River North
4

Birrieria Reyes de Ocotlan

There are a few birrierias (spots that specialize in Mexican goat stew) sprinkled throughout the city, but all it takes is one visit to this one before you stop caring about the rest. The scope of the menu may not win you over at first—this joint serves only about half a dozen items—but after trying the delectable tongue tacos, the cabeza tacos full of luscious beef cheeks, the simple yet rich goat consommé or the goat tacos bursting with sumptuous meat, you’ll find you won’t want for anything else.

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Pilsen
3

Carnitas Uruapan

At this tiny Pilsen storefront, regulars get special treatment (a.k.a. refried beans, not always on offer), newcomers just get blank stares, and everybody gets the carnitas. Ordered by the pound, the juicy pork is served to you on a platter with nothing but a side of corn tortillas and a spicy salsa verde so that you can concoct your own tacos. Not leaving any part of the pig to waste, the limited menu also includes fresh, warm, delicious pork rinds.

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Pilsen
2

Cemitas Puebla West Loop

The West Loop location is a bit sleeker than the original, now closed, outpost in Humboldt Park (which is relocating in 2015 to Logan Square), with artwork like skulls and a giant Coke sign made of army figures. The menu is the same, so score specialties such as tacos arabes, pork tacos with thick, pitalike wrappers that are the result of Puebla’s Lebanese influence. Here, these chipotle-spiked beauties and their friend the cemita milanesa (a breaded pork steak with cheese and avocado on a sesame-studded bun) are among the best of the menu.

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West Loop
1

La Chaparrita

Chicago’s best all-around taqueria specializes in tacos de fritangas, or fried meaty things cooked on a wide metal stovetop called a charola. You seriously can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, from the extra beefy suadero to the intricately spiced longaniza sausage. But the showstopper—and perhaps the best taco in the city—is the tripa. Order it crispy, and these little hunks from the cow’s intestine (not, as you would assume, the stomach) arrive as golden-hued and glistening crunchy nuggets.

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Little Village

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