Out of the Frying Pan and into El Fuego – El Fuego 8018 Lincoln Ave Skokie, IL

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Type: Patio Tacos

Price $$$ 

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For many years Skokie has been seriously lacking a decent taco joint. It has always felt incomplete to me without a real place to get decent tacos. Sure you could pay out the nose at El Tipico for some bland restaurant style tacos that won’t make grandpa’s dentures come unstuck, but if you really wanted something even remotely close to classic Mexican street fare, you had to venture to 4 Hermanos in Niles or El Pueblito in Lincolnwood…until now. (Cue dramatic music).

El Fuego opened up in the summer of 2014 smack in the middle of downtown Skokie, effectively giving the middle finger to The Village Inn, which has ruled downtown Skokie’s eating establishments for many years. Instead of charging an arm and a leg for a fancy Mexican dining experience, these guys are happy to just sling some good old fashioned tacos and Mexican food your way. A mere minutes away from the Skokie Public Library and Ace Hardware, you can a purchase a garden hoe, catch up on some Samuel Beckett, and chow down on some tacos all in one afternoon. 

On the sign outside there is a suspiciously happy wild-eyed chile that looks like he just hit a crack pipe right before giving the thumbs up. It’s likely he does not know his fate lies eviscerated in my salsa and subsequently in my belly. The front dining room is rather small, but a decent paint job and fancy wooden furniture help give it that “We just opened and like to keep things simple but don’t want it to look like complete shit” feel. I have no doubt paintings of Aztec Indians crying over scantily clad maidens will soon adorn the walls. However, the real star of El Fuego is the back patio. It is huge, and on a nice summer day it is only a few tiki torches away from becoming a decent late night hang out spot for Skokie’s happy hour crowd and misguided youth. 

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Getting down to business, I ordered four tacos. On my menu it says “TOO INSURE THAT OUR FOOD IS ALWAYS HOT AND FRESH, WE PREPARE ALL FOOD AT TIME OF ORDER. ALL DELIVERYS $2.50”. I always find it endearing when places misspell things, like when shrimp becomes ‘scrimps’ at my favorite Chinese restaurant. All tacos are served with cilantro, onions, lettuce, and tomato. I prefer just cilantro and onion, but for the purpose of proper investigative journalism, I always default to however the chef prefers to serve the dish. I have ordered burgers at semi-fancy gastropubs, asking for ketchup and mustard, only to have the server give me that look of simultaneous disgust and pity before informing me my burger is fine just the way it fucking is.

My waitress immediately brings out a small dish of red salsa with a large basket of chips. The salsa is delicious and clearly made in-house, possibly slaved over by someone’s grandmother, but I cannot confirm. After several napkin rescues (it was a little windy) and one water refill, my tacos arrived. They looked pretty good, but there was no tomatillo salsa in sight. Of course I could have just scooped up some of that red salsa for my chips and dressed my tacos with that, but Jesus Christ, I’m not a caveman, I do have some standards. 

Several business people are seated as I wait for my extra salsa. One of them loudly began exclaiming how he loves enchiladas but maybe should get something different this time. How about the tacos, asshole. Man, I must be getting hangry. I cannot get distracted. I am here on a mission. 

My salsas finally arrive: one bottle of creamy tomatillo and a bottle of orange salsa, which after squirting on my tacos, looks suspiciously like cheese whiz. My order:  “El Fuego”, which is a steak chorizo and hot sauce taco, a regular steak taco, a barbacoa taco, and an al pastor taco.

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To be completely honest, I couldn’t really tell the difference between the steak and chorizo taco and the regular steak taco. Maybe my taco pallet is off, but it just tasted like a regular old steak taco. It wasn’t bad, but I have a feeling the flavors would have ‘popped’ a little more if the lettuce and tomato wasn’t fucking up the flavor profile. The barbacoa taco was so-so, possibly a little dry. The al pastor was magnificent. Strangely enough, it tasted more like steak than the regular steak taco did. Pineapple was present, but there was room for more. I can always use a little more pineapple in my life.

Regardless of the dyslexic flavors, the tacos themselves were not bad. The meat was not overcooked and marinated well (perhaps a little underseasoned, but I like salty tacos), the tortillas were fresh, and all together the tacos might have exceeded expectations if not for the lettuce and tomato. For you carnitas lovers out there, El Fuego does not have carnitas tacos, so you’re SOL. 

After asking my waitress if they served alcohol, she informed me they do not, but will in the future and plan on extending the location into the building next door, effectively turning it into a sports bar, much to my chagrin. I told her there are a million sports bars and not enough margarita slinging taco joints, but I don’t think she really understood. She just kind of nodded with this look on her face that said “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand why you no like sports bar?” We shall see what will become of El Fuego. I was pretty happy, and in the immortal words of the Terminator “I’ll be back”. Parking is usually pretty easy at the lot up the street on Lincoln Ave. 

