Once again, kudos to PitD, a very well-mannered and gracious gentleman, for organizing a splendid event. I had a fantastic time (my first LTH coming-out -- I felt like a debutante) meeting all the noted posters with whom I share a deep love of charred meat nestled between a double layer of tortillas. I look forward to seeing them again sometime in the future in pursuit of other delicacies...a sublime dish of birria...the crustiest Scotch egg...or Seebee's perfect ideal of the chicken taco realized at Ino's.
As for the final tally, I personally feel Zacatacos stood head and shoulders above the rest of the competition, though in all fairness, three of the judges had dropped out by that point and could not render their opinions. The steak was significantly charred, having been clearly fire-grilled, and displayed no tell-tale signs of a visit to the infamous Bucket 'o Grease. It was also chopped well, neither too small nor too large, similar in size to the versions I've had at El Asadero and Las Asadas, which represent my personal benchmarks. With the exception of the tortillas which were store-bought blancas, everything tasted absolutely fresh and homemade despite the well-known fact that the restaurant we visited was but an outpost in a blossoming chain. What really put Zacatacos over the top however, were the two salsas, red and green, available on every table-top in squeeze bottles. The red version was obviously adobo-infused and so, smoky, and quite hot. The green however, had a clean, light, searing burn that persisted afterwards and obviously required beer to ameliorate. PitD, Ms. PitD, and myself partook of a couple bottles of Negra Modelo while Seebee demurred. If there was an off-note, I would have to mention the strong taste of cilantro that permeated the taco. I don't know if soaking the cilantro beforehand would have mitigated the flavor or if it was just due to a particularly aromatic batch. The restaurant itself seems newish, brightly lit, and decorated in primary colors designed to whet the appetite. I estimated somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 - 40 four-tops of the bolted-to-the-ground, melamine-coated variety. As they serve alcohol, I assume no BYO is allowed.
Most of the other joints we hit were of the family restaurant-type while Zacatacos, was distinctly fast-foodish in appearance, as was Taqueria Aguascalientes. Like Zacatacos, it was fairly large and bustling with activity, occupying one end of a strip mall directly facing a supermercado. While we crossed Aguascalientes off the list because they did not fire-grill their carne asada, the variety of atypical offerings was impressive. Santander upthread, already noted the pork cheek gorditas (cool -- I must have missed this) while Seebee immediately latched onto the liver and onion tacos, which were only 75 cents each. Upon tasting the aforesaid, Ms. UCJames and Seebee declared themselves satisfied never to sample this novelty again, while Ms. PitD and myself allowed that they might grow on us (then again, I like the funky stuff). I thought the mushy al pastor tacos we had ordered were a miss. There was a tub of pickled vegetables (escabeche) on every table along with some unremarkable salsa. I was deeply enamored of the fact that they had a separate cooler in which they stored beer mugs, which were accordingly, nicely frosted when it came time to serve the beer. Plus, the Bohemias came out to only $3.50 apiece. If I lived in the neighborhood, I might never leave the premises. Once again, as they serve alcohol, I assume no BYO is allowed. They also seemed to be having a sale on their tacos, as they were listed in the menu as being $1.90 each, but actually came out to be $1.25 apiece, according to the handbills posted in the windows. As a result, Aguascalientes easily represented the best bang for the buck on this tasting. Count me in as a fan.
