#13. Mr. Taco's Restaurant
810 N. Marshfield
Tacos al Pastor
3 @ $1.60 each = $4.80 (no extras)
(Note: De Pasada is closed on Tuesdays, so we'll break convention and review the underdog first.)
Variations on "Mr. Taco" have to be among the most common names of Mexican restaurants in the United States, the equivalent of a Chinese restaurant calling itself "Peking Express" or an Indian restaurant "Ghandi". There used to be a "Mr. Taco" where I grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, a small chain which was sort of a ghettoized version of Taco Bell; its only customers were stoners and a few misguided vegans in search of bean burritos, and it closed several years ago. The Chicago version of "Mr. Taco" is noteworthy for the unique use of the possessive case in its name. It isn't "Mr. Tacos' Restaurant", which would seem to imply a restaurant owned by a dude who sold tacos, but rather "Mr. Taco's Restaurant", which would seem to imply a restaurant owned by a giant taco. Well, that's how I read it at least.
You probably wouldn't stumble across Mr. Taco's if you weren't meaning to; I first came upon it rather on accident when my friend was looking for a Currency Exchange to renew his parking stickers. Although just steps away from the busy Chicago/Ashland intersection, it's tucked out of view on residential Marshfield Ave., and its dreary storefront doesn't do much to pique one's curiosity. Nevertheless, it has some reasonably good food to offer.
The Food: Because of the careful preparation they require, tacos al Pastor are not particuarly easy to find on Chicago menus. (Mr. Taco's round 1 opponent, the relatively authentic De Pasada, does not in fact offer them, and so we will have to make the rather liberal substitution of tacos de barbacoa.) As such, this was one of my first experiences with al Pastor, but I think I'm a convert: it has more potential to wow the palate than other "mystery meat" variants like barbacoa and chorizo.
Mr. Taco's version of al Pastor is rich with flavor and visually attractive (not quite done justice to in the picture you see above). Accompanied by fresh onion, cilantro, a wedge of lime, and two deliciously soft tortillas, the sliced pork is a vibrant hue of orange, making for a dramatic accompaniment to the red tablecloth (and a dramatic contrast to pretty much everything else in the restaurant). The flavor itself might also be described as vibrant, especially when accompanied by the relatively potent squeeze-bottle salsa. There are several different flavors going on here, but the best analogy is probably to a good enchilada sauce, with hints of roasted spices and chilis.
The problem -- and it's a major one -- is that the spice is making up for meat of dubious quality. The pork had little taste and no moisture, and the slices lacked a consistent texture, but erred on the side of being too thick. I'm not even sure that Mr. Taco's has a spit, which could explain the problems. In fact, I was somewhat reminded of the apocryphal story of the spice trade being important in ancient times because spices could be used to cover up the taste of spoiled meat. I am not in any way suggesting that Mr. Taco's falls short of health code standards (far from it judging by the freshness of the onions and cilantro), but what they have is a good recipe being applied to poor product.
The Experience: Mr. Taco's has a decently sized but somewhat chaotic-looking open kitchen behind its front counter space, and there were four women busily working within it, peeling onions as they took turns taking orders and busing tables. This portion of the neighborhood is relatively rough-and-tumble, but the restaurant was busier than you might guess from the outside, with a series of Hispanic locals that tended to linger at their tables. We also had a couple of homeless people that came in asking for change, but they were quickly shooed away when it became clear they weren't planning to order anything. Al Pastor translates as "shepherd-style", and all of this tended to entrench the notion of home-prepared "peasant food".
With a few improvements in the quality of its meat, Mr. Taco's would qualify as something of a darkhorse, but based on this experience it remains the underdog to De Pasada, which we'll review on Thursday.
#13. Mr. Taco's Restaurant
Posted by Nate Silver at 11:45 PM