Lunch Meets | When is it taco time?
[Ed. note: Welcome back to Lunch Meets, our weekly online column where TOC's Food & Drink intern, John Irvine, infiltrates the anonymous lunch masses in the Loop and asks the tough food questions. This week, to coincide with our cheap eats feature on tacos, John asks the men and women of the street this question: What is your relationship with tacos? Find the answers—and find out why corn tortillas reign supreme—after the jump.]
Alicia Williams, 25, in the south Art Institute Gardens.
Lets talk tacos. What is your favorite taco? Where do you go? Why do you go? Explain your relationship.
Well the first thing that comes to mind is La Unica. It’s on Devon right by Loyola, and the only thing they serve is steak tacos. But literally, I kid you not, those are the best steak tacos I’ve ever had in this entire city. And you gotta get it with the salsa verde, otherwise it’s just not complete.
Why are they the best?
Honestly, the meat is tender and the seasoning is perfect. They’re mild, by my standards. My friends have had them and thought they were spicy. But they’re just delicious. You can hold it, but it’s huge, and the meat doesn’t fall out of the bottom, right? It’s a solid taco. I love tacos and I’m always on the hunt for good tacos. Big Star isn’t bad, but, I mean, its Gringo food.
What do you think of corn versus flour?
Corn. It’s not a taco if it’s a flour tortilla. I don’t even know what that is. Corn just tastes better. Top it with cilantro, onions and lime juice. And salsa verde. That’s it.
Ok, just the bare bones. And what do you drink with your tacos?
Juaritos. Those are delicious.
What is your favorite neon flavor?
Lime and pineapple. Pineapple is bright neon yellow. It’s great.
Are you a margarita person or do you prefer beers with your tacos?
Beer. Dos Equis. Or Modella Negra.
Are tacos for you a going out food, a drunk food, an eating in food, carry out?
It’s the perfect date food.
Do you think you have the ability to determine what a person’s like based on their tacos?
Yes, I can.
So, if a person only orders chicken, it usually means that they don’t want to try anything new, they’re not very adventurous, at least in my experience. If they don’t get any cilantro on it, that’s a deal breaker because that stuff is delicious. If they get an al pastor or anything that I’ve never tried before, then they’re a keeper because they know how to eat a taco and they’re not afraid to try new things.
Okay, okay. So wait, what is the craziest taco you’ve had?
I was in DC a few months ago and I actually had a cricket taco and the crickets were sautéed in tequila and lime juice. It was really good.
Explain what that even tasted like and why you did that to yourself.
The crickets themselves had a little bit of crunch to them and they were slightly chewy. They honestly just tasted like tequila and lime juice. There wasn’t a cricket flavor, it was just alcohol and acidity. I would eat that again it was really good. I found it in a guide book before I visited.
Chris Ragni, 26, in the north Art Institute Gardens.
What is your relationship with tacos? When do you get them, why do you get them, what do you get?
I guess I get tacos when I don’t want to eat a full burrito. So when I’m not that hungry but when I really need Mexican food. I have Mexican food twice a week.
So needless to say, you’re a fan. What is the difference between really committing to a burrito, versus a taco? What makes a burrito so special?
It’s the fact that with a burrito there’s more mass. It’ll sit heavier in my stomach, I guess. I can pull myself away from a taco more easily than not finishing a burrito.
What kind do you get?
Barbacoa is pretty good if you’re going to Chipotle but otherwise al pastor or carnitas.
Do you really prefer Chipotle or do you like taquerias?
No, I really do like taquerias, but to be honest, I haven’t found a good one down here in the Loop area so it’s usually just Chipotle.
Do you have a favorite place elsewhere?
I mean, sort of. Basically the dirtier a place looks, the better.
Would you say you’re adventurous in your selections?
If a place has a bunch of different proteins, I try to get one of each variety. I don’t get three chicken tacos. I usually get my tacos as spicy as I can get it and then usually not be able to handle it and still eat it, but sweat like crazy.
It seems to be a running theme of your Mexican-food experience that you’re a bit of a masochist. The hottest you can get, the weirdest you can get, the biggest you can get. What do you drink with them?
Ice water. It’s the easiest way to get it down.
So when do you actually go to get tacos?
You could eat tacos any time, but I go for lunch more commonly. Usually if I’m eating dinner, I can justify eating a full burrito, but at lunch I have to hold back from myself.
Corlyn Chevaliar, 28, in the north Art Institute Gardens.
How do you feel about tacos? Tell me all about your relationship with tacos.
Well, I’m originally from Texas, from Houston. So I grew up with good tacos. And coming to Chicago I really appreciate that there are tacos in Chicago everywhere you go. I originally would just go to hole-in-the-wall taquerias. But now, I go to Big Star all the time. I haven’t been to Antique Taco yet, though.
Oh, it’s super cute!
I’m going to need to make it there as soon as possible. Hm, well I really also love fish tacos. Hole-in-the-wall places are really good. Really, really good. There’s one on Ashland and Division, La Pasadita, and then there’s on in a convenience store.
So the shadier the better?
Yeah, those have really good al pastors.
So you said you like fish tacos, but what about the crazy stuff?
No, no. Just fish. I’ll do an al pastor. I mean I’m not like anti-pork, so I’ll eat that. I just love legit Mexican food. I mean, I like menudo, too.
And you’re impressed with the Chicago taco and how authentic it is?
Yes. I mean, there are always debates about Chicago and the diversity of Chicago, but it’s obviously a great, diverse city. So even though you may need to travel to a different neighborhood to get a great taco, it's there and available and worth it. There’s also the Korean taco. I like the Korean tacos. I think they’re very good. I like mixing the kimchi. I’m all about the Korean taco.
