Chicago has several spots that sling really good, authentic Mexican food. And while we love to stop into no-frills favorites, sometimes we’d like to sip our margaritas in place with a little more atmosphere than a storefront taquería (however delicious the food). Enter the chic — but still relatively cheap — taco joints popping up in the Windy City. These restaurants serve up tacos with fresh, high-end ingredients (such as duck confit and housemade chorizo) in spaces that draw a hip nighttime crowd.
Opened in 2012, Wicker Park’s Antique Taco is a charming little place strewn with antiques such as old road signs, reclaimed wood, margaritas served in old milk bottles and employees sporting trucker hats. The space feels friendly and the seasonal food is solid, often impressive — the sweet and spicy chicken tacos are delicious, and the kale taco salad is a lot more tasty than it sounds with queso fresco, spicy peanuts and a fresh pomegranate vinaigrette. Even the desserts have charm — finish off a meal with a Pop-Tart stuffed with Mexican chocolate and marshmallow.
Also working the vintage vibe will be Authentaco, slated to open soon in Wicker Park. While renovating the existing building, the 1930s exterior of a former burger joint was uncovered, revealing a white-and-black façade advertising 5-cent hamburgers. Despite being a taco spot, the burger exterior will be preserved. The interiors will have reclaimed wood, original subway tiles and a stand-up diner counter, as well as sleek modern-day touches. The menu will feature traditional fare such as chicken al pastor tacos and huitlacoche, a corn-salad-like dish.
Big Star is a perennially busy spot with a buzzy patio scene, $3 whiskey shots and a slew of tacos (some as cheap as $3 and as good as you’ll find anywhere). In the warmer months, sit back and relax on the large outside patio, furnished with yellow metal chairs, umbrella-topped tables and casually strewn lights hanging above. Here, you’ll encounter superb opportunities to people-watch and enjoy the laid-back, see-and-be-seen vibe. Inside, Big Star is boisterous — at the wraparound bar, knock back the top-notch whiskey drinks, such as the Sarsaparilla Springs (Buffalo Trace bourbon, Sprecher root beer), or grab a big booth to spread out with addictive fare such as queso fundido (melted Chihuahua cheese with housemade chorizo and poblano peppers) and crispy pork belly tacos.
On Randolph Street’s Restaurant Row in the West Loop, you’ll spot the casual-cool De Cero by looking for its rustic wood signage and windows. While this spot has been around for a few years, it still draws in crowds for its seasonal margaritas made with fresh lime juice (try the apple cider margarita) and the popular platter of eight soft-shell tacos (don’t skip the duck confit taco served with corn salsa). The space itself is filled with various aged woods, lending a relaxed, homey vibe that still manages to be entirely chic. Large communal tables are great for groups, but if you’re on a date, head to the back room where smaller tables set the scene for a quieter, more romantic dinner. Make your way to the bar in the adjacent room for a quick bite and stellar bespoke cocktails made with one of the many high-end tequilas behind the bar, such as pineapple jalapeño or cucumber with Chile salt margaritas.
Photos Courtesy of Antique Taco and Edouard Pierre