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Taco throwdown: Taco Joint and Barrio Taqueria

Two new taco joints try their hand at the upscale taqueria.

 (Photograph: Martha Williams)
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Photograph: Martha Williams
 (Martha Williams)
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Martha Williams
 (Photograph: Martha Williams)
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Photograph: Martha Williams
 (Photograph: Martha Williams)
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Photograph: Martha Williams
 (Photograph: Martha Williams)
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Photograph: Martha Williams
 (Photograph: Martha Williams)
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Photograph: Martha Williams
 (Photograph: Martha Williams)
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Photograph: Martha Williams
 (Photograph: Martha Williams)
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Photograph: Martha Williams
 (Photograph: Martha Williams)
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Photograph: Martha Williams
 (Photograph: Martha Williams)
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Photograph: Martha Williams
 (Photograph: Martha Williams)
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Photograph: Martha Williams

The gentleman with the blond at his hip interrupted the bartender.

“Excuse me. Excuse me! Are these tacos three dollars for one?”

The bartender nodded.

The blond: “Let’s leave.”

The guy: “Yeah, screw this.”

Blond: “This is ridiculous.”

Guy: “Three dollars? For one taco?”

And then, when the pair was out the door, the bartender finally spoke.

“Thank God for that,” he mumbled.

The rest of the bar was more vocal. It was five minutes before they stopped talking about the couple, The Duo That Didn’t Understand.
“What’d they think this was?” one patron scoffed. “Taco Bell?”

Now: There’s nothing wrong with a $2 taco. In fact, sometimes there is nothing better. (See La Pasadita, Birria Reyes de Octolan, El Norte, etc.)

But right now, in the powerful wake of a little honky-tonk taco shop in Wicker Park, a slightly fancier taco is having its heyday. Two new taquerias, just blocks away from each other, are pushing them on Lincoln Park. And some of these tacos are making a compelling case that up(scale) is the way these things should go.

One such case is the carnitas taco—that’s duck carnitas—at Taco Joint(1969 N Halsted St, 312-951-2457): confit meat, alternately fatty and crispy, finished with an earthy, biting ancho chile salsa. Another case in point: the birria, a rich amalgam of lamb and pork offset by a cascabel chile sauce.  The cochinita taco, soft pork paired with red onions and a fiery habanero salsa, knows almost no limits in flavor; the barbacoa—braised beef—knows no limits in depth of savoriness.

Execution of flavor isn’t the only mark of a good taco joint, of course. You’ve got to have tequila (Taco Joint has plenty, though I’d veer clear of its vegetal pepper-infusion) or at least a margarita (the Zocalo margarita—Zocalo is Taco Joint’s sister restaurant—is on the sweet side but pretty damn tall, so who cares?). Finally, a taco joint has got to be fast. Three dollars per taco is no big deal. Three minutes? Now you’re pushing it.

Imagine then, how excruciating the wait can be at Barrio(714 W Diversey Pkwy, 773-360-8316). They call this place an “Urban Taqueria,” but what’s striking about it is not its urbanness, but how formal it is. There’s a bar here but no stools for it (“liquor laws,” the hostess told me). Thus you take your tacos at a table, brought out to you by a server. This is no big—it happens at plenty of other places. But here the wait for four tacos stretched, and stretched. Margaritas were downed (they are heavier on lime than Taco Joint’s, and leaner on the sugar—this is a good thing). Chips and salsa were consumed. And then the lengua taco arrived, and it was as simple as the one you’d find at a taqueria stand on 18th Street. Ditto for the carnitas. The battered fish taco had a few accoutrements (mango, ailoi), as did the tinga (it arrives in its flavorful cooking juices). But even those have a simplicity—and a certain lack of tastiness—that is boggling considering the wait and (relative) formality of the room. So taco slingers, take note: You want to dress up your taqueria? Fine. But you’ve got to dress up the tacos as well.

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