I stopped at Big Star
tonight after work – about 6 p.m. You have to know where you’re destined for to find the place, for people unfamiliar with the neighborhood. I saw no sign or building number, but people walking in the door and assumed it was what I was looking for.
A door-man met each person entering and explained seating was at the bar, unless it was a party of 4, for which the persons could sit at a booth. I think all of the booths were empty (something about that policy needs to change, because onh a slower night there will - as tonight - be people standing along the walls because no bar stools are available to sit). Several empty seats were available at the bar and I chose the one on the corner of the rectangular-shaped drink emporium – the one providing the best view into the kitchen. I wanted a floor show as well as something to eat/drink.
Big Star is a bar that serves food, and that was nicely made clear when I mentioned to the gracious bartender that I couldn’t read the drink list nor the food menu because it was so dark in the place and he explained, “I know. But this is a lounge.” He was almost apologetic. Telling, though.
I ordered a draught Pabst
, but the bar was out of the brand. The bartender recommended a draught Pils
from California which I thought had an off-putting taste . . . as if the barrel was sitting around warm then cooled and served. I also ordered a shot of Herradura Silver
tequila. Had I been sitting on a stool instead of standing I probably would have fallen-off when the bartender told me the tab for both the 12 oz. draught beer and shot of tequila was just $9. I think the drinks were reasonably priced.
I didn’t want a lot to eat, just a couple or several samples of the tacos. I’d thought about returning at a later date when I had more time to explore additional menu items. Seated next to where I was standing was what turned-out to be a wonderfully gracious young couple (woman/man) who had already been to the bar two or three times and they offered their critique of the tacos. I indicated I intended to have just two: the taco al pastor
and the birria
/goat. The young woman quickly added I should give the panza
a try and when I replied that I didn’t much like panza
she said it was like nothing I’d eaten before. Impressed by her passion, I ordered one of the panza
tacos as well.
No photos tonight, because the “environment” wasn’t right to take them.
This place is at the top of my list of new places to try, cant wait to hear some feedback on the tequila selection as much as the food.
I’m a clear/clean tequila drinker and prefer the blancos
. The Herradura Plata
I had tonight tasted weak, though – weaker than I recall the typical taste of the same brand/age I’ve had many times before.
Paul Kahan says it'll take a "few days/weeks" for the walk-up window to be available, so plan on waiting in line for your treats.
The walk-up window faces west and in the winter some of the strongest/coldest winds come from the NW and other than at 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, I don’t suppose many people will be willing to stand in line waiting for a taco in the winter months. From my view standing at the bar near the kitchen tonight, I saw that the window area appeared ready for use. Window use will add another person to the kitchen staff, though – probably raising the staffing level from 4 to 5 in a relatively small square footage.
Couple key takeaways: most everything is very very affordable, the space is very very simple, and the food is very very good (for what it is). Played some old school country all night. The window was not open, but enjoyed watching the kitchen. Paul was in there working the griddle.
The space is a bit too simple
to be comfortable for me. I don’t think much money went into the décor or the building of the bar. It’s a sterile-feel sitting/standing there. Nothing but painted walls and exposed inexpensive porcelain incandescent bulbs fixtures (with the light level turned down very low). Whether the food is “very very good” remains to be seen over time. I’ll admit that I think it’s priced to sell to a crowd probably expected to be heavy-drinkers. Probably food items delivered better, better quality and better tasting than, say, another new “Lounge” featuring Mexican-themed food: Mercadito. No music was played when I was there – but it was still the “cocktail hour” period, I’m guessing – and music is probably not played then.
2. Tried a couple of different drinks and all seemed to be pretty good. We stuck with whiskeys. 3. Pork belly tacos were amazing. These were the runaway favorite in our group.
The drinks I had weren’t above my expectation level. They were average for a neighborhood bar. I think, too, that the panza
taco was the stand-out amongst the three I sampled. The problem is that it’s too dark in the room to see what you’re eating and I don’t like that type of environment. Part of my eating enjoyment is appreciating the appearance of what I’m eating. I want to see it, feel it, toy with it a bit before enjoying/eating it.
