What I Miss Most: Chicago in a Taco
Welcome to What I Miss Most, a recurring column in which writers wax poetic about the things from home that they found themselves yearning for upon moving to NYC (or the things from NYC they craved upon moving away from it). For an archive of previous What I Miss Most columns, click here.
Before I moved to New York City, I lived in the same apartment in Chicago's Wicker Park for six years. It was a two-bedroom walk-up with hardwood floors and big bay windows in the living room, where my tailless cat would sit and chirp at me as I came home from my low-level job at Merrill Lynch in the Loop. I paid $1,100 a month for it. Sometimes at parties, New York transplants will stand around and swap stories about how cheap their rent was before they moved here. Then we'll laugh & laugh at what gullible idiots we are now. I didn't realize it at the time, but not only was I was living like a queen on a tiny budget in Chicago: I was also living in a taco wonderland.
NYC is a lot of things to a lot of people. For me, it was the place I had to be to make a career as a writer, to shrug off the Midwest's gentle nudge toward socially mandated settling down, to have access to cultural offerings that aren't available anywhere else in the world. It is all of those things. But New York is definitely not a place to have excellent tacos. For that, you have to go to the city with the third-largest Mexican-American population in the country, and a vibrant and welcoming Mexican scene.
Whenever I tell a New Yorker that tacos in this city are mostly trash, they immediately assume I'm the problem. "Well, you haven't tried the spot in Sunset Park," they say. "You need to go to the Bronx," they explain patronizingly. "How about that one place in Bushwick? What about Matamoros? What about Fast & Fresh?"
No. Those places all serve hot garbage in a handmade tortilla. If I'm lucky. With every new bad suggestion from a friend, food blog, or a random Twitter follower who insists I simply haven't met the right taco yet, my craving grows more insatiable. I've tried almost every "good" taco place I can find in New York City, and none of them come close to what I could find in the Windy City.
I spent my last few years in the Midwest, the end of my 20s, hating life there the way a fed-up sitcom spouse hates her dumb, loud, laugh-track-whore of a husband. I felt like I'd outgrown the place. I felt stunted. But since moving to New York City in early 2012, my esteem for the Midwestern metropolis that ushered me into my confused post-collegiate adulthood has softened. Crammed onto a B train that smells like broiled urine; muscles aching as I climb the maze-like stairs to my dark shared apartment on an industrial Brooklyn back road; waiting half an hour for sunny-side-up eggs that cost $14 with people who can't afford any of this; these are the moments when my mind wanders back to the city I consider my home.
The last thing I ate before I flew to NYC was half-congealed leftover tacos from Tony’s Burrito Mex.
Other Chicago expats tell me their homesickness takes forms besides the requisite rent envy. Idiots always miss Wrigley Field, boring people miss the hot dogs (without Hot Doug's, though, what is even the point?), people whose heyday was in the 1990s miss the rock scene. Masochists miss the winters. Everybody misses the lake. My nostalgia for the city where I spent almost the entirety of my 20s takes the form of meat in a tortilla.
"My taco time here predated Big Star," I'd brag to people who were waiting in line to eat at the most scene-y taco place I’d ever seen. As a Wicker Park denizen, I wasn't a fan of the place's hipster showoff patio scene (day drinking makes me feel guilty; also I easily sunburn and hate waiting), but I love the food so much I'd plan my day around the possibility of hitting its walk-up window.
When I first trained for the Chicago Marathon in 2010, I'd map my runs out so they ended at the six corners and limp south to the restaurant's bustling takeout area. I'd hand the cranky cashiers a wad of sweaty cash, and return home with a bag of Tacos de Panza, where, if memory serves, I'd unhinge my jaw and swallow them practically whole. I spent entire Saturday afternoons trekking down to Pilsen and Nuevo Leon's gaudy, chaotic facade and the incredible Mexican food (street & otherwise) they served therein. If there was a wait at Nuevo Leon, there were a half a dozen places within two blocks along 18th St that served food almost as good.
I savor Big Star's tacos like precious treasures that I'll never taste again.
One summer, I gave up on finding an Ashland bus empty enough to carry me back to Division St from the exhausting and blisteringly hot Pitchfork Music Fest, and instead walked two miles home, up Ashland, stopping along the way for La Pasadita, where I ate four tacos alone, dirty and grateful. Even Flash Taco, Taco Burrito King, and Picante, favored only when I'd been drinking enough to make very bad decisions (during the last time in my life when I could do that without ruining my entire weekend), occupy a soft spot in my heart, which in an anatomical mystery, actually ended up around my waist.
Thanks to a vibrant Mexican-American community and a famously hungry population, Chicago never ran out of delicious Mexican street food joints, or people willing to pay to eat there. I remember it as a place I spent being young, being hungry. The last thing I ate before I gave all of my furniture away and flew to LaGuardia with four black crates containing all of my belongings was half-congealed taco leftovers from Tony’s Burrito Mex on Damen and Belmont.
I don't have many justifiable reasons to visit Chicago anymore; my parents and siblings live in the Minneapolis area, and most of the traveling I do now is for work, or to places close enough to visit by train. But the last time I was in my old neighborhood, I had just turned 30 and had, hours before, finished running the Chicago Marathon for the second time. The neighborhood was pretty much the same -- things aren't erased & redrawn there as quickly as they are in NYC -- but I could see the place I associated most strongly with my carefree young-adulthood ebbing slowly away. That one overpriced bagel place was closed. The kebab place where everybody was always stoned as hell was gone. I didn't recognize the neighborhood dogs anymore.
I sat down and ordered six tacos at Big Star, which I photographed despite the fact that I make fun of people for doing that sort of thing. They were delivered to me in a shallow tray, individually wrapped in paper. I smelled them like a sommelier inhales the scent of a glass of wine. I took small bites, savoring them like they were precious treasures I might never taste again. I ate them slowly and carefully, like I never did when I lived there and they were just a stumble away. The next morning, I flew back to New York City and the hallway of a bedroom that awaited me there.
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