Type: Hole-in-the-wall tacos
In my hunt to review all of the best (or worst) taco spots in Chicago, I have been avoiding the places that I frequent or know to be good, mostly because I fear my own bias will creep into the review. Carmela’s is a spot I’ve been going to for many years now, and I finally felt it was time to give it the review it deserves.
Although I am not a fan of absolutes or generalizations, I used to live by the rule that the smaller the taco joint, the better the tacos. This golden standard I lived by throughout my twenties and early thirties served me well, but as the landscape of tacos in Chicago changed with the opening of places such as Big Star and Antique Taco, I came to realize more love was being put into Chicago’s favorite Mexican son, the taco. Despite the big push for more complex and daring flavors, I will still always hold the tiny hole-in-the-wall spots close to my heart. Carmela’s is one of those spots.
Carmela’s is located in Uptown, across the street from the Riviera and around the corner from the Green Mill. I remember the very first time I came here seeing a framed article from Chicago Magazine on the wall, praising their al pastor tacos. So what did i do? Like an idiot, I got three steak tacos. But my subsequent visit proved to be more fruitful, as I wanted to know what the big deal was. They had this gigantic, sweaty spit of pork with pineapple and onion all over it that looked totally monstrous. Up until that point I had only seen gyros on those things, so I was curious as to what the hell it was. I ordered an al pastor taco and was shocked, I am not kidding you, straight-up shocked at how delicious these things were.
Thinking about this I realized that I actually attended a School of Tacos. Starting off Elementary School with the good old crunchy, hard shell, ground beef taco most of us are familiar with. Cheese, lettuce, tomato, a solid taco, no doubt. From there, in my twenties, a ritualistic graduation occurred on late nights at La Pasadita that schooled me in Steak Taco Junior High. Not only did the steak taste better than ground beef, but the combination of onions, cilantro, and salsa was completely new to me and blew my Taco Bell-eating mind. Just as it was when I got my first locker in junior high, I felt like I was hobnobbin’ with the real deal. And then came Carmella’s. Complex flavors, new kinds of meat, and what the hell, is that pineapple in my taco? I was now an adult, and eating tacos that would have looked completely foreign to me as a child. With the addition of all the fancy taco places that have opened up, I guess you could compare places like Big Star, Masa Azul, and Antique Taco to Taco University, allowing Chicagoans to explore different interests in the taco world. Fried fish taco? Yes, I will take that course.
So here we are, at Carmella’s, 2014. I am by myself, and I have ordered a skirt steak taco (they have a skirt steak taco that is different from the regular steak), an al pastor taco, a chicken taco, and a cachete (steamed beef) taco. All the tacos came out with onions and cilantro, with the exception of the chicken taco, which had lettuce and tomato. They also served me a little lime wedge for every taco I ordered. It’s the little things. Don’t think I don’t notice when I get four tacos and they only give me two lime wedges, or two of those itsy bitsy little salsa cups. Then I have to conserve salsa to make sure I have enough for every taco. Sure, I can ask for more, but I shouldn’t have to. We deserve better!
The skirt steak taco was pretty good. They grilled it right there, fresh (no reheating). I have to admit, it was a little salty, even for my tastes, but still very delicious. I noticed the guy seasoning it while it was still on the grill. Gastroscience at it’s best.
It’s possible the salty skirt steak taco ruined my chicken taco because it tasted kind of bland to me. It was still delicious, do not get me wrong, just not as flavorful. I probably couldn’t even really tell you what it tasted like because I was still tasting my skirt steak taco.
The cachete (steamed beef) taco was pretty good. Interestingly enough, it looked like a regular steak taco. I think they must grill it for a minute after they steam it. It was tender and soft, like a love letter from a 16-year-old Mormon. My only beef (pun intended) was that it was a little too fatty for me. I’m okay with a little, but generally I prefer to be eating actual meat.
Over the years, the al pastor at Carmela’s has gone down in quality. At times the marinade is too powerful and it comes off salty, other times it’s a little weak. This time it was a little overcooked, the onions were kind of burnt, and where’s my pineapple? Regardless, it still tasted good.
Technically there isn’t parking in front of Carmela’s, but there is a 15-minute blinker spot, and without fail I always park at that spot and put on my blinkers. It’s probably not the best idea, but I can guarantee you those tacos will be eaten in less than 15 minutes. If you’re not comfortable with that, you should be able to find a metered spot on Broadway. They close at 10, so no late night eating, unfortunately.
I give Carmela’s Taqueria 4.0 out of 5 chiles.
Carmela’s can be found at 1206 W. Lawrence Ave., Chicago IL (773) 275-5321