Overall, we felt the food was great and affordable enough that you could go in there and have a $1 schlitz, a couple tacos and be out for around $10.
The sale of alcohol is what this bar is all about – food is secondary, but probably more highly considered/thought about than some other “lounges.” The pricing structure seems to be reasonable, particularly so for the Wicker Park/Bucktown neighborhood. There was no draught Schlitz
tonight. How do you run-out of beer the third day you’re open? Maybe the demand for that beer was so strong it exceeded the purchase planning. Odd, though.
I went there today at about 4.30 and about 70% of the bar seats were already occupied. My observations: the crispy braised pork belly tacos were awesome; the salsas were all tasty but definitely lacking in heat (3 diff types); the space is somehow smaller than what I remember Pontiac used to be; it's obscenely affordable; very respectable selection of bourbons and tequilas (~30 different types of each).
“Awesome” isn’t a description I’d apply to any one of the three tacos I had tonight. I did enjoy, particularly, the panza
. The pastor
was more difficult to figure-out. I wasn’t provided with any salsas, just the naked tacos (with whatever condiments I couldn’t identify because of the dark, which were added in the kitchen) and a couple of wedges of lime.
It is somewhat dimly lit in there (even at 4.30), and there is no bourbon or tequila list. One of the bartenders explained to me that it is forthcoming. In the meanwhile you're kind of relegated to squinting at the bottles that are on display.
The darkness is a problem (for people concerned with what they’re eating), I agree. About the drink/tequila list: I was presented with a drink menu that listed all of the tequilas and probably the bourbons and other liquors. The list was very detailed and included prices. I couldn’t read the list, though (the darkness problem, once again). Bring a flashlight.
My favorite was the Birria, served with a small cup of the consomme.
As was mentioned by ReneG, after eating birria[i] at Zaragoza Restaurant – one will never look at other [i]birria’s
in the same light again and other variations will probably be unfulfilling. I didn’t detect anything particularly special in the flavoring of the birria
taco I had tonight, nor could I see what I was eating.
Stopped in around 5:30 last night. Was starting to fill up, but was able to snag a booth without a problem. Drinks were terrific for $7, as they should be with Violet Hour veteran Michael Rubel behind the stick. You don't get the pomp of VH, nor the extreme attention to detail, but at $7, it's a heck of a lot better than most.
About the “detail”: I thought the bartenders on duty tonight paid close attention to the details. For opening week, these guys were unexpectedly comfortable as I observed them serve 50+ patrons. They’re not rookies (not like the ones I observed at Mercadito reading drink recipe books – lost in space).
It seemed (and has been observed above) that the kitchen was running behind on making the tortillas, so I will cut them some slack on not really warming/toasting them sufficiently. Still, the flavor and texture were the equal of some of the best I've had.
The woman making the tortillas seemed to be keeping-up with demand tonight, from what I observed. My order arrived in front of me less than 10-minutes after I placed it. I was surprised with the quickness (Rick Bayless: You could learn something about simplicity). However, most patrons were probably concentrating more on drinking than eating, but orders were moving out of the kitchen with rapid succession. They were the thin variety of tortilla, which can easily be confused with commercially-produced varieties.
I had been dreaming of the al pastor tacos, and sadly they couldn't live up to my expectations. I'm probably in the minority in that I don't care for pineapple in my al pastor. I heard that they were basting the al pastor in pineapple rather than cooking pineapple on top of the meat (in order to preserve the texture).
In Mexico, this variety of taco has only one or two slivers of pineapple – cut from the top of the spit where it crowns the meat. My taco had a crushed pineapple-like portion that was uncharacteristic of the traditionally-presented pastor
. For whatever reasons, “excellent” pastor
is difficult to find in Chicago and I don’t accept substandard tacos of any kind simply because they’re low-cost.
The meat itself was great, and the portion overflowed the tortilla . . .
Yes, no Xoco skimpy portions here – “overflowing” is how I describe what I was served.
Just an FYI, that apparently Big Star is CASH ONLY. I hadn't seen that pointed out anywhere.
