Taking a Trip to the Taco Side! Zacatacos 5925 S Pulaski Rd, Chicago IL

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Type: South Side Tacos

Price: $$

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After being open for a solid 17 years and bragging about it on a white sign in the window, how could I not travel to Zacatacos to check out their fine array of tacos. I have to admit, I was nowhere near the neighborhood when I decided to stop by, but multiple sources assured me Zacatacos was a place I needed to visit if my love for tacos was real. Let me explain something to those people: I don’t need much convincing to go anywhere if you want me to eat tacos. I already have a Pavlovian response to the word “taco”. 

They have multiple locations, but I thought it best to visit the original on South Pulaski. When you enter, there is a small section in front where you can order your food to go. The main dining room is pretty big. I have to say it was kind of lacking in any cool Mexican art or flat screens with telenovelas, but it still managed to feel comfortable. 

The salsas were delicious. Super spicy, so much so that I couldn’t even really tell the difference between the red or the green salsa because my mouth was pretty much numb from the first bite. I like spicy, but I also want to be able to taste my food. My server was a little slow, and she forgot to bring me utensils, which I had to ask for. They also served me a complimentary quesadilla that was quesadelicious. 

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Zacatacos lives up to it’s name, in the sense that, they have a shitload of tacos you can eat. When presented with this many options, I begin to shut down and I just end up ordering everything on the menu. Of course I cannot tell you in detail about all of the tacos because we would be here all night, so I’ll just go over a few major key points. I would also like to add that if you look closely, you can probably figure out what order I consumed the tacos in as my plate got progressively messier with each photo.

First off, these guys are definitely old school. Probably not as old school as El Milagro, but they know what they are doing when it comes to Mexican food.The steak tacos are reminiscent of La Pasadita and Las Asadas: skirt steak salted, grilled, and chopped into chunks. Delicious, but really gave my jaw a workout and instantly activated my TMJ. 

The Al Pastor was just alright. The main difference I’ve noticed in Al Pastor comes down to the marinade and spit roasting. Reheated on the griddle is just not the same. What I did notice was a heavy nutmeg flavor to it. It distracted me and I began to dream about making tacos for Thanksgiving.

The cecina taco, which is cured/marinated steak, was excellent, and probably the best taco out of the bunch. Flavors of salt and garlic were strong and delicious, and I expect vampires will be kept away for quite some time. A little chewy, it seemed to wrap well with the tortillas. (They give you two here per taco)

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They had a fried potato taco, which sounded pretty interesting, so my fat ass ordered it. I have to admit I was pretty psyched for it, because I enjoy eating fried things. However, when the the tacos arrived, I came to a quick realization: they fry the whole taco! I guess I was kind of picturing something like tator-tots inside of a taco, which would have been glorious. Instead it was more of a taco they dumped in the deep fryer that fused shut, with some very bland steaming hot potato inside. And yes, I did my best to pry it open and get some salsa up in that piece. Taco fail.

On to the worst taco of the bunch, the chicken taco. I don’t know what it is about chicken tacos, but so many places seem to not really know what to do with the chicken. If you ask me, your best bet is to season/marinate the the f*ck out of that chicken and shred it, so flavors and spices are evenly dispersed. Zacatacos did not do that. Instead they decided to cut up giant chunks of chicken, steam them or something, and put them in my motherf*cking taco. It was basically the blandest taco this side of the Rio Grande. The only thing I could do at this point was drown it in salsa to give some flavor to the chicken inside my taco.

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If I am in the area I will definitely stop by, although I don’t think I will make that long trek just for tacos again. They have a parking lot and there are plenty of metered spots on Pulaski.Tacos run about 3 dollars each. I would say this is a good place to grab some tacos on the go.

I give Zacatacos 3.5 out of 5 chiles!

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I’ve got Del Seoul but I ain’t a Soldier – Del Seoul 2568 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL

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Type: Korean Tacos

Price: $$$

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Del Seoul has been on my shortlist for a while now, and I was finally able to make sometime to visit the Korean taco joint in Lincoln Park. Since the dawn of the taco explosion here in Chicago several years back there have been many incarnations that have expanded upon our traditional Mexican friend. From the fried avocado taco at Masa Azul to the roasted beet taco at Bullhead Cantina, tacos have come a long way from the ground beef, lettuce, tomato, and cheese in a hard corn tortilla shell we all grew up with. So when my friend Ron mentioned there were a couple Korean taco joints in Chicago, I would be amiss not to seize the opportunity to consume Asian delicacies wrapped in Mexican tradition. Korean and Mexican food seems like the ideal marriage, and like most diverse couplings, can produce some beautiful offspring.  

