Type: Patio Tacos
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.
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.
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.