 I give El Fuego 3.5 out of 5 chiles. 

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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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Holy Frijoles! Wholly Frijoles 3908 W Touhy Ave, Lincolnwood, IL

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Type: Classy Mexican Restaurant Tacos 

Price: $$

http://www.whollyfrijoles.net/

Wholly Frijoles is a family owned Mexican Restaurant in Lincolnwood opened by former Lettuce Entertain You veteran chef Carmen J Villegas. If you’ve ever been to Wholly Frijoles, you know this dude has been saving the good stuff for himself, because the Mexican food at WF is a million times better than any LEY establishment I’ve partronized. However, if I’ve learned anything from this ridiculous and delicious taco blog, it’s that high scale Mexican restaurants do not always make tacos a priority on their menu. Will the tacos at Wholly Frijoles live up to the high standards of Señor Villegas? We shall soon find out. 

Wholly Frijoles Taco Review

Abuelita making some holy frijoles

Much of WF is decorated in fine Mexican art, that I must say is quite impressive. I was seated in a corner near a painting of a ghostly woman making stew. In the very back of the restaurant there is a painting of a Native American that appears to be mourning a woman laid out on some boulders in the shadow of snow peaked mountains. Let’s hope she didn’t buy the farm from eating the tacos at Wholly Frijoles. 

Upon being seated my server informed me her name was Duvy, wrote it and underlined it on my table. So I guess there will be no mistakes about who my server is. I ordered the taco dinner which comes with soup or salad, so of course my fat ass opted for both. She brought out chips and salsa, and I have to say, the salsa was so good I was ready to hold someone hostage for more. Red and chunky with onions and garlic, they loaded that salsa with everything under the Mexican sun.

Wholly Frijoles Taco Review

Duvy keepin’ it real on my table

The salad was also quite delicious, a nice departure from a typical house salad, with finely chopped iceburg lettuce coated in a light, viscous sour cream dressing. The salad also was generously adorned with chopped tomato, onion, and little tortilla strips, adding a lovely texture that made it fun to eat. Face it, we all want Doritos in our salads, we just don’t know it yet. The tortilla soup was also fantastic. Drizzled with sour cream and a light touch of cilantro, the soup also had some of those delicious tortilla strips. I have to say, I love a chef that knows the awesomeness of crunchy food. 

Alright, the real reason I came here: the tacos. My tacos came out with a small bowl of beans (no rice), each on two handmade tortillas. Since there was a rainbow of delicious animals at my disposal, I ordered chicken, steak, and al pastor for my taco dinner. One thing WF did that was hella splendid is they put the toppings under the meat. That way things don’t go falling all over the place and you are sure to get a mouthful of both the meat and toppings in each savory bite. No more scooping stuff back into my taco, that’s clearly for losers.  I would also like to mention the fact that there was a substantial amount of meat in each taco, making them a tad difficult to eat. This is not a terrible thing. 

Wholly Frijoles Taco Review

Marinated in crack

Clearly, they marinate the chicken in crack here and throw it on the grill before serving it, because that sh*t tasted so good I wanted to move into the back room to keep up my habit. Taco meat tastes so much better when it’s grilled vs cooked on a burner. One taco in and I was ready to have J Carmen Villages cater my Big Fat Mexican Wedding, and I’m not even Mexican. The chicken taco sat upon a bed of lettuce and tomato, and had a nice drizzle of sour cream on top. I used the salsa they brought out with the chips to dress my taco properly. 

The carne asada taco was just as exquisite, offering a delicious grilled flavor to a fine cut of skirt steak, cut into rather large slices. The steak was tender and was not at all difficult to eat, except for maybe just fitting the damn thing into your pie-hole. This taco also sat upon a bed of lettuce and tomato, which for some reason was not offensive to me at all, and worked perfectly to balance out the taco. I prefer cilantro and onions on my steak tacos, but everything worked so well together you could have put twigs and berries in that sh*t and I probably would have scarfed it down like it was Thanksgiving.

Wholly Frijoles Taco Review

Al Pastor

The al pastor taco was the only real, sort of disappointing taco of the bunch. And it wasn’t even that disappointing, it was actually pretty good. It just had that ‘reheated in burnt oil on the griddle’ flavor, which I am not a huge fan of. Look, I totally understand it’s not always easy to have meat cooked to order, especially when it’s supposed to come fresh off a revolving spit, without having it completely dry out. Sometimes these things can’t be avoided, but special attention should be paid to the method of reheating, a lot of times oil burns and taco lovers no likey. 

