Big StarWhat compelled a James Beard Award–winning chef and the owners of the city’s most exclusive cocktail lounge to open a divey bar that slings Tecates and whiskey shots for $3 apiece? A stroke of absolute genius. Brutal crowds harsh the country-music mellow on weekends, but neighborhood hipsters put up with it, dropping by the takeout window to grab a couple of tacos or planting themselves at the bar for a few beers and an order of the chorizo-layered queso fundido. 1531 N Damen Ave (773-235-4039). El: Blue to Damen. Bus: 50, 56, 72. Average taco: $3.
CuernavacaWhat you’ll find at this delightful hacienda-size Mexican institution are chiles rellenos con queso: two snappy ancho chilies stuffed with queso anejo, smothered in butter, cheese and mole and plated with simmered beans and golden rice. Others opt for the queso fundido or the sopes—griddled masa patties topped with chorizo, beans and picadillo—and one of the muy grande tequila-bombed margaritas. 11600 W 18th St (312-829-1147). El: Pink to 18th. Bus: 18, 60. Average main course: $11.
Frontera GrillMost chefs behind culinary empires branch out to other cities, leaving the original back home to suffer. Rick Bayless kept close to the kitchen and chose to expand in other ways (packaged food line, cookbooks, TV shows). Lucky us. For two decades, this has been the spot for intensely flavorful Mexican food, a place to chow down on ceviches, earthy mole, cazuelas of queso fundido with housemade chorizo and, of course, insanely good margaritas. 445 N Clark St (312-661-1434). El: Brown, Purple (rush hrs) to Merchandise Mart; Red to Grand. Bus: 22, 29, 36, 65, 156. Average main course $16.
La LagartijaAfter a fire destroyed the original Bombon in Pilsen, the couple behind the bakery resurfaced with this cheery taqueria. Most of the menu is made up of taqueria standards (spit-grilled al pastor tacos, gooey queso fundido with chorizo), but a few items, such as lightly battered shrimp tacos drizzled with crema and spicy chipotle salsa, transcend the genre. Don’t miss Laura Cid-Perea’s famous tres leches cake, here or at Bombon Café a block away. 132 S Ashland Ave (312-733-7772). El: Green, Pink to Ashland; Blue to Racine. Bus: 9, 20, 126. Average taco: $2.25.
MercaditoThough it took us some time to warm up to this NYC import (What can we say? We’ve got an excess of hometown pride), we’ve learned to appreciate the late-night taco-and-tequila parlor. The tacos are original (carnitas tacos come with cool coleslaw and rich peanuts); the queso fundido comes with a choice of wild mushrooms or braised short ribs; and the brunch, which features skirt steak and Bloody Mary bottle service, is one of our favorites in town. 108 W Kinzie St (312-329-9555). El: Brown, Purple (rush hrs) to Merchandise Mart; Red to Grand; Blue, Green, Pink, Orange to Clark/Lake. Bus: 11, 22, 156. Average main course: $15.
¡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 highlights seasonal ingredients, but you can pretty much always count on the trio of small tamales, the lamb chops in garlic-pasilla chili sauce and one of the best tequila selections in town.1252 N Wells St (312-988-7811). El: Red to Clark/Division. Bus: 11, 22, 26, 70, 156. Average main course: $24.