The Chicago Taco Bucket List: 40 Tacos to Eat Before You Die
When talking about America’s best taco towns, Chicago -- and its Hispanic metro-area population, which runs nearly 2 million strong -- must be mentioned. You’ve got small mom-and-pop taquerias scattered throughout the city, from the far Southeast Side all the way north to Rogers Park. Then there’s the modern Mexican that chefs like Rick Bayless have put in the forefront of the city's dining scene. The task of choosing where to grab a great taco can be a daunting one when you have so many options, so to alleviate any tortilla anxiety, we’ve come up with a bucket list of the 40 tacos you need to seek out.
Chicago is a steak-taco town and this one here is the mayor. Extra dedication taken here means you're getting fresh steak directly from the grill to the tortilla. The final product is the most complete steak taco in town. Juicy charred beef mixed with cilantro, onion, and salsa verde inside a warm white corn tortilla is one of the great flavor combinations.
The best shrimp taco in Chicago consists of three perfectly crispy shrimp that go inside a warm house-made tortilla. You really don't need much more than that but the crunchy slaw and aioli round it all out. Perfect snack for pre-Bulls and -Blackhawks games.
The original hipster taco is still one of the best tacos anywhere. Crispy pork belly bathing in a beautiful red-hued chile sauce inside a wonderful house-made tortilla. So loved it’s rare to see someone eat just one.
Ribeye taco (w/ cheese)
One of the best after-midnight snacks, the cheesy tacos are the signature item at Raymond's. Say yes to cheese on your tacos and you'll receive them with gooey American cheese dripping out from within the two tortillas it's melted between. Choosing the ribeye, which comes with grilled onions, morphs this snack into part taco and part cheesesteak, all of it amazing.
Fish n' chips taco
The Texas import has fit in well over on the Viagra Triangle. This spot specializes in tacos made with the flavors of other regional dishes, and some of them come through very well. The fish n' chips taco has all the characteristics of the English pub favorite inside a tortilla.
Taco al pastor
My favorite tacos al pastor in Chicago. Master taquero Jorge is using his unique family recipe from back in Mexico City. When you walk inside you can expect to see a fat cone of meat with a beautiful red hue. The tacos al pastor recipe goes back to Mexico City and features a few unique ingredients, including cinnamon.
Guisado de puerco taco
Residents of Bridgeport know all about the juicy pork sitting in a pool of red chile sauce and its healing ability during winter. For the uninitiated, try it in taco form and enjoy the warm vibes it brings to your insides.
Machaca breakfast taco
Finally a place serving the most important meal of the day in taco form and it tastes just like the top spots in Texas. The dried beef mixed with eggs is a favorite breakfast taco of the people down there and should be the same for those of us up here.
Jerk chicken taco
Easily the most popular taco on the West Side, the line has been known to go around the block. Owner Julius Thomas is an ace behind the steel-drum smoker. His jerk chicken is already great served in the traditional way. But it's his jerk tacos that most people are in line for. The smoky meat gets stuffed inside a corn tortilla and topped with onion, cilantro, and lots of his special-recipe jerk sauce. Say yes to the orange cheese so you can experience the entire package.
This little supermercado served steak tacos so popular it ventured out and opened multiple taquerias that go by Paco's. Head straight to the source for some of the best steak tacos in Chicago. On the weekends you'll see the entire grill space dominated by skirt steak.
The best item at this hip spot specializing in Mexican street food has got to be the taco de pescado. It's a wonderful mold of warm-weather flavors sure to heat you up. Beer-battered tilapia and sliced red cabbage give it plenty of crunch while the chipotle-mango dressing and Salsa Valentina give it some spice that the pico de gallo helps cool down.
Tacos al pastor
There are some good things about cold weather in Chicago, one of them being the tacos al pastor at Xoco. Every Wednesday starting at 5pm you can get a taste of what Rick Bayless and his team love about late-night snacking in Mexico City.
For many residents of the city's East Side taco day is Wednesday and not on Tuesday. That's because this beloved longtime neighborhood tavern dishes out its famous deep-fried tacos each week. Though you'll receive a bottle of salsa to dress the crispy tacos, it's all about the neon-orange sauce used on the chicken. Ask for some if you don't see it.
Bistek asado taco
The boss of all steak tacos. Many are familiar with El Milagro tortillas which are used by vendors all over Chicagoland but only those in the know are aware of the restaurant next door to the tortilla outlet. Here a steak taco is one big chunk of meat cooked on the grill until nice and charred. The only toppings it needs are some crunchy cabbage and the house salsa and all you need is two of them tops.
Tony Anteliz has created a mini empire with his popular Mexican sandwich spot. As good as the sandwiches are, it's the taco arabe that stands out as the most unique offering. Popular in Puebla, Mexico these tacos have a Middle Eastern background with Mexican flavors. They're slightly spicy, super smoky, and always a crowd-pleaser.
La Cocinita (address and info)
The best chicken tacos in Chicago are also the best food truck tacos. Juicy shredded meat topped with a kickin' chipotle sauce, some crunchy cabbage, and cheese inside a well-heated tortilla has all the flavors and textures one wants in a top taco.
Often called corn smut, the secret to this potent veggie offering is in the toppings. Order it with a scoop of guacamole and some shredded cheese and you will be pleased. Oh, and those tortillas!
Texas tacos w/ brisket
BBQ in a tortilla is one of the great cuisine mash-ups of our time. This North Side smokehouse takes its succulent brisket and stuffs it inside a flour tortilla to create a great example of the genre.
Pure porky goodness. It's the spots that do one thing and one thing only that always seem to shine. That's the case with the family-recipe carnitas at this Pilsen staple. You can get the meat by the pound or in taco form with a lovely red salsa with mild heat to complete it.
