The Great Taco Tour

My sister Erica visited Chicago this weekend. Her visit was merely 36-hours short, and I wanted to show her the best that this city has to offer. To most that would probably mean hopping around Museum Campus, snapping photos at the Bean in Millennium Park, and ascending 95 floors to see the cityscape at the Top of the Hancock. But I know my sister better. Just as much as I love finding delicious eats in the most unassuming of places, she loves it more. In fact, I’d attribute most of my seeking out hole-in-the-wall establishments behavior to Erica, who is always on the lookout for new adventures.

With this in mind, the plan I hatched for our Saturday afternoon in Chicago was a no-brainer: a food tour of Little Village and Pilsen, predominantly Mexican neighborhoods southwest of downtown. Although Erica and I grew up in Miami and have were privy to as many Cuban pastelitos, Venezuelan arepas, and Colombian steak joints as any girl could dream of, Miami does not have a huge amount of authentic Mexican fare. When I moved to Chicago last year and had my first encounters with tantalizing taquerias that for $2 or less pile juicy meats and fresh cilantro into warm corn tortillas, I was enamored, and I wanted to let my sister experience these great eats herself.

Erica and I successfully ate our way through three establishments, although if our stomachs had allowed for it, we would have gladly entered the door of every charmingly decorated taqueria that dotted the streets. Here’s what we ate.

First on our list: La Chaparrita (2500 S Whipple St), a small grocery store and restaurant, and a true gem. The first wonderful touch is the delivery of fresh cut limes and radishes to each table—cool accompaniments to the hot and spicy tacos. The two sauces they provide are also delicious, the red one a smokier chipotle sauce, and the green one more of a spicy salsa verde.

We ordered three tacos: el pastor (pork and pineapple), suadero (beef shoulder), and tripa (tripe, a.k.a. pig intestines). The latter choice was made with the most hesitancy, but we channeled our father’s adventurous organ-eating spirit and boy, were we glad we did. The crispy tripa taco was by far the winner amongst the three, reminiscent of the best kind of bacon, and the one that if when I return, I will definitely re-order.

We balanced our carnivorous fare with a mushroom huarache. Huaraches are pan-fried masa cakes shaped like the sandals from which they get their name. They are topped with refried beans, green and red salsa, cheese, and a choice of meat or vegetable. The mushrooms had an unctuousness that paired incredibly well with the salsas and soft huarache. A definite must-order for vegetarians!

One of my favorite parts of the meal was the cebollas asadas, small grilled and salted onions. Erica and I joked that any high-end small plates restaurant would get away with charging $10 a pop for these, but dear La Chaparrita served us this sweet, salty, slightly soft, yet still crunchy side dish for just $1.50. I can still taste them.

To top it off, we got a pineapple agua fresca, which was simply fresh pineapple whirred in a blender to create a refreshing and frothy drink to wash down our meal.

Our next stop was just a short walk around the corner: El Milagro (3050 W 26th St). Some may know El Milagro for their brand of tortilla products that grace the shelves of Chicago grocery stores, but they also have a restaurant where they put their delicious tortillas to the finest of uses, as well as serve up some tasty tamales. I had been here once before, and I ordered us my favorites from that trip: a taco with pork in salsa verde and two tamales, one with beans and cheese, and a sweet one with pineapples and pecans. Everything was as delicious as I had remembered.

We were pretty stuffed by this point, but there was still room for dessert. The Churro Factory (2214 S Wolcott) beckoned, a small outpost off the side of Cermak Road with a no-frills menu of churros, chocolate and coffee drinks, and a wildly amusing contraption they use to stuff churros with fillings such as chocolate and dulce de leche. We ordered two churros, one plain, one cream-cheese filled, and an iced Aztec chocolate drink that was spiced with cinnamon. Even though we barely made it through half the order, it was the perfect cinnamon-sugar coated ending to an afternoon of gustatory exploration.

I can’t encourage you enough to check these restaurants out yourself, be it marathon-style like Erica and I, or by drawing your visits out over time. I dare say these are some of the best tastes of Chicago you’ll find!

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