Also worthy of mention was Taqueria & Birreria Tototlan, which falls distinctly into the greasy spoon, lunch counter category, complete with wall menus listing cheese fries and hamburgers along with traditional taqueria fare. Although I espied a gas grill, it was never in operation while we there, and I found the tacos a bit greasy, which led me to suspect that they had been made beforehand and refried upon ordering. They were served on coarsely ground, griddled yellow tortillas. Up until Zacatacos, Tototlan had the hottest chipotle salsa we encountered, but as PitD mentioned, the birria stole the show, which I am grateful to Santander for ordering. I must admit to never having tried this dish before, but it made a deep impression on me, so much so that upon returning home, I immediately googled all the birrerias nearby. Having no previous experience with birria, I can't really give an educated opinion of this rendition, so someone, please feel free to chime in. Also, upon my asking, one of the counter persons initially replied that beer was not allowed, but did a double-take, and added that it might
be okay if it were poured into a cup (so make of that information what you will). A tip beforehand would probably invoke a sudden case of amnesia over the policy. All in all, a decent find for refried steak tacos, though I would return for the birria alone (with some beer in my bag).
One more honorable mention must be awarded to La Lupita, a miniscule spot we visited early in the judging with 2 four-tops. From the gleaming white walls, it appeared relatively clean and new, with a prep area clearly visible behind some blackboards listing the daily specials, lending the air of a tiny bistro. Unfortunately, I can't find any reference in my notes as to the actual tacos other than they were griddled and served on soft, corn blancas, which leads me to think that they were not particularly noteworthy. The salsas though, were obviously very fresh -- a very good chipotle salsa with moderate heat, and a light creamy verde version made from avocados. Santander deviated from the agenda and ordered a tamal a la oaxaqueno (sp?) which the rest of us got to share. The pork and finely ground masa was suffused with the aroma of the banana leaf in which it was pristinely wrapped. I left with the distinct impression that they were trying to put out some higher-quality food than might be expected from a tiny taqueria, if that is indeed, how they perceive themselves. If I lived nearby, I would be willing to give them a shot given the quaint, clean ambiance. I asked the owner if BYO was allowed and he replied in the negative, but then later qualifed his response to say that they might
look into acquiring a BYO permit in the future. I hope they do as it would only encourage business. At the time, we were the only patrons. No bathroom was visible, but the owner informed me that one could be accessed through the prep area.
As I mentioned earlier, I had to quash my inclination upon returning home to rush out again in search of birria, a particularly injudicious course of action given that I had gorged myself on steak tacos earlier. Obviously, I found several promising venues on the board the next day but given how freaking cold it was, I wanted to limit the search to my immediate environs, the Lakeview/Uptown area, involving a minimum of CTA transfers. From this thread
and this thread
, I resolved on El Rey Del Tacos in Rogers Park as it was a straight shot on the Clark Street bus, though they only offer Barbacoa de Chivo and not birria. El Rey is a small storefront with five or six tables and from some identical items on their menu, it seems as if they might share common ownership with Taqueria El Ranchito, which has plagued my neighborhood with a tsunami of delivery menus every year I have been in residence. I found their barbacoa to be extremely tender and quite good, but the gameyness which I relished in my first dish of birria, had been subdued considerably by the slightly sweet and tangy tomato-based sauce. From a phone call placed ahead of time however, they had no problem with my bringing in a six of Gumballheads, which frankly decided the question for me.
Afterwards, I skipped across the street to Supermercado Chapala, and the taqueria contained therein, for a pair of roasted chicken tacos. The restaurant area is located in the rear of the supermarket, next to the meat counter with an adjoining section displaying mouthwatering, glistening hunks of carnitas along with other roasted meats I failed to identify. All of the usual suspects were offered in taco form for the lowball price of $1.59 apiece which was a pleasant surprise. My tacos arrived dressed with cilantro and onions per my request, draped in roasted scallions, and topped off by a roasted serrano, which I thought quite generous for a sub-$5 ticket. Unfortunately, the chicken must have lingered overlong under the heat lamps as it was dry, but I managed to lubricate its passage by sneaking a beer.
So, thank you, everyone who participated in the Cermak Steak Taco el Carbon-a-Thon (CSTeCaT?), not only for your lively company, but for inspiring me to continue my food adventures the next day and hopefully, for many more days after. I look forward to sharing a beer with you at the Hopleaf, or to splitting a rack at Lems, and to furthering my knowledge of birria.