Tuna poke taco
Chicago's beloved seafood spot makes some pretty good tacos too. The tuna poke takes sushi-grade tuna and stuffs it inside a hard-shell taco. It's the number-one seller on the menu for a reason. It tastes great!
Tacos de sabinas
We've all heard the news by now but the owners said they'll be back. So when they are the first thing you should do upon hearing the news is head on over and get the house-specialty tacos de sabinas. You'll be eating one of the best plates of tacos in Chicago and helping this local favorite make a roaring comeback.
This Rogers Park favorite is known for its ginormous sandwiches named after well-known futbol players but don't overlook the tacos. Particularly the tacos pioneros which is a platter of meats with lots of cheese and even some sauteed veggies for good measure. We advise trying this one on an empty stomach as there’s lots to eat off your plate.
There was a time when this stretch of Lincoln was a desert for good tacos. Not anymore now that these guys have opened up shop. House-made tortillas get filled with worthy ingredients such as the crispy fried fish topped with jalapeño cabbage slaw and chipotle aioli. No need for the chains anymore.
A small family-run spot which has a mostly local clientele, this place doesn't grill the steak but makes each and every little bit extra crispy and always uses fresh red onion and cilantro as the toppings. The warming of the tortilla is key to a good taco and here they open that door each time they make one.
Carne asada taco
One of the most popular taquerias in the city is also one of the best. All the taco options are pretty fantastic but the carne asada stands out for size and texture. The large chunks of steak are never chewy and the cilantro and onion is always fresh. The $.80 upcharge for a thick handmade tortilla is very much worth it.
Taco al pastor
Mario makes the same tacos al pastor here that they did back in Mexico City. The meat comes from a cone and is most always sliced to order. Thinly shaven crispy pork with his family mixture of chilies and aromatics shining bright red with achiote. This is how tacos al pastor are supposed to be served.
Cochinita pibil taco
You can always count on a vibrant display of colors when you order the specialty of the Yucatan at this Lincoln Park watering hole. You can also count on juicy pork with mild peppery flavors mixed with citrus from the beautiful pickled onions atop the meat. A thicker-than-normal house-made tortilla keeps everything together.
Crispy tripas taco
Ask any Chicago taco-eater worth their salsa, “What's the best taqueria in town?” and they'll mention this place if they know what’s up. While all the Mexico City-style tacos are killer, it's the crispy tripas that stands out most. Imagine you're eating a bacon taco and just let it crunch.
Crispy potato taco
This Logan Square sit-down spot has lots of good taco options but the crispy potato is one you won’t find anywhere else. Mashed potato puree with epazote, salsa verde, cream, and cheese makes for a great way to start your meal. Or you could order four and call it dinner.
Pork carnitas taco
Pork on pork, how can this not be good. We love all the chef-driven taco options on the menu at this Wicker Park favorite but cant get enough of the carnitas option. It's sweet, it's smoky, and crispy bacon is a topping.
Considered the GOAT by many. The goat taco served on a warm house-made tortilla is one of the best things to eat in all of Chicago. Its silky-smooth texture makes for some of the best roasted meat anywhere. On top of all this, you basically become family after a few visits.
One of the best bang-for-your-buck tacos in town. This spot chops the dried beef into pieces and throws it in a homemade tortilla thick enough to withstand a spread of refried beans and a huge dollop of guacamole. Take one to go and you'll still get chips and a smoky house salsa.
Chicago's first fish taco-focused taqueria is putting out a top-notch fish taco (who would have thought?). The signature taco consists of several large chunks of Sapporo-battered cod served over a crispy Baja slaw with mango salsa and yogurt sauce. Just like they make out West.
Crispy fish taco
Another one of the city's fine purveyors of chef-driven tacos also serves one of the best modern Mexican takes on the fish taco. All the tortillas are made in-house and the crispy fish taco uses a hibiscus tortilla to mold together the rest of the Southeast Asian flavors. It's colorful and full of flavor.
The draw here for most locals is the fresh masa and corn tortillas made on site, however it also has a taqueria putting out one of the city's top tacos. The choriqueso taco takes the universally loved queso fundido, mixes in some chorizo, and puts the end result in a house-made corn tortilla.
The address is in Evanston but the CTA Purple Line drops you off directly across the street at the Main St station. It's worth the ride to try this spot's take on lengua aka cow tongue. Just imagine it's pot roast and you're in for one of the beefier tacos you'll ever bite into.
Taco en CARBONado
The specialty taco at this cute little Pilsen taqueria is all sorts of spicy. The type you need in your life. Picture an extra-tender piece of grilled steak. Now imagine some onions and jalapeño slices cooking with the meat. It all goes in a perfectly griddled tortilla and comes accompanied by a fantastic avocado-based salsa. If you're not hungry, restart your computer and try again.
Carnitas de Aguascalientes taco
This popular Little Village grocery store makes some wonderful tacos next door. Handmade tortillas get filled with wonderful-smelling guisados aka stew meats. The first one listed is the house special carnitas and it comes sitting inside a fiery red chile sauce. Perfect on a cold winter day.
Sambal fish taco
Chicago's original fusion taco spot still serves the best fusion taco. The never-small and always well-fried piece of fish dominates the tortilla. Pickled red onions add a little bit of zing while Napa slaw adds extra snap to each bite.
Crispy chorizo with exceptionally fresh cilantro and onion on a beautiful handmade white corn tortilla. That in and of itself is good enough to make this a top taco, but when the complimentary salsa molcajete goes on it becomes the type of taco you think about while daydreaming at your desk.
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