Del Seoul Taco Review

Art and Seoul

Del Seoul still manages to keep the warmth of a sit down restaurant despite the fast food feel. All of the ordering is done up front at the counter, and the menu is situated on television screens high on the wall behind the register. I noticed that’s the new thing lately, television screen menus. (I’m waiting for the day I can order my tacos from a hologram) After ordering, we were given a number and a styrofoam cup for water. I should probably mention my fountain soda water came out discolored, tainted with coca-cola. As much as I love lightly brown colored water, I dumped it and got some regular water from the ice tea fountain. 

Since I couldn’t decide what tacos I wanted, I ordered them all. All of the tacos! That’s the great thing about tacos, they are small enough so you can order a lot, and get the chance to try several different dishes in the process. Tacos are like the poor man’s Tapas.(unless you happen to be at Antique Taco or Cookies and Carnitas). We waited about 5 minutes before they brought my Korean tacos: Fried Shrimp, Kalbi (short rib), fried fish, spicy bbq  pork, and spicy bbq chicken. All of the tacos came with a secret slaw bathed in korean spices. They didn’t completely smother the tacos in cabbage, so the proportions were just right. 

Del Seoul Shrimp Taco

The infamous shrimp taco

The menu said the sesame-chili shrimp taco was their best, so it seemed like a good enough place to start. Panko crusted with a cilantro-onion relish and sesame aioli, the shrimp taco was definitely something to write home about. No wonder this is their most popular taco. The shrimp was perfectly cooked, and with the aioli slathered on the fried goodness, I’m pretty sure it gave me an endorphin rush. The relish complimented the fish perfectly, the whole thing culminating in a symphony of YUM. But wait…something terrible crossed my mind while eating this delicious taco. As crude as this sounds, I really kind of felt like I was just eating sweet and sour shrimp wrapped in a corn tortilla. You know what, it really doesn’t matter, because this taco still beats out many tacos I’ve tried around Chicago. I’m kind of surprised there aren’t more Asian taco places around town. All in all, a great taco, however I was maybe expecting something more exotic. Have I turned into a taco snob? 

Del Seoul Taco Review

The Kalbi (shortrib) taco

On to the Kalbi! This taco had more traditional Korean flavor to it than the others, although I felt it was a little heavy handed with the sesame oil. The short rib was just short of being overcooked and could stand to be a little more tender, but I’m really splitting hairs at this point. The taco was delicious, and I recommend it. Not my favorite taco of the bunch, but still totally awesome.  

The spicy bbq chicken and spicy bbq pork were essentially the same taco, different meat. They both tasted great, and also had that familiar Asian fast-food-flair. Maybe my exotic expectations were putting too much emphasis on the novelty of Korean tacos, not paying enough attention to was really going on inside the tortilla. The cilantro-onion relish was great. Tacos don’t have to be special, as long as they taste good, and these tacos were well above the mark. 

Fried fish taco

Sambal fish taco

Last but definitely not least: the Sambal fish taco. I don’t really know what to say about this taco, as it tastes pretty much like most of the fried fish tacos in Chicago. Everybody has the same go-to recipe: fried fish, some pickled vegetables, slaw, and aioli on a flour tortilla. Could this be another case of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”? Maybe, but I would still like to see some variety in our fried fish tacos. Regardless, this particular fried fish taco was quite good. The fish was juicy and piping hot and the balance of ingredients worked well together. 

There’s only been a few places I’ve visited where the tacos were good all across the board, and Del Seoul is one of them. On their website it says they are a family owned business inspired by Korean and Asian street food who believes fresh, unique and popular, not trendy, customer-focused food is the way to go. I couldn’t have said it better myself. If you’re in the Lincoln Park area and are in need of a good taco, this place comes highly recommended. Even the snobbiest of taco snobs should be able to enjoy it. Parking can be a little rough on Clark, but you should be able to find a metered spot within a couple blocks. Tacos range from $2.75 – $4.00 each, but most of them are around 3 bucks. If you go, make sure to pick me up a few. 

I give Del Seoul 4.25 out of 5 chiles. 

