A Midwestern relationship with tacos is usually either a quick, casual lunch or a late-night binge. In both cases, the tacos are simple: chicken, beef or pork topped with onions and cilantro.
Instead, two new restaurants with seasoned chefs are putting a lot of effort into their tacos, and in the process, dressing up a familiar snack.
You can tell pretty quickly that the tacos at the new Mercadito in River North, are not the usual late-night taqueria fare. Arriving four to a plate, they're an expression of Mexican street food in a big city presentation.
"It's certain techniques that I use to make the tacos a little more refined then what you would find on the streets," said Patricio Sandoval, chef of Mercadito.
As he does in his two New York locations, Sandoval begins with great ingredients: garlic, red onions and tomatillo-poblano sauce are combined in a skillet, with a bit of butter to add richness. Seared tilapia filets are sliced, then placed into homemade tortillas, topped with the creamy tomatillo-poblano sauce, fresh avocado and pickled red onions.
Pork shoulder is tender after it's been braised in condensed milk, pork fat, orange juice and garlic. It's placed in warm tortillas, then topped with a crunchy-sweet cabbage slaw containing pickled onions, chiles, honey and peanuts. Tacos al pastor contain chile ancho-rubbed pork that's griddled with pineapple, while the carne contain marinated skirt steak with potatoes, peppers and cheese.
Sandoval says they may be bite-sized tacos, but they're constructed with great effort.
"You have to start with a great tortilla of cours, and then you have your components of spiciness, sweetness, saltiness, and of course you need something to give it texture, something crunchy," Sandoval said.
There are just three tacos on the abbreviated menu at Big Star in Wicker Park, which feels like a Southwestern honky-tonk -- albeit one that has great bourbon and tequila. The tacos al pastor are sliced-to-order until they run out.
"While it's on the spit, it's painted with a mixture of pineapple juice and chilie arbol, and then once that's sliced off the spit nice and crispy it goes right on to our tortillas that we're making right here in house," said Justin Large, chef of Big Star.
Pork belly is braised then griddled until crispy, topped with guajillo chile, queso rancherito and cilantro, while a marinated goat taco is served shredded and soft, topped with radish and roasted scallions, along with a cup of its braising liquid for indiscriminate dipping.
"We try to treat things that seem simple with a lot of care and a lot of effort, so a taco may only be four ingredients but each of those four ingredients really needs to kind of shine on the plate," Large said.
Yet another fancy taco option is available at De Cero, on West Randolph, where they offer a sampler platter of eight tacos with three salsas.
108 W. Kinzie St.
1531 N. Damen Ave.
814 W. Randolph St.