The best tacos in Chicago
Though you can find carnitas on many taqueria menus, we prefer restaurants that stake their reputation on the quality of their deep-fried pork. Plus, this mostly ensures that no matter when you go, you’ll get meat straight out of the lard bath. That’s always the case at Carnitas Uruapan, which serves richly fatty and crispy pork with all the salsas and sides you could want.
The lines form early at this Maxwell Street Market staple, and it’s all due to the al pastor. The meat is thickly sliced, resulting in juicy and caramelized hunks, which are loaded onto enormous, freshly made tortillas and topped with a smattering of pineapple. It’s a genuine feast for $3.
No other place in Chicago lavishes attention on goat like Birrieria Zaragoza, which serves a plated version of the dish sans tortillas. Instead of bathing in a deep bowl of broth, the roasted and hand-pulled meat is served with a ladleful of flavorful consomme, along with some of the finest handmade tortillas in town. If you’re hungry, get the platter, but we cut to the chase with an order of tacos.
All of the Mexican fare at Quiote is otherworldly, but no visit is complete without an order of the lamb carnitas tacos for the table. A plank of tender, caramelized meat is dressed with Japanese eggplant, salsa verde, cotija cheese and tahini crema. It's a close-your-eyes-and-moan-out-loud kind of dish that will surely lure you back to this Logan Square spot again.
You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, from the extra beefy suadero to the intricately spiced longaniza sausage. But the showstopper 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.
Just down the street from La Chaparrita is perhaps the city’s best al pastor taqueria (making this stretch of 25th Street the beating heart of Chicago’s taco scene). An enormous spit of rotating marinated pork beckons as you walk in and, fortunately, Los Barrilitos knows how to treat it right, slicing the chile-stained pork directly onto awaiting tortillas. Tender, with nicely caramelized edges, this is al pastor done right.
While a number of the fillings here are worth your attention, the ravenous crowds are mostly beating down the door for the carne asada. Instead of mangy bits of chopped beef, L’Patron serves up sizable hunks of extra-tender steak. Oh, and don’t forget to ask for the flavorful, thick housemade tortillas.
This adorable—and always packed—Wicker Park spot has a delicious, ever-changing menu of tacos and seasonal margaritas. The crispy fish tacos are served two at a time and feature a good portion of tempura battered fish. Topped with bright purple smoked cabbage, green scallions and a creamy sriracha tartar sauce, the dish is big enough to share (not that you'd want to).
If you consider yourself a taco enthusiast, add this low-key Avondale joint to your list and treat yourself to an order of tacos al pastor. Juicy and slightly charred, the meat is wrapped in two tortillas and sprinkled with raw onions and cilantro (as it should be).
You can't go wrong with any of the tacos at 5 Rabanitos, but the pibil taco stands out amid the array of options. Juicy and tender slow-roasted pork turns the soft house-made tortillas into a messy ordeal, but we don't mind, because we'll eat these tacos topped with crunchy radishes in just a few bites.
You’d be forgiven for calling Taqueria El Milagro’s taco a mini-burrito. After all, this comically overstuffed creation features a whole slab of grilled beef, refried beans, red rice and a handful of crunchy slaw. Eating one requires two hands and a very hungry disposition, but it’s worth the effort all the same.
Who says you can't have tacos for breakfast? Rick Bayless's Cruz Blanca makes a case for meal inversion with his eggs a la Mexicana, which are only available on the weekend brunch menu. Stuff warm tortillas with fluffy scrambled eggs that are filled with tomatoes, serranos, grilled onions, cilantro and avocado. A side of black beans and salsa verde make excellent glue for holding it all together.
Mi Tocaya chef Diana Dávila does some excellent things with meat, but she's also an expert in vegetarian cooking. Case in point: her milpa tacos, which are packed with flavorful charred butternut squash, tangy chiles, black beans and cooling corn crema. It's a fitting appetizer for other veggie-forward concoctions on the menu.
If you’re in the mood for a no-nonsense carne asada experience, one that values the straightforward appreciation of grilled beef above all else, head straight for Tio Luis in Archer Heights. You only need to worry about which of the three fine salsas to drizzle on top, though my money is on the spicy tomatillo.
There are so many good things about El Mezquite, a Pilsen taqueria that serves affordable and authentic Mexican fare. But one of the best parts of the place is its cabeza tacos (in case you were wondering, that's cow head). A lot of spots can't quite pull off the dish, and it ends up running amok on your digestive system. Not Mezquite, though. Well-seasoned and just tender enough, the cabeza tacos will leave you wondering why you don't eat the innards of bovine noggins on a regular basis.
Korean tacos aren't a revolutionary new concept, but when we're looking for an excellent version of the dish, we book it to En Hakkore for the taco combo. For $8, you get two massive tacos—one with Korean barbeque beef and another with spicy pork. Both are topped with kimchi, onions, cilantro and lettuce and cradled inside a downright dreamy paratha flatbread.
No place in Chicago cares about corn tortillas like La Casa de Samuel. You can see this for yourself, since they are all prepared right as you walk inside. Thick, yet soft, with a sweet fresh corn fragrance—they are good enough to eat alone. But they really thrive when matched with slices of funky cecina. Thin sheets of beef are salted and dried, resulting in a concentrated wallop of beefiness.
Fried potato tacos are usually humble things—delicious, yes, but not scene-stealers. The exception comes at DeColores, a Pilsen storefront that’s part art gallery, part restaurant, where the aptly named colorful taquitos de papa don’t look out of place next to all the artwork on the walls. It’s all about the texture here, with the crunchy fried tortillas cracking to reveal soft and creamy potatoes.
For a wide variety of tacos, head to Dudley Nieto's Rojo Gusano in Albany Park. The restaurant serves them a la carte, so you can mix and match however you'd like. Whatever you choose, pick at least one of the mixed mushroom tacos, with hunks of tender 'shrooms, arbol salsa, queso fresco and cilantro. Veggie fans rejoice—this one rivals the meat-laden tortillas.
La Lagartija’s standout taco starts with a soft housemade tortilla that’s topped with lightly fried beer-battered shrimp, creamy aioli and crunchy cabbage. So far, so good. But it’s the habanero ketchup—spicy, smoky and slightly sweet—that transforms it into something like a Mexican play on a steakhouse shrimp cocktail.
Yep, that’s a whole fried soft-shell crab sitting on the tortilla, making this one of the most ludicrous and over-the-top taco experiences around. Fortunately, this sort of playful stoner cuisine is exactly what Big & Little’s does best, so the soft-shell crab is fried until it achieves the proper balance of crackly crust and juicy interior. The juices will soak through the tortilla and drip down your chin, but it’ll be worth it.
As the name suggests, La Cecina in the Back of the Yards specializes in cecina, thin sheets of cured beef that fall halfway between the well-seasoned juiciness of freshly grilled steak and the funky concentration of tender jerky. The flavorful meat is paired with creamy beans and avocado, then wrapped up in a light and flexible housemade tortilla.
Go with us on this border-blurring creation that captures the essence of an Indian favorite inside a corn tortilla. A crisp chicken tender is perched atop buttered cilantro basmati rice before it's drizzled with spicy tikka sauce and crowned with fresh Thai basil. It's crazy enough to work.
While Big Star is best known for its perpetually packed patio and whiskey specials, most of the taco options are in the solid (fish taco) to the oddly disappointing (al pastor) range. But the secret is to order one of the veggie tacos. The best is the taco de papas con rajas, which balances creamy potato hunks with rustic and spicy red chilies.