Del Soul can be found at 2568 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL (773) 248-4227

Cookies and Carnitas and Beers, Oh My!: Cookies and Carnitas 5757 N Broadway, Chicago IL

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Type: Cookies and Tacos 

Price: $$$$$, BYOB

As soon as I heard about a place that specializes in cookies and tacos, I knew I had to get on that ASAP. I came hungry, because when you have to cram numerous tacos in your face for the sake of posterity, you have to have the eye (and stomach) of the tiger. Just outside of Loyola in Edgewater, Cookies and Carnitas is off the beaten path, but is a nice oasis in the otherwise mostly dry landscape of North Broadway. The red walls and wooden tables provide a warm and homey feel. There is art on the wall from local artists, it is good to see the art and restaurant community supporting each other. 

Cookies and Carnitas Taco Review

Sucka! You just paid 20 dollars for a few tacos!

Cookies and Carnitas does not have a website, but let me tell you folks, the tacos aren’t cheap. Antique Taco managed to win me over in spite of their inflated prices, so I wanted to give Cookies and Carnitas a fair shake. In turn, they gave me a fair shake and shook all the money out of my pockets! If that old adage – you get what you pay for – was true, I would have gotten four tacos made of solid gold. Not to sound like a cheap-o or anything, but when 4 tacos costs me over 20 dollars, I expect maybe a table side mariachi band or a bag of cheap magnets to come with it. 

All their tacos come out on El Milagro tortillas (two per taco) and are served with ‘smokey’ beans, chihuaha and cotija cheese, pineapple, cilantro, sour cream, salsa, and shredded cabbage. Holy extra toppings Batman! Look… I enjoy all of the above ingredients in tacos, but more does not always equal better. It’s like when you’re a kid and you decide to mix all the different soda available at the fountain, and then you try it and you realize it tastes like complete shit. The salsa verde was wonderful and tasted genuinely homemade. The smattering of charred pineapple was a nice touch that had some brilliant moments. But Cookies and Carnitas has a heavy hand that would make Guy Fieri look like Giada DeLaurentis. The subtle flavors were drowned out by the amalgam of all the toppings. 

Cookies and Carnitas Taco Review

Art for sale!

Of course, you can always ask to have your tacos served the way you want. I ordered an aged skirt steak taco, a pork shoulder taco, a goat taco, and a fried portabella mushroom taco. I have a confession I should probably make here: If there are two tortillas per taco, I try to eat my taco with just one tortilla. For me, two is unnecessary, unless it begins to fall apart, which I assume is why they do it in the first place. Cookies and Carnitas doubles up their tortillas, and right on cue, the first layer fell apart into the safety net of my second tortilla. 

On to the meats! The pork shoulder was excellent. It took me a little while to warm up to it, but mid-taco I realized these guys know what they are doing when it comes to pork. Hence the name Cookies and Carnitas. The pork was juicy, flavorful, and tender. Well done, boys. 

The goat taco was similar to the pork shoulder: moist, soft, braised in beer and their own special blend of herbs. It did not taste gamey, but tasted like goat, if that makes any sense. Not a home run, but good nonetheless.

Cookies and Carnitas Taco Review

Steak Taco close up!

The aged skirt steak taco was…..interesting.This is not meant to be a dis, but whatever seasoning they used on the steak reminded me of those little taco seasoning packets you buy at the grocery store. It tasted exactly like that! Take that information and do with it what you will. Some people might really like those taco packets. Also, the texture and flavor of the steak seemed to be a little off for skirt. I was thinking maybe they braise the steak a little, which obviously would change the texture as well as the flavor profile. Maybe the aging has something to do with it. I can only assume I will get softer as I get older. That said, the steak was tender and delicious, despite the McCormick Taco Seasoning packet they maybe didn’t use.

Now to address the fried portabello taco. I knew this moment was going to come. You know, even when I feel it is justified for me to completely rip apart a taco or a restaurant, I feel bad because it is still somebody’s livelyhood. The purpose of my blog is not to keep people away, but to encourage them to go and find out for themselves. What I might think is a terrible taco might be the perfect taco for somebody else.That being said, this was the worst taco I have ever eaten in my entire life and any past lives I might have lived. I would not wish this taco upon my worst enemy. I’m fairly certain these tacos were served at Guantanamo Bay. I don’t know what they did to those poor portabella mushrooms, but I can make a taco out of the sole of my shoe taste better. It’s amazing how just the wrong seasoning in a batter can turn something beautiful into a horror show. Suffice to say, the taco went unfinished.

Cookies and Carnitas Taco Review

Kooky

That’s pretty much it. Ease up on the toppings, make your own tortillas, and maybe experiment with some different recipes for the steak and portabella mushrooms, and you guys at C&C will have tacos worthy of the prices. Not that you will listen to me, I’m just a guy who writes about tacos. What the hell do I know. Parking is fairly easy on Broadway, and if you’re lucky enough to get a spot right in front, you won’t have to pay a meter. The place was fairly empty when I went, but it was early on a Tuesday, so it might get busier on the weekends. I should mention that the guys that worked there seemed like pretty nice and cool dudes. It’s also BYOB, which helps take some of the sting off the prices. Don’t forget to take the poll below!

