A Chicago Taco Crawl With A Taco Historian


A few months ago, I wrote a piece on Chicago’s creative taco scene for Chicago Sun-Times, and, in the process, got to speak with taco historian (well, technically food historian, but when else will I ever get a chance to say taco historian?) Jeffrey Pilcher, who literally wrote the book on tacos when he penned Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food.

We had a fun talk, and Jeffrey, who was living in Minneapolis at the time (he’s now in depressingly taco-free Toronto), mentioned he had a trip to Chicago coming up. I told him to email when he’s in town and we can talk taco. Which led to today’s all-out taco adventure.

Where better to take a taco historian than Pilsen?

We start at Carnitas Uruapan, where we’re greeted by fabulously violent-against-swine counter art.

As luck would have it, there was a camera crew from the Travel Channel inside, filming steaming plates of carnitas for an upcoming show. It made me proud for picking this place to introduce to the likes of a taco historian. (See? Snuck it in there again).

We ordered a the “Carnitas Value Meal”: a half pound of carnitas, a stack of tortillas, a pile of chicharrons, two salsas and jalapenos….for $5.99. We split it, and had we not restrained ourselves (Jeffrey packed up about one-third of the order to take for dinner), that $6 meal would have been enough for both of us. The carnitas were fantastic. Moist, tender and perfectly suited to a combination of the salsas. Moving to Pilsen to be closer to this place (and save on groceries and eating out) admittedly crossed my mind.

Then, we wandered along 18th street, digesting, and Jeffrey filled me in on his latest adventures: he’s writing a book on beer (we’ll have to do a beer tour the next visit). We arrived at Birreria Reyes de Ocotlan, another small spot that smelled, appropriately, of goat. The menu consisted, appropriately, of goat, including goat head, goat liver and other goat bits. Jeffrey ordered a birria consomme for us to share (“could you add a little head?” he asked), and the server soon delivered the steaming bowl of soup along with onions and habanero peppers and a stack of tortillas. We were both impressed by the consommé which was rich and soothing, the kind of dish that doesn’t make you dread winter so much, knowing you can return and eat this kind of thing to warm up. I’m not a connoisseur of goat, but I must say I quite enjoyed the meaty pieces in the soup. Even the head bits. Cost: $8. (!). And Jeffrey tossed the remaining consommé in with the carnitas.

Last stop: Carnitas Don Pedro, a few more blocks up 18th Street. Here, Jeffrey had a brief conversation with our waitress in Spanish, explaining that he’s from Canada, where there are no tacos, so he’s getting his fill here (something along those lines). I patted myself on the back for getting the gist of what he said in Spanish, and then ordered “Una agua, por favor.” Jeffrey glanced over the small menu and went with an order of nopales and a small carnitas platter. ” With skin.” The nopales were great, and a welcome change after two meat courses, but the carnitas were my least favorite of the bunch–thick, dry and lacking in flavor. The skin, which Jeffrey was hoping would be nice and crisp, was a kind of unwieldy gordo y grasa glop on the plate. Still, this place was more crowded than any of the others we visited, so they must be doing something right! Cost: $17.

Filled up from our earlier adventures–and not in love with the food–we had a heap of leftovers here. I’m guessing Jeffrey will have enough for dinner and possibly enough to share with the entire taco-deprived city of Toronto.

Hasta la proxima, Profesor Taco!

Kate Silver