Reheating methods aside, this place is extraordinary. They manage to avoid the fine dining taco curse, and it makes me happy I can eat awesome tacos and not be price-gouged by places like Antique Taco and Cookies and Carnitas. With the soup and salad, the whole thing cost me 13 dollars. If you’re stuck anywhere on the north side near Lincolnwood, I recommend you stop here for lunch or dinner and melt your Mexican loving faces off with this amazing food. If you live up here, I’m sure you already know about it. Parking can be a little tough, but if you’re lucky you can find a (free) spot on the side or behind the building. Whatever you do just don’t let yourself get sucked into going to the Long John Silver’s across the street. 

I give Wholly Frijoles 4.25 chiles.

Wholly Frijoles can be found at 3908 W. Touhy Ave Lincolnwood, IL

Taco Review: Bullhead Cantina, 1143 N. California Ave., Chicago, IL

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Type: Fancy Bar Tacos

Price: $$$

http://bullheadcantina.com/

When I walked into Bullhead Cantina it was pretty loud. Not with music, but tables filled with drunk, happy houring twenty somethings who had taken over the bar. My old man “Turn down the racket!” urge was beginning to bubble up, but then I thought it was a good thing there was a friendly bar in Humboldt Park that allowed people to simultaneously drink copious amounts of alcohol while stuffing their faces with 12 different kinds of tacos. 

Bullhead Cantina Wall

Jimmy John’s Cantina?

Our very friendly server came by, and we ordered some chips and salsa (not complimentary @ $4 a pop). The salsa she brought out was pretty much just blended tomatoes, onions, and jalapeños. But for it’s simplicity, it was surprisingly good. Friday night is $5 dollar craft cocktail night, so we decided to take full advantage and order as many drinks as our wallets and livers could handle. Bullhead “Cantina” (which serves mostly whiskey and bourbon) has a lot of knickknacks and dumb signs on the walls that do little more than fill up space and make it look like a Jimmy John’s. But this is not Chicago Interior Design Talk, it’s Chicago Taco Talk, so let me get back to the matter at hand here: Motherf*cking tacos.

I ordered four tacos: hanger steak, southern fried chicken, brisket, and al pastor. My taco partner ordered all vegetarian tacos: roasted beets, spicy avocado, sweet potato, and kale and grits. Let me start with the steak taco. The hanger steak was delicious, sliced long and thin, and seasoned well. It was tasty, but there wasn’t too much of it present in the taco. More meat please! There was also a good amount of sour cream, which tasted good but was not completely necessary. Whenever places add a ton of sour cream, I start to wonder “What are you hiding? Do your tacos suck?”

Bullhead Cantina Tacos

Meat tacos. Macos.

I should add that all tacos come with pickled cabbage, which had a vinegary taste to it and was kind of strange paired with sour cream. The southern fried chicken taco, as delicious as it was, had nothing southern about it. They were really just regular miniature fried chicken tenders. The Colonel would have been disappointed. They didn’t even try to figure out at least 5 of his 11 herbs and spices.

On the other hand, the brisket taco came with a ton of meat. It was dry rubbed and not smoked. It tasted alright, but when I think brisket, my expectations are raised. Maybe I am being too critical here, but it could have been spicier. And saltier. And smokier. It was still not a bad taco, so I devoured the whole thing. 

On to the al pastor. The best of the four, marinated nicely, though lacking a little salt for my taste. There were pineapple and veggies, but for some reason all of the flavors weren’t working together. There seemed to be a crucial component lacking. It was still a damn good taco and I have a feeling one the most popular ones there.

Bullhead Cantina Veggie Tacos

Veggie Tacos

As for the vegetarian tacos, I had a bite of the sweet potato, which was great. There wasn’t too much potato, and it was balanced nicely with the sour cream and vegetables. I also tried a slice of beet from the beet taco. Normally I hate beets; they taste like fresh garden soil to me. But this beet was beatific! Maybe it was the citrus marinade or the roasting, but I actually liked it. However the kale and grits taco was the clear winner. I was fully expecting it to taste like baby food mixed with lettuce, and it totally did, but it was great! The grits were buttery and delicious, and the kale really soaked up the flavor of the white wine and garlic, as well as adding a nice texture to the taco. I have a sneaking suspicion the veggie tacos here are much better than the meat tacos. 

They ran out of the pomegranate they were putting in my margarita as well as the smoked tequila we wanted to try, which was kind of a bummer. The drinks were kind of weak and our server was also super slow in bringing us the check, but it was Friday night and the cocktails were 5 bucks. It wasn’t her fault, and you get what you pay for. You might need to park at the meters on Division, but if you’re lucky you can get a free spot on California. This place is cash only, so remember to hit up your bank beforehand!

Bullhead Cantina Veggie Tacos

CASH ONLY

I give Bullhead Cantina 3.5 out of 5 chiles. 

Bullhead Cantina can be found at 1143 N. California Ave., Chicago, IL (773) 772-8895