Taco-palooza

There are few things in life greater than tacos. In fact, there may be nothing better.

For the last few years, the “urban taqueria” phenomenon has been catching on, bringing gourmet-level food to the masses inexpensively, all wrapped up in a handmade corn tortilla. We couldn’t eat all the tacos in the city, well yes we could, but Elizabeth and I narrowed our taco comparison to four spots: Wicker Park’s Antique Taco and Big Star, and Lincoln Park’s Taco Joint and Bodega.

For continuity, I tried the fish taco variation at all locations. The classic Baja Fish taco is at its most simple beer-battered tilapia, cabbage and a spicy mayo. Elizabeth covered the tacos for the carnivorous, sampling beef, pork and chicken tacos.

Tacos are rated from 1 to 5 on five variables – quality of meat, quality of topping, price, size and overall taste.

Antique Taco, 1360 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Pork Carnitas Taco $7 for two

Meat – 5

Topping – 5

Price – 5

Size – 5

Overall taste – 5

Score – 5

Prior to our taco “crawl” I was never one to get overly excited for tacos. However, after tasting these two from Antique Taco, they may become go-to order at the Wicker Park restaurant/antique shop. There was nothing about them I did not love. The tortilla was soft yet sturdy enough to hold the pile of bacon, spinach, avocado and queso fresco that sat atop the perfectly tender pork. Nothing was too spicy and the toppings complemented the meat without weighing down its flavors. That’s it. You can find me there later tonight.

Crispy Fish Tempura taco – $8 for two

Quality of Fish – 5

Quality of Topping – 4.5

Price – 4

Size – 5

Overall Taste – 4.5

SCORE – 4.6

Starting out at Antique Taco, I had to drop the largest sum of money for the day, $8, because tacos aren’t sold individually like at most similar places. The two-for taco setup also makes it harder to mix and match flavors, if that’s your kind of thing. The disappointment didn’t last long though because these tacos were fantastic. The piece of tilapia was the largest of all of the tacos eaten in this experiment, and the Sriracha tartar sauce was a unique feature that gave the tacos the perfect heat and flavor. The Smoked cabbage was tasty, but could become a little overpowering at times. My only true critique was the lack of lime included on the side, only a very tiny wedge, wasn’t enough to squeeze on top of my two tacos.

Big Star, 1531 N. Damen Ave.

Taco de Pollo $4 per taco

Meat – 5

Topping – 4

Price – 4

Size – 4

Overall taste – 5

I may have been the last person in Chicago to sit on the patio at Big Star. I can now check that off my summer to-do list. Sure I may have been on the takeout order side sitting at the picnic tables, but still, same experience in my book. As for the tacos … after the satisfying size of the two from Antique Taco, I was somewhat disappointed with the foil-wrapped chicken taco from Big Star. For $4, I was expecting a little bit more. Sure, the chicken and tortilla were both delicious, and the accompanying salsa containers were an added bonus, but I didn’t leave wanting more.

Taco de Pescado – $3 per taco

Meat – 5

Topping – 5

Price – 5

Size – 5

Overall taste – 5

Score – 5

Big Star is the epitome of the taco phenomenon in Chicago. The two-and-a-half hour wait I endured a few weekends ago is proof of that. Maybe the super loud and over-hyped atmosphere isn’t for most, but that’s why the taco window is the best thing in Chicago. While the line can be long, your wait for tacos won’t be nearly as long as your wait for a table (plus it’s the only option for the under-21 crowd at night or when it’s cold and the patio isn’t open). The fish taco has the right combination of everything: crispy tilapia in a batter that’s not overpowering, cabbage that stays in the tortilla, and a spicy mayo that can be neutralized by horchata, if you’re a wimp like I am. Mixed with lime squeezed on the top, the mix of flavors is unlike any other fish taco I’ve ever had, and it’s nothing short of food perfection.

Taco Joint, 1969 N. Halsted St.

Taco al pastor $3 per taco

Meat – 3

Topping – 4

Price – 3

Size – 3

Overall taste – 3

Score – 3.2

If we were basing this story off location and convenience, Taco Joint would be a home run. Unfortunately, we are judging strictly on tacos here. After the two earlier successful stops on our taco “crawl,” my taco standards were on the rise. Heads up to those opposed to spiciness because there were few options left for us. Every taco I was interested in was considered spicy by our server, so I settled on the chicken. I was not crazy about the pineapple salsa but I was even less excited about the flavor-less pulled chicken.  (Unrelated taco tip: don’t leave without ordering the elotes, grilled corn on the cob covered in mayo, cheese and a chile spice… heaven on a stick.)

Estilo Baja Taco – $3 per taco

Meat – 4

Topping – 2

Price – 4

Size – 5

Overall taste – 2

Score – 3.4

I’ve heard a lot of positive things about Taco Joint; one of our former DePaulia staff members was a waitress at the Lincoln Park eatery. When it came to the fish taco, however, I was disappointed. The amount of cabbage and mayo was seriously lacking, leaving nothing but the taste of bear batter and tortilla in each bite. Used to the bit of heat in the sauce on tacos, it was surprising that there was no heat to any bite. Cabbage was lacking as well, aiding in the overall blandness of the taco. There was, however, a sizable piece of tilapia, which can’t be forgotten.

Bodega, 1964 N. Sheffield Ave.

Chicken Pastor Taco $3 per taco

Meat – 3

Topping – 3

Price – 3

Size – 2

Overall taste – 3

Score – 2.8

I was definitely pulling for this place because, for DePaul students, the location cannot be beat. Taking over the location of longtime Lincoln Park favorite, the Twisted Lizard, Bodega is pretty much the same scene. The chicken taco I had was nothing special, and also, noticeably smaller than all the rest. The onions did not add any extra flavor to the already bland chicken and the tortilla was unnecessarily overstuffed, so much so that it was unable to eat in normal taco fashion. I will give them the benefit of the doubt though, they did just open a few weeks ago and looked to be still under construction. I guess time will tell for these tacos.

Baja Fish Taco – $3 per taco

Meat – 1

Topping – 3

Price – 3

Size – 1

Overall taste – 3

Score – 2.2

The brand new neighbor to Taco Joint and many DePaul students left much to be desired when it came to the meal. The tacos came on a board without plates, which may not have been a problem normally but these were so overfilled that a plate was necessary to catch the entire overflow. The tortillas were surprisingly small, too small for the $3 price. There was more coleslaw than fish in the taco, and mixed with the chipotle cream it made for a very heavy bite. The fish, if it could even be called that, was 70 percent batter. Perhaps in due time the tacos will improve with a bit of refinement, but as of right now it’s not worth a trip.