Don’t get lost in the odd maritime oil paintings and lay off the free chips, salsa and beans: You’ll want to save room for the luscious carnitas (pig cooked in its own fat), the sweet-and-spicy cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork) and the zesty al pastor tacos at this tiny spot. 6712 N Clark St (773-381-1638).
There could be no more romantic taco-eating experience than sitting on the lush backyard patio while fireflies flit about. Though this BYOB specializes in seafood, the grilled fish and shrimp tacos are underseasoned. Make googly eyes over the al pastor, brimming with crispy, slightly sweet pork. 6922 N Clark St (773-338-5425).
Is that ham in the pico de gallo? Yes, and you should spoon that delicious sacrilege on the tender suadero taco (boiled steak seasoned with black pepper and garlic). Is that Wilco playing? Yes. Just chill and eat while you take in the soccer-field mural at this fútbol-themed joint. 7043 N Clark St (773-274-4555).
This spot’s $1 tacos are slightly smaller than average, but they’re still piled high with meat. Go for the juicy lengua (beef tongue) and the al pastor with its lovely charred bits while you watch a Mexican kids’ version of America’s Got Talent. 7104 N Clark St (773-338-9992).
Don’t be deterred by the bland salsas and bottles of Frank’s RedHot on every table: The pillowy tortillas here could be filled with iceberg lettuce and they’d still make a damn delicious taco. Luckily, the tender, not-too-fatty carnitas does its wrapping proud. 7360 N Clark St (773-262-9417).
Carnitas Don Pedro
With meats sold by the pound, Don Pedro does a bang-up carryout business on carnitas, especially with an adjacent parking lot. Weekdays you can score the carnitas as tacos, sold for $1.50 a pop. 1113 W 18th St (312-829-4757).
Taqueria La Casa Del Pueblo
We pass by eight types of tamales in favor of perusing steam tables of taco fillings for a game of pointing and trying. The standout is the puerco adobo: earthy, sweet and lightly spicy chili sauce clinging to nibs of fatty pork. 1810 S Blue Island Ave (312-421-4664).
Tacos filled with made-to-order chile relleno are draws enough, but it’s the little extras that endear: bucket-size salty-spicy micheladas, a trio of distinct and delicious salsas, and frosty piña coladas garnished with fresh fruit. 1836 S Blue Island Ave (312-226-9697).
Taqueria el Milagro
The menu at this tortilleria’s taqueria is identical to its Little Village sibling, but this location excels at carne asada. Even at only a quarter-inch thick, the salty, charred skirt steak stays juicy, piled onto the tortillas in wide slices atop rice and beans and topped with cabbage slaw. 1923 S Blue Island Ave (312-433-7620).
Here, we prefer our tacos filled with the housemade chorizo—lean but flavorful from roasted chilies and garlic. It’s ground coarse and flattened out like sausage patties, ideal with a squeeze of lime and a heap of jalapeño-packed pico de gallo. 1808 S Ashland Ave (312-666-5180).
Typically tables order carnitas by the plate, with tortillas, salsas, charred jalapeño and pickled carrots alongside. Uruapan offers single tacos as well. The weekend specialty: brain tacos, tortillas filled with a creamy, crumbly mixture that looks like scrambled eggs and tastes like greasy chicken, fried to a crisp and sold five for $2. 1725 W 18th St (312-226-2654).
The tortilla nearly melts under the juices of birria, or stewed goat, made wetter (but worth it) from the thin, heat-creeping salsa of tomatoes and chile de arbol. Drop $2.50 for a cup of heady, oily goat consommé. East side of Desplaines St near Roosevelt Rd, next to a blue churro truck.
Go with the chorizo, scooped from a vat, thrown on the griddle and hacked with a spatula as it cooks for maximum crispy edges. Request “con todo” (with everything) for a taco with tomatoey cabbage slaw and a spoonful of thinned guacamole known as taqueria salsa. East side of Desplaines St, just north of Taylor St.
With no seating, Lencho’s encourages a brisk business, where loyalists follow the ritual. Everyone stands, everyone gets the carne asada taco and everyone walks away with a belly full of textbook grilled steak: thin, lightly salted, slightly chewy strips with a tender center and browned edges. East side of Desplaines St, north of Cabrini St.
La Flor de Mexico
Not as famous as its southern neighbor, Rubi’s, but just as good, “The Flower of Mexico” also doesn’t skimp on portions. The tortillas are cooked to order and best when stuffed with big hunks of meaty, tangy, lightly crisped al pastor. West side of Desplaines St, south of Polk St.
Immortalized as a favorite of Rick Bayless, Rubi’s sports a long line. At least there’s a show while waiting: A bandana-clad woman kneads masa (cornmeal dough), forms it into orbs and presses each into a disc before it hits the griddle. Cooks cut from an al pastor spit, the meat falling into a cast-iron griddle with hunks of pineapple and sliced onion for a quick sauté. West side of Desplaines St, just south of La Flor de Mexico.
Vegetarians get their due with taco fillings from sautéed mushrooms and squash blossoms to huitlacoche, an earthy corn fungus. Carnivores should beeline for costilla en salsa verde, pork rib meat stewed in a tangy tomatillo-based green sauce. Manolo’s also won our al pastor taco competition. West side of Desplaines St, just south of Cabrini St.
Taqueria el Milagro
The $2.99-per-taco tag seems pricey until you realize your tender beef in chile de arbol sauce or pork in salsa verde is stuffed into a tortilla atop both beans and rice and under a heap of peppery cabbage slaw. Sides and main, all in one neat little package. 3050 W 26th St (773-847-9407).
Little Village’s king of tacos de guisado specializes in stewed fillings (tender pork in guajillo sauce; tart cactus paddle or charred poblano ragout sandwiched with greasy, gooey cheese). 3132 W 26th St (773-254-3466).
This Nuevo Leon feels auténtico, as does the specialty: tacos Sabinas. The griddled flour tortillas (flour works here, despite what we say here) are packed with grilled rib eye, charred jalapeño, caramelized onions and stewed tomatoes. 3657 W 26th St (773-522-1515).
Carne asada sports a nice char-to-fat ratio, the salted and dried cecina (thinly sliced beef) has just the right chew and tangy, tender chicken is soaked through with stewed tomatoes. 3901 W 26th St (773-522-0041).
Atotonilco is this ’hood’s popular option for post-midnight cravings (open until 2am on weekdays, 24 hours on weekends). Get tangy, marinated pork, sliced from the spit and tossed onto the flattop to rev up crispiness. 3916 W 26th St (773-762-3380).
El Encanto Michoacano
The central Pacific state of Michoacán, Mexico, is ground zero for carnitas. One of Chicago’s best examples of the slick pull-apart pig meat is found here, best on Saturdays or Sundays when tortillas are made fresh by hand. 4228 W 26th St (773-522-2070).