Chicago's Mexican food scene is vast. Ranging from high-end dishes at Rick Bayless' Mexican restaurants to tacos at street festivals and tamales that magically appear in coolers at bars. Whether you're looking for Chicago's best tacos or best margaritas, or just some fantastic spicy salsas, cemitas, tortas, or cheap eats, you'll be able to find a Mexican restaurant to fit your fancy.
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Best Mexican restaurants
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.
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.
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.
Our favorite of Rick Bayless' restaurants boasts a menu based around ice and fire in a mid-to-upscale setting with plenty of tables. The ice portion of the menu is filled with cold and raw dishes like aguachiles and ceviches. We're fans of the verde ceviche, with baja hiramasa yellowtail, green chile adobo, daikon radish, cucumber, shaved fennel, grilled garlic chives and avocado. On the fire side, try the braised shortrib with Oaxacan pasilla salsa, set pleasingly on top of creamy cauliflower mash. Between the bite of the ice plates and the warm smoke of the fire dishes, your taste buds will be delighted.
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. Chicharrones 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.
This 18th Street spot has only a small smattering of tables inside, but summers bring respite with an outdoor patio. Our favorite? The enchiladas with red sauce, filled to the brim with cheese or chicken and served with a side of addictive refried beans and rice. Order a cup of Jamaica, you'll want something to wash these sauce-covered cheese-laden guys down.
This newer Pilsen spot comes from chef Alfonso Sotelo, a XOCO alum. His dishes are delightfully comforting with just the right amount of personality. Whether you order a big plate of tacos (which won't break the bank at $2.25 a piece) or our favorite—the warm and hearty green chicken tamal, you'll feel welcome at 5 Rabanitos. Expect thoughtful plating (with slivers of radishes on every plate—hence the name) and potentially a visit from Sotelo himself. This is his restaurant, and he's happy to serve you.
The bustling sit-down Mexican spot serves excellent tacos on fresh tortillas piled with fillings like spicy chorizo and tender steak, topped with onions and cilantro. Dress them with salsa served from squeeze bottles and spicy pickled veggies, including carrots and jalapenos, which sit on the table.
Consistently earning a Michelin star since 2015, Topolobampo is the fanciest and most upscale of Rick Bayless' Mexican restaurants. As with all of Bayless's restaurants, the products used here are local and seasonal. So whether you're eating fresh oysters or ceviche or one of the beautiful moles, 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.
This sunny Pilsen café, which is covered in bright purple, yellow and orange paint inside and out, is next door to one of the city’s most successful purveyors of corn and flour tortillas. Employees clearly know how to put those tortillas to good use: piling them with tender chicken legs submerged in mole rojo, or sumptuous, slow-cooked beef in a rich tomato sauce. Satisfying tamales are available for a more portable meal—but keep in mind that you can’t take the sunniness with you.
On a stretch of Armitage Avenue that’s become a major hub of Logan Square’s dining scene, Topolobampo alums Brian Enyart and Jennifer Jones Enyart deliver joyful, inventive Mexican food. See, for instance, the juicy carnitas, crowned with an unorthodox tangle of cabbage, and the lovely arrangement of grilled mushrooms and sweet chestnut corn bread anchored in earthy red mole. End with glazed plantains and queso fresco over rich, mildly funky cajeta, and sip on the Rosita, a Negroni reimagined with tequila and Amargo-Vallet bitters.
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.
Chef Anselmo Ramirez, an alum of Topolobampo helms this Albany Park spot. Ramirez does red meats best—so pick the juicy carne asada, with wood grilled skirt steak served with a hefty container of warm tortillas and a side of black beans and guacamole. It's a dish you'll be tempted to split to try more things, but trust us, you'll just want two.
The West Loop location is a bit sleeker than the original, now closed, outpost in Humboldt Park, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.