I give Cookies and Carnitas 3.5 out of 5 chiles. 

Cookies and Carnitas can be found at 5757 N Broadway, Chicago IL (773) 769-2900

School of Tacos: Carmela’s Taqueria, 1206 W. Lawrence Ave., Chicago, IL

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Type: Hole-in-the-wall tacos

Price $$ 

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 Taqueria Taco Review

I can call you Betty, you can call me Al Pastor.

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. 

Carmela's Taqueria Taco Review

Abuelita making tortillas.

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. 

Carmela's Taqueria Taco Review

Basket of love.

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. 

Carmela's Taqueria Taco Review

Carmela’s familia, no doubt.

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

Taco Review: Antique Taco, 1360 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL

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Type: Fancy-white-people tacos 

Price: $$$$

http://antiquetaco.com/

My friend and colleague had been bugging me about reviewing Antique Taco in Wicker Park, so I finally caved and took him up on it. I had been wanting to review and discover more secret hidden gems, but it really does not take very much to get me to eat tacos with anyone, so of course I said yes. You won this round stomach. Actually, you win every round.

Antique Taco review

One taco over the line…

I am going to start with the bad. First off, during weekend dinner hours, this place is packed. I was there with a couple of friends, and we could only find a two-person table to seat the three of us. You order up front, and they give you an empty paper towel roll with a number on it and bring the tacos out to you. There also seems to be a family-style seating thing going on, so it’s possible you might need to share your table with some Wicker Parkians. Second, these tacos come two per purchase, and you cannot pick and choose. I wanted to try at least two different kinds, so naturally I ended up ordering four tacos, which cost me $18. And unless they are filled with unicorn meat and the tears of our Lady of Guadalupe, four tacos should not cost you $18. Luckily, my amigos were kind enough to trade a couple tacos with me so I could try all four. I would recommend doing the same. 

After trying them I understood the line and exorbitant prices; holy guacamole these tacos are good! This place makes Big Star taste like Taco Bell. And I really enjoy Big Star (and Taco Bell for that matter). I had steak, chicken, fish, and shrimp tacos. The balance of ingredients and proteins in all of these tacos was just right. The steak, a ribeye, was adorned with avocado, cilantro, pickled onions, and cotija cheese. Seriously, it was salsa your pants good. (Note: the current menu online is not accurate.) It had that grilled flavor to it, and, as we all know, grilled is the most delicious of flavors.

The fish taco might have been the best fish taco I’ve ever had. They clearly put awesomeness spices in the batter, which meant it really didn’t need to be drowning in sauce to taste good. It had a Sriracha tartar sauce, chives, and cabbage (which was apparently smoked, but I couldn’t tell). I’m not really sure what kind of fish it was, but after the first bite I didn’t care and just wanted it in my stomach.    

Antique Taco Review

Holy Guacamole

The shrimp taco tasted good but wasn’t anything special. It got cold pretty fast, probably due to the corn relish. They were marinated or cooked in some kind of chipotle deal, which was noticeable but maybe got a little bit lost with the flavors of the relish. Really, the shrimp just didn’t hold a candle to the steak and fish tacos. 

The chicken taco was tasty and going for an Indian vibe. It was slathered in turmeric/curry and a ton of other spices, and topped with cucumber, pickled jalapeños, onions, and yogurt sauce, definitely on the mark but not the best of the four. However, you will not be disappointed. 

The staff is very friendly. Our server/food-bringer-outter told us he would keep an eye out for an open table, but we told him we were cool where we were. People were nice and mostly filled with smiles. The register guy seemed a little annoyed, but we all have our bad days, and seriously who enjoys working at a register. (Well, I actually did.)

My only question was what the heck do antiques have to do with tacos? Clearly nothing, but one of my friends explained to me that one of the owners enjoyed antiquing and the other owner enjoyed tacos, and voilà, a nonsensically named taco joint was born. Parking can be tough and expensive because it’s in the heart of Wicker Park. I recommend public transportation, especially since they have margaritas and canned beer available for consumption. Yum. I added a poll below! 

I give Antique Taco 4.0 out of 5 chiles. 

Antique Taco can be found at 1360 N. Milwuakee Ave., Chicago IL (773) 687-8697