I ride my bike to the windy city's hidden gems, lost goldmines, new kids on the block, and old standbys then tell you what to think and what to order. Check, czech, Česká it out...

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Street (Food) Fight: Part 7, Taco Tango Redux

After summer took its sweet ass time arriving it is finally time to examine our taco options again. My love for all things south of the border has been well publicized so I don't want to hear any grumbling about how all I talk about is Mexican food because, when you follow your heart, you can't be criticized. Today we examine two bright spots in the Chicago taco galaxy: Big Star and Taco Joint.

Big Star is the humblest creation from the food-savants behind Avec, Blackbird, Publican and The Violet Hour and, from the get-go, it has a been a hit for late-night taco lovers, alcohol enthusiasts, and people averse to credit cards.

Taco Joint is a new tequilería and taquería in Lincoln Park (remember Minnie's? This is Minnie's old spot) that is not only within walking distance of my house but also has a promising menu.

For the comparo I lassoed up three similar tacos (one pork, one fancy meat, and one vegetarian), guacamole and chips and a tasty beverage of my choosing. Each taco is a category and each category is up for grabs, which ever restaurant wins the most categories shall be declared ze winner!

Los Tacos
For what is essentially meat, seasoning and tortilla it can be hard for some to think highly of the humble taco but not me; I unabashedly love tacos and I believe perfection can be found in the form of perfectly cooked ingredients, a good dose of heat, well balanced flavors and a supple yet strong tortilla*.

Like so many venerable establishments, Big Star refers to their pork product as Al Pastor which means "of the pasture" if my Spanish serves me. This taco, however, tastes more of beach than field though thanks to the overwhelming presence of pineapple and sweet onion. Frankly, it's too much. The pineapple hits you hard up front and continues to pepper you throughout the bite. The pork shoulder was also over roasted which made it tough to chew.

Taco Joint's pork entry is dubbed Cochinita, meaning "little pig" in Español. This little piggy packed big bad wolf taste in the form of wild onion flavor up front and some serious heat throughout thanks to a sauce based off the infamous habañero pepper (there's a reason they recommend eating this taco last). The flavors were uncluttered and the texture was downright seductive.

Edge: Taco Joint

Big Star does a couple veggy tacos depending on when you're there and who's in charge of the menu. On the day I was in they were doing a version called Del Elote and it was a truly lovely taco. It was mesquite-smokey, darkly vegetal, and pleasantly earthy. The main component was slow simmered long beans and everything was tied together nicely with the omnipresent crumbled queso fresco.

Rajas is the name of Taco Joint's vegetarian entry and it relies on a more traditional blend of roasted poblano peppers, creamy tomatillo salsa and a velvety black bean spread. The taco is well conceived and well exectuted. There's crunch when you want it and tenderness when you're feeling sensitive and quiet. The black beans are the delicious blanket upon which this meat-free picnic is set and summer days are perfect for picnicking.

Edge: Big Star

Fancy Meats
Pork belly is no longer an outlier meat. It's now a full fledged member of the Meats-You-Eat-Family, so dishes based off it can no longer skate by on novelty alone but rather must be well prepared and creatively inspired in order to impress. Big Star's Taco de Panza hits the first mark beautifully and the second one pretty darn well. The pork belly is smoky and salty all the right ways and enveloped beautifully in a rich and subtly hot guajillo sauce.

Duck and its own fat combine powers again in Taco Joint's Carnitas taco. This heavy confit-style dish was christened with ancho chile salsa and the traditional combo of cilantro and onion. Taco Joint got funky-fresh and added toasted pumpkin seed to the ensemble and, surprisingly, it wasn't gimmickry but actually added a nice nutty character to the taco. My overall impression of this taco is that it's a bit one note-ish but it's a nice note.

Edge: Big Star

El Guac
First a few notes on guacamole. Though it almost always tastes good, guacamole is often corrupted in the form of adding too much lime, any amount of sour cream, under or over ripe avocados or simply too much salsa. Neither of these restaurants commit any of these crimes near as I can tell, so this comparison comes down to quality of ingredients and, honestly, how happy I was feeling when I ate them.

Big Star's chips and guac was as big as Emiliano Zapata's pride and just about as delicious. There's a general freshness about the 'mole that I really appreciated along with a mild heat thanks to the use of Serrano peppers and, call me Russian, but I thought the sliced radish pieces were a nice touch. Like almost anything, eating chips and guacamole on a patio during what was arguably the most perfectly summery day in history made my experience better but I can't control that and refuse to apologize for it.

Taco Joint, in its endless commitment to variety and confusion, offers four (count 'em!) types of guacamole for your dipping delight. We opted for the tradicional in order to keep the comparison authentic and it proved to be coarse yet creamy and displayed very little additive flavor. Despite using exactly the same ingredients Big Star's guac it was milder in heat and heavier in consistency than its competitor. It must also be noted that three types of chips were served (tortilla (duh!), plantain, and sweet potato) and, in a result that surprised just about everyone, the sweet potato worked the best.

Edge: Big Star

Las Chicas
Drinks, specifically margaritas, were of course ordered at each restaurant. If you must know, yes, more than one drink was consumed but I had to narrow this comparison down to the best of what each place offered and the results follow:

Big Star benefits from being a sister to what is arguably the best cocktail bar in the city (the Violet Hour, in case there was any confusion) and those benefits include but are not limited to: simple presentation, bold yet well balanced ingredients and a commitment to quality over pace. These fine qualities were demonstrated in the Rio Bravo, a blend of muddled strawberry, Mezcal Vida, and I'm not sure what else. It was smooth, light and refreshing which are not typically things I associate with mezcal based cocktails.

Taco Joint likes to brag that they have over seventy tequilas on hand. I like to brag that I still have all twenty fingers and toes despite my lifelong fascination with table saws and unlicensed alligator farms. The point is one of us puts our abundance of awesomeness to good use. In their Grapefruit Margarita, Taco Joint uses Gran Centenario Reposado, Cointreau, chile-infused agave nectar, grapefruit/lime juice and bitters. The result is a complex and wily cocktail that shows off deep smokiness, harsh citrus and a sweet finish, a.k.a. it's kick ass.

Edge: Taco Joint 
(solely based on the balls it takes to put that drink on the menu)

The Verdict
In what came down to a nail-biter of a finish Big Star pulled out a hard fought victory. I doubt many will be surprised by this result. Big Star's blend of fun atmosphere, splendid spirits and relatively low prices have made it a hit but, as I hope this review shows, they are serious about their food as well. Their grub is serious stuff that is often eaten by people like you and me who use it to ward off impending black outs but I say try it sober and it will taste even better!

*A special report on tortillas. Both Big Star and Taco Joint make their tortillas by hand but you may have noticed the bright orange color of the taco joint tacos. This is because the lady making the tortillas that day decided she'd infuse them with guajillo chiles which turned them orange. Sometimes she uses spinach, which makes them green. The point I'm really trying to make is this shit is inconsistent; when it's on it is dynamite and when it's off it tastes store bought and stale. So be aware.

Taco Joint on Urbanspoon
Big Star
Big Star on Urbanspoon
Taco Joint


  1. Great review. Exquisite photos. Tried the elotes and pork belly at Big Star of late. Good eats.

  2. Mr. Slaking, thank you kindly, sir! The next time I'm in Des Moines I'm looking you up!