What do you drink with your tacos?
Ok, I could be really silly, but a tamarind drink is really good if its just basic and during the day and I don’t want to be an alcoholic [laughs]. I could also go for a michelada.
Liana Jegers, 22, in the south Art Institute Gardens.
So, how would you categorize your relationship with tacos? Are you a die-hard taco person?
I’m more of a burrito person.
Ah, a burrito person.
But, they’re all essentially the same, so.
Explain your favorite burrito. What goes in it? What goes on it? Where do you get it?
I live in Wicker Park, so usually I go to just a little place up there called Picante, get a chicken burrito with black beans, hot salsa. The hottest salsa.
So you can handle the heat?
The hotter the better?
I’d say so.
So what makes this place special?
Well, it’s within walking distance and it’s super inexpensive.
The cheaper the better?
Not necessarily, I’ve had some cheap tacos that are really bad.
What is the worst taco experience you’ve had?
I think the worst taco experience for anybody, in general, is Taco Bell.
You wouldn’t go for a Doritos Locos taco!?
I’ve had it. I’ve had it before. It was insane. The craziest thing I’ve ever eaten. The fact that they hand you a wet wipe, they shoved it towards me and they were like, “You’re gonna need this.” And I was like, “Oh, God.”
I didn’t have the benefit of receiving a wet wipe with mine. And that’s probably one of the many reasons I didn’t enjoy it.
I suppose it’s basically a more convenient walking taco, wrapped in a neon shell.
It really is. It’s a good idea, I think. It’s probably some good marketing for Taco Bell. You know?
What is the scenario for your taco consumption? Is it late-night drunk food? Is it lunch? Is it all-purpose?
Well, it depends. If it’s Taco Bell, that’s probably late-night drunk food. But otherwise, I’ll eat tacos any time. I have a problem where I have it two or three times a week.
I wouldn’t say that’s a problem.
Really? Ok, thank you. Some might say that’s an addiction.
John Opera, 37, in the south Art Institute Gardens.
So I want to ask you about your relationship with tacos, your favorite places and whatnot.
Oh, my favorite place is Big Star. But I’m pretty sure any white hipster would say that. I also like Antique Taco. They’re kinda doing the Big Star thing but I think they’re in their own kinda version of that.
What do you order at Antique Taco?
I have eaten there a few times. I got the mushroom taco. And their milkshakes are amazing. I used to like El Cid, in Logan’s Square. They deny it but... the quality has gone way down. So you are going around downtown Chicago asking people about their favorite tacos?
Yes. And their relationships with tacos: when they eat them and why.
Well they’re easy, they’re easy to make. My girlfriend also makes really good soy-chorizo tacos with soy chorizo from Trader Joe’s. They’re easy to make and they’re good drinking food.
What do you drink with your tacos?
Well a margarita, definitely need a good margarita.
What about Mexican beer?
Yeah, yeah. Tecate. I live in Logan Square and Tecate is in every bodega. Lime and Tecate.
So you named two botique-y places. Do you ever go to the super dirty ones?
El Cid used to be my favorite Mexican place—the one at Kedzie and Milwaukee—but the last time I went there, I was disappointed.
Corn or flour?
Corn, definitely corn.
I have no idea. I don’t know. The consistency is a good rubbery feel. It’s rubbery but its good. Whenever I can cut gluten out, I do. So I guess that’s probably why.
Gluten-free is the new vegan. Are you vegetarian?
No, no. Just health conscious. But I smoke when I drink. I’ve been quitting for 10 years.
Alright, well when you go for meat tacos do you get the cow tongue or pork belly tacos?
No, but, I don’t know how to say it properly, but my friends and I joke around and call [this one taco place] Take-a-Leak-on-Me. They have good tacos but they have weird, like, tongue and they had a pig’s foot taco and my friend got it once to see what would happen and it was just, literally, just waxy cubes of weird meat. I think it was pickled. I did not eat that. So, no, I do not do that.
Well when you explain it like that, I don't know if I blame you.
Actually, now it’s all coming back to me. At Division and Ashland, there are three taco joints owned by the same people. What are those called? [ed note: Those are La Pasadita.] When I first moved here, I went there. That’s good but it’s not for the feint of heart because you walk in there and it’s not the most sanitary place in the world. When I first moved here, my artist friend, Rashid Johnson, who has a show at the MCA, introduced me to this place because we lived down the street. I have fond memories of going there hammered with him to get tacos. But, last summer I convinced my girlfriend to go there and we walked in and she was like, “NO.” So we turned around and left.
Leo Malagon, 19, in Chase Plaza.
Tell me all about your favorite taco. Where do you go for it?
Carne asada and usually I have it with cilantro, some hot sauce and lemon. I usually get them at my house because my mom is a great cook. Carne asada is her specialty.
Corn or flour?
Corn. For sure.
Is there ever an occasion for flour?
I mean, I guess if someone asks for it, they can get flour. But I judge them. I give them a funny look and say, “Are you my cousin? You’re not my cousin.”
What is it about the corn that makes it the perfect vehicle for your carne asada?
The flavor of the corn complements the taco, but with the flour you taste too much of the flour flavor, in my opinion. It’s gotta be about the meat, cilantro and lemon.
And what is the occasion for your tacos? Is it an everyday thing, a sometimes thing, special occasions?
Special occasions. Whenever you accomplish something.
And what have you accomplished to deserve tacos recently?
I think it was maybe a week ago because I was on the deans list at Robert Morris.