Payment was by “cash only” tonight, as well. I’m assuming there’s a data processing glitch that’s being attended to and that the bar will soon be accepting credit/debit cards.
Ref 3 wrote:
"(Justin) Large is particularly jazzed about the L.A.-inspired al pastor taco, for which the kitchen has acquired a special trompo (the traditional spit on which the meat roasts): “What makes this spit great is that the actual spit itself is heated. It’s not like your traditional gyro cooker where it’s just flames on the outside charring this giant hunk of raw meat. The spit will be on display – we’re going to do it old-school style and carve the meat right off the spit onto the taco.” The other fancy kitchen object will be the wood-fired grill, on which Large is particularly psyched to make a wood-grilled fish taco. “I love a good fried fish taco, when done well it’s outstanding, but the wood-fired grill is like magic. The flavor and what it imparts to the fish is amazing.”
At first I didn’t think the pastor
was being cooked on a spit, nor being cut from a trompo
. I mentioned my suspicion to the young couple seated next to me and they quickly corrected me by saying there was a spit, a trompo
, etc. I walked over to the pass between the kitchen/bar and, there, tucked into a corner of the kitchen was the spit, and on it a trompo
of sorts with the meat cooking. The meat was not of the same consistency/composition of a trompo
in Mexico but it is being used and that’s important to know (for people who know about pastor
and enjoy it). A friendly and suited man (management/ownership?) standing at the pass told me the bar is preparing one trompo
daily (these first three days) and that when it’s gone (at about 8 p.m. the first two days), it’s gone for the day. A second trompo
will probably soon be prepared to meet the demand.
LA-inspired pastor taco?
OK, I understand this place is pretty darn good and I'm likely to dig it. But I continue to be perplexed by white-toque chefs' recent propensity to maintain (or at least suggest) that by opening taco stands they are bringing something new to flyover country. As I understood it, al pastor tacos are an early 20th century invention that emerged from the Lebanese-Mexican community of Puebla, Mexico (see also tacos Arabes). Of course, Chicago has a very large population of folks with Pueblan roots and we have Cemitas Puebla cranking out fine examples of obscure but delicious Pueblan street foods.
What constitutes pastor
is well-defined. It either is, or isn’t. It’s becoming fashionable for some restaurants to exaggerate their fare – Xoco and Mercadito, to name just two. They should be “called” on the liberties they’re taking. I’d be similarly offended if Big Star continues to refer to it’s pastor
as if what is offered in L.A. is somehow different than the pastor
as understood in the Mexican community as a whole.
Rene G wrote:
Anyway, on to the food. Big Star's tacos al pastor feature nicely crisped bits of pork on handmade tortillas for a very-fair-for-the-neighborhood price of $2. What's not to like? Well, I didn't at all care for the pervasive strong pineapple flavor in every bite. Often you'll find the trompo crowned with a pineapple, slices of which can be added to the taco according to customer preference. I much prefer the contrast of flavors and textures that comes with this approach. That being said, you can do much, much worse in this town.
Good bar food, definitely.
Rene G wrote:
Tacos de chivo ($2), shredded goat with onion, cilantro and radish, come with a little cup of comsomé for dipping or drinking. The meat didn't have much in the way of appealing texture (mushy) or flavor (bland) and the comsomé added little beside salt. By far my least favorite of the three tacos. The birria from Zaragoza
is in a different universe.
My reactions to that taco were similar to yours.
Rene G wrote:
Paul Kahan has a real affinity for pork belly and has long been famous for his brilliant preparations of this luscious meat. The tacos de panza ($3) are as good as expected, easily the best thing I tasted at Big Star. Whether it's precisely a traditional preparation I couldn't care less; these tacos are incredibly tasty.
was an unexpected surprise for me – the best-tasting taco (meat) I had tonight.
Kahan repeatedly twittered and was quoted in articles leading up to the opening that he was doing research on the LA taco scene, specifically with reference to a particular cart/stand's al pastor...I assume that's where the line in the article came from.
He should have done his research in Mexico. 1. In Mexico City. 2. In Puebla. I’m not impressed with the “research” indications, but I wish the bar/restaurant success.