As a sticky Saturday night seeps into Sunday morning, the single source of excitement at the Taco & Burrito House at 3939 North Broadway is the deafening radio: “¡Ciento cinco punto uno!” But the manager-cashier, Benedicto, knows they’re coming: over-served bros from Wrigleyville; sassy twinks from Boystown; sloppy women pissed at their boyfriends; stumbling men fresh from striking out at the bar. Benedicto wears a persistent smile—a defense mechanism; during a good part of a nine-hour shift, he and his two-man grill team, Arturo and Luis, take as much abuse as they do taco orders.
1am A customer orders two chicken fajitas. “Can I also get an order of chips and guac, please? Thank you.” The only niceties the staff will hear all night.
1:44am “I’ve been coming here for ten years,” says Levar, who stumbled over with a buddy from Wrigleyville reggae club Exodus. “[Benedicto] is really professional. There was a brawl in here three years ago. Those guys just kept on steady cookin’!”
1:53am First rush. The drunks stare at the light-board menu as if they’re gazing into the eyes of God. Arturo and Luis are wizards with their spatulas, flipping, dicing and plating food with lightning speed. Arturo has a baby face and a sunny disposition. Luis is somber, with a patchy mustache and puffy cheeks.
1:56am Benedicto and his crew are soft-spoken and speak little English. Customers barking orders frequently misconstrue that for incomprehension. “Welcome to Obama’s America!” huffs a future Romney voter in the line.
2:22am The surge ceases. Luis refills the horchata dispenser from a giant mixing bucket. All the customers leave behind their destroyed tables—despite the presence of trash cans with bus trays. Luis rolls his eyes and heads over with a wet rag, quietly singing a norteño song.
2:50am A posse of Spanish-speaking guys show up with a 12-pack of Modelo. They shoot the shit briefly with the crew but never order food.
3am The second rush. A muscle-bound guy at the counter reaches for a plate of food Benedicto set down for another customer. His blond girlfriend in a Red Sox T-shirt bats his hands away.
3:21am A girl in a pink prom dress is the only one in her group who didn’t receive food. “I swear, I ordered a chicken burrito!” she cries. Benedicto calmly produces the receipt, which shows she’s wrong.
3:53am “Don’t want cheese! Don’t need the dairy. Just want chicken in that chimichanga,” a man at the counter hollers at Benedicto. “I’m trying to tell him, but he don’t understand me,” the man says.
3:57am “My wife, she Guatemalan,” says a guy in all blue who looks like one of the Fat Boys crossed with a blueberry. “She’s been trying to get me to go to Guatemala. Should I go?” Benedicto nods. “They got KFC and shit, but too many guerrillas!” the man says.
4:16am The final onslaught brings the most intoxicated customers. A guy with a goatlike beard leans over the counter and plays armchair cook, shouting Spanglish directions about the construction of his burrito. “Como está, homeboy! Put the beans on next. Olé, homeboy!”
4:30am The tip jar sitting on the counter holds a pitiful $2.50—the final insult in a night full of them. But as the sky begins to brighten, the spirited music on the radio plays on.