Type: Around-the-World Tacos
Amidst the taco explosion of the last 5 years, there have been some pretty great taco places opening up around the country, and Chicago is no exception. We’ve had places come and go, and chefs experimenting and inventing awesome ways for us to shove food in our faces on little corn mashed circles.
There is something about a restaurant when the chef, and everyone involved really cares about the work they do and the food they put out. There is actually a large section of their web page devoted to the story behind the family restaurant and Chef Nieto (great name). The service, although a little slow at times, is always friendly and accommodating. The place is comfortable, and although they don’t display the quantity or quality of Latin inspired art many Latin American restaurants boast, they do have a pretty cool photo of Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album cover. There are also skateboards and stickers on the wall, and one gets the feeling they are trying to speak to the hip taco-loving kids in the area. The drinks are also pretty decent here, I recommend the Pomegranate Cucumber Mezcal laced concoction.
We started off with two orders of guacamole, each about the size of an ice cream scoop: the spicy pumpkin seed, which comes with charred pineapple, and the serrano pico de gallo, nice and chunky. Both were very tasty, and they come with some delicious sticks of jicama planted in the guac. The “chips” that come out are actually fried whole tortillas. Although I had to do the work and break them up my damn self, I wasn’t mad at it.
For taco journalism purposes, I ordered 6 tacos. Truth be told, I wasn’t able to finish all six, but I managed to put away 4 and a half, which ain’t too shabby. The tacos I ordered: Korean BBQ Beef, Pork Belly, Short Rib, Charred Butternut Squash, Green Curry Camaron, and Chicken Tinga. All their tacos are served on homemade corn tortillas, which is, as you know, the only way if you’re serious about tacos.
I knew I was in for a quite a meal, so I started off with what is typically my favorite taco, the Pork Belly. I wasn’t going to fill up on what could possibly be not-so-great tacos and not have room for my favorite, duh. The pork was cooked properly and not too dry. It had a great grilled, smokey taste, and was chopped into cubes, which I found interesting. Pork to the third power. Super delicious, and topped off with Oaxacan Pasilla salsa and pico de gallo relish, it quickly became one of my favorite pork belly tacos in Chicago. Possibly my favorite? Not too fatty, but just enough to give it perfect flavor.
The short rib taco… holy mole. This might be one of the best tacos I have ever eaten. Although I love barbacoa, it made me wonder why short rib hasn’t replaced it yet in every Mexican eatery. I have to admit, it is difficult for me to even write about right now – it’s about 10 minutes before the lunch-time call, and I am famished. The short rib comes with onions and green salsa, traditional steak taco style. And a little bit of radish, which seems to be their thing here. I don’t know what else to say about it other than a flavor explosion that shook me to my core. I will dream about this taco for months.
The Korean BBQ Beef taco, which in essence is a bulgolgi taco, was delicious, although a bit salty for me. It probably is supposed to be. As for the Korean influence, all the flavors were there. It comes with kimchi, cilantro, and radish, with a healthy splash of sesame seeds. At first I found it a little mystifying to see this taco on the menu (as it was mystifying why there were chopsticks on the table), but then I read the website, and realized the location, West Albany Park, historically has had a large Korean population. Anyways, what I want to say here is, this is a good taco, but not the best on the menu. If I want Korean flavors, I’ll probably just go to a Korean restaurant. But don’t discount this taco! I’m just sort of an all or nothing kind of guy.
On to the roasted butternut squash and kale taco. In the history of dual combinations, there have been some heavyweights. Gin and Juice. Sonny and Cher. Democrats and Republicans. But the best of the combos, the one I’m getting at here, is the salty and the sweet. It is my estimation that was the aim of this particular taco, and although tasty, it just barely misses the mark. The sweetness of the butternut squash overpowered the saltiness supplemented by the farmer’s cheese and tomatillo salsa. But it was a close match, and with a little bit of fine tuning, this taco could out-do a chocolate covered pretzel on any day of the week. Coming from me, that’s saying a lot, because I love those damn things.
The chicken tinga taco….was decent. It pretty much follows along the lines of most pulled chicken tacos, and it wasn’t dry, which is a common occurrence of the pulled variety. It had a great spicy chile and garlic rubbed flavor, and with the crema, was a tasty treat, but nothing too spectacular about it. I wouldn’t steer you away, it gets a solid B+.
And now, the shrimp curry taco. I enjoy a good Thai curry, and I love me some shrimp, but I’m not sure if both of these belong inside a taco. Once again, I feel like I would prefer to get this from a Thai restaurant rather than having shrimp dressed with curry inside a taco. It felt ambitious, yet uninspired at the same time, if that makes any sense. It probably doesn’t. If anything, this taco felt more like a palette cleanser, sandwiched between the huge flavors of the Korean taco and the short rib. Or maybe I’m just not the biggest Thai curry fan, and you would enjoy this taco more than I did. That’s completely possible.
Overall, Rojo Gusano, although not a complete homerun, settles for an RBI with a man on third. Clearly some tacos definitely outshine others. Maybe my take was skewed by personal preference, but I try my best to offer an objective opinion and keep the facts straight. I definitely recommend it, but if I were to have a word with Chef Nieto, my opinion as a frequent taco consumer would be to stick to traditional Latin American flavors. As for the vibe, the place looks hip, and the drinks are all tasty. Not a fan of the metal chairs, but I’ll always settle if it means good food. The outside seating is a nice treat as well, and one thing I should note is the background music was well curated, which makes sense considering the Dylan poster and the fresh young vibe of the joint. I did see an amplifier in the corner, so it looks like they might have some local musicians serenading you while you dine, although I have yet to encounter it. The prices are reasonable (the specialty tacos are in the three dollar range, the more basic tacos 2 something) but they all were equal in quality. There is paid parking outside. I’ve never had trouble finding a spot, but for some reason it has always been the last spot available. Outside seating, brunch, booze, tacos, amazing appetizers…I hope this place sticks around for a long time.
I give Rojo Gusano 4.0 out of 5 chiles.