Best Mexican restaurants in Chicago: tacos, tamales and more
Whether you want high-end Mexican food from Rick Bayless or spicy tacos in Pilsen, here are the best Mexican restaurants in Chicago.
Chicago has a thriving Mexican food scene that ranges from high-end dishes at Rick Bayless' Mexican restaurants to single tacos in Pilsen to tamales peddled in coolers at bars. Whether you're looking for spicy moles at Frontera Grill, carnitas tacos at Big Star or Antique Taco, cemitas at Cemitas Puebla or BYOB small plates at Chilam Balam, your next great Mexican meal isn't far.
RECOMMENDED: Full list of the best restaurants in Chicago
Antique Taco First of all, yes, this taco shop (from husband-and-wife team Rick and Ashley Ortiz) is as good as Big Star. But it’s not a replacement, exactly. Antique Taco is cute as a button and better for quieter, chiller nights. Crispy fish tacos with smoky cabbage and carnitas tacos sporting spicy adobo rub are winners, and the corn salad is probably the only mayo salad you’d call sophisticated. Margaritas are solid, but the sheer adorableness of this place is enough to give you a buzz. 1360 N Milwaukee Ave (773-687-8697, antiquetaco.com). Lunch, dinner (closed Mon). Average main course: $7.
Big Star The bar that took over the Pontiac space is just that: A bar. With whiskey shots, cheap beer, and quick cocktails. Of course, if you can just drink and not partake in Paul Kahan’s tacos al pastor…or his fish tacos…or his housemade salsas…or his sonoran hot dog (wrapped in bacon)…or his queso fundido…you have more restraint than we do. 1531 N Damen Ave (773-235-4039, bigstarchicago.com). Lunch, dinner. Average taco: $3.
Birrieria de la Torre What this counter-seat-only birria (goat stew) joint lacks in size, it makes up for in flavor. Though all of the soups (birria, posole and menudo) are way better than average, it’s the carne en su jugo that kills. A rich broth, chock-full of creamy beans, bacon and chopped-up skirt steak, hits the spot every time. Tacos and tortas round out the tiny menu but seem completely unnecessary when faced with a giant bowl of steak soup. If the restaurant has them, order the homemade tortillas and fashion your own bacon-steak tacos. 6724 S Pulaski Rd (773-767-6075). Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Average main course: $10.
Birrieria Reyes de Ocotlan There are a few birrierias (spots that specialize in Mexican goat stew) sprinkled throughout the city, but all it takes is one visit to this one before you stop caring about the rest. The scope of the menu may not win you over at first—this joint serves only about half a dozen items—but after trying the delectable tongue tacos, the cabeza tacos full of luscious beef cheeks, the simple yet rich goat consommé or the goat tacos bursting with sumptuous meat, you’ll find you won’t want for anything else. 1322 W 18th St (312-733-2613). Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Average main course: $8.
Birrieria Zaragoza Thick handmade tortillas, salsas made to order, cinnamon-laced coffee. You can get all of that here. Their only purpose, however, is to accompany this restaurant’s signature platters of chopped goat meat. As opposed to other birrierias, this goat doesn’t touch a consommé until it’s plated, when some of the tomato-based broth is spooned over it. At that point, a good dousing of the restaurant’s intricate hot sauce, and maybe a squeeze of lime and some onions, is all you need for one of the city’s best goat tacos. 4852 S Pulaski Rd (773-523-3700). Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Average main course: $8.
Carnitas Uruapan At this tiny Pilsen storefront, regulars get special treatment (a.k.a. refried beans, not always on offer), newcomers just get blank stares, and everybody gets the carnitas. Ordered by the pound, the juicy pork is served to you on a platter with nothing but a side of corn tortillas and a spicy salsa verde so that you can concoct your own tacos. Not leaving any part of the pig to waste, the limited menu also includes fresh, warm, delicious pork rinds. 1725 W 18th St (312-226-2654). Breakfast, lunch (closed Thu). Average main course: $7.
Cemitas Puebla In case you missed its appearance on an episode of “Triple D” (Guy Fieri’s own slang for his ridiculously popular Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives), this Pueblan restaurant has a giant sign commemorating the experience. Locals just shrug, as they’ve long known that this is the place to score specialties such as tacos arabes, pork tacos with thick, pitalike wrappers that are the result of Puebla’s Lebanese influence. Here, these chipotle-spiked beauties and their friend the cemita milanesa (a breaded pork steak with cheese and avocado on a sesame-studded bun) are among the best of the menu, and unique finds to boot. 3619 W North Ave (773-772-8435, cemitaspuebla.com). Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $9.
Chilam Balam This brightly hued Mexican restaurant is not the least bit serious—it’s more underground dinner party than fine dining. Except you’d be hard pressed to go to a dinner party with food like this: Memelas—masa tarts—are filled with smoky black-bean puree and goat cheese; hunks of halibut make for a rustic ceviche; and hanger steak comes out with a brilliant guajillo-chili sauce. It’s food that conveys the energy of its young chef, but is executed with the craft of someone twice that age. 3023 N Broadway (773-296-6901, chilambalamchicago.com). Dinner (closed Sun, Mon). Average main course: $12.
Frontera Grill Most chefs behind culinary empires branch to other cities, leaving the original back home to suffer. Rick Bayless kept close to the kitchen and chose to expand in other ways (packaged food line, cookbooks, TV shows). Lucky us. For two decades, this has been the spot for a vibrant slice of Mexico City, a place to chow down on ceviches, earthy mole, wood-grilled steak tucked into housemade tortillas and, of course, insanely good margaritas. 445 N Clark St (312-661-1434, rickbayless.com/restaurants/grill.html). Brunch (Sat), lunch, dinner (Tue–Sat). Average main course: $16.
La Oaxaqueña With hundreds of Mexican joints to choose from, why do we love this one? Maybe it’s the Huatulco torta, a sandwich that layers housemade chorizo, caramelized onions, a slather of pinto beans and fresh avocado atop cecina, thin beef that’s marinated for two days and then grilled. Or maybe it’s the roasted Cornish hen smothered in Oaxacan mole or the crispy red snapper hiding under pickled red onions. Maybe there are too many reasons to count. 3382 N Milwaukee Ave (773-545-8585, laoaxaquenachicago.com). Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Average main course: $9.
Mixteco Grill The mole at this bustling BYOB steals the show. Seafood tamales are topped with Oaxacan yellow mole, and the wood-grilled chicken breast is served with mole verde. In truth, we don’t really need any of the proteins here. All we need is some mole, a bowl to put it in, and some handmade tortillas to sop it all up. 1601 W Montrose Ave (773-868-1601, mixtecogrill.com). Brunch (Sat, Sun), dinner (Tue–Sun) (closed Mon). Average main course: $17.
¡Salpicón! This swanky Mexican spot is known for perfect margaritas and chef Priscila Satkoff’s traditional salsas, queso fundido and earthy mole served with handmade tortillas. A weekly specials menu brings seasonal change, with offerings like grilled duck breast with Oaxacan black mole or squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese. Take some time with the massive tequila menu or impressive wine list, which the staff knows from front to back. 1252 N Wells St (312-988-7811, salpicon.com). Brunch (Sun), dinner. Average main course: $24.
Sol de Mexico Clementina Flores is a mole goddess, a woman sent from the heavens to create sauces so rich and complex, you’ll want to ingest them with a straw. Formerly the mole master at Chilpancingo and Ixcapuzalco, she now combines her mole with chef Carlos Tello’s food, and magic happens. For each season, mole-doused entrées take on new flavors. Try the signature borrego en mole negro, which matches a New Zealand rack of lamb with a classic Oaxacan black mole sauce, mashed potatoes, jack cheese and green beans. 3018 N Cicero Ave (773-282-4119, soldemexicochicago.com). Lunch, dinner (closed Tue). Average main course: $20.
XOCO Breakfast at Rick Bayless’s most casual spot yet is quiet perfection: a cup of masterfully concocted hot chocolate, a flaky egg empanada, one hell of a sugar-and-cocoa-coated churro. Lunch here is no less delicious, but it’s a frenzy: Lines extend out the door for tortas filled with fatty, crispy pork carnitas. The crowds keep up at dinner, when caldos like braised-short-rib soup and chicken stew with toothsome posole are the ideal prelude to…another churro. 449 N Clark St (312-334-3688, rickbayless.com/restaurants/xoco.html). Breakfast, lunch, dinner (closed Sun, Mon). Average main course: $11.