La Pasadita: Round 2 Review

#1. La Pasadita
1132 N. Ashland
Barbacoa Tacos
3 @ $1.55 each + 50¢ sour cream each = $6.15

Defeated #16 Flash Taco in Round 1 [review]

There once was a time when I was a little bit intimidated by La Pasadita. It wasn’t too hard to get over that, once I realized that their somewhat detached service is a necessity given how many customers they turn over every hour, and that the utilitarian preparation of their tacos and burritos – “yes” to onions and cilantro, “no” to anything else – is not because they forgot to buy grated cheese at the store, but because things taste better that way when you know how to
cook your meat.

Then there was a time that I was convinced that La Pasadita was a one-trick pony. Yes, their carne asada was probably the best in the neighborhood, and possibly the best in Chicago. But what about the rest of their menu? Once I moved closer to La Pasadita, however, enabling – nay, necessitating -- more frequent visits, I came to understand that nearly the entire range of their menu is quality. Tortas, tacos, and burritos were successfully tested; chicken, steak, and pork were obligingly tasted. There were visits to its take-out counter at 1 PM, and visits to its sit-down restaurant at 1 AM; the quality was the same.

La Pasadita’s barbacoa, however, was sort of the black sheep of the family. I had ordered their barbacoa once before, and remembered being a little underimpressed. But that was once and only once, and barbacoa was just one out of a medley of tacos I was having, and I was so hungry on that visit that I barely had the time to process what I was eating. So barbacoa would be a fair challenge for Pasadita -- if La Pasadita was going to stumble, it quite possibly was going to be here.

The Food: But stumble it did not. In fact, the barbacoa might be the best thing on La Pasadita’s menu.

Before we consider that proposition, let me detour a bit to explain my previous history with barbacoa. It is very limited. In fact, save for my one prior experience at La Pasadita, it had been limited to occasional visits to Chipotle, where barbacoa is one of the four primary meats that Chipotle serves on its menu. I always liked Chipotle’s barbacoa reasonably well, but there was something missing; it was a little too processed, too refined. And after this visit to La Pasadita, I discovered what that “something” is: the fat.

Barbacoa is generally made from head meat, quite often cheek meat, which means that in its natural form it’s going to contain quite a bit of fat. At Chipotle, however, the fat is sort of sanitized out. Consider the following, which is the percentage fat content of each of Chipotle’s four meats.

Barbacoa 11.4%

Carnitas 10.7%

Steak 10.7%

Chicken 9.8%

You’ll notice that the ratios for the four products are all about the same. That strikes me as a little unnatural. Meats like barbacoa and carnitas ought not to contain just a little more fat than chicken; they ought to contain a lot more fat. I suspect this is so because Chipotle is trying to keep their calorie counts low for health-conscious consumers, but the thing is, the fat content from the meat is not really where the problem lies. Let’s say that you order a barbacoa fajita burrito at chipotle, accompanied by corn and red tomatillo salsas, cheese, and sour cream. According to chipotlefan.com, that burrito will cost you 1313 calories. How many of those calories are from the barbacoa itself? Only 285; about 80% of the calorie count comes from all those other toppings that Chipotle is piling on. So their approach to cooking is sort of penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Now let’s return to the world of La Pasadita. Their barbacoa is fatty. In fact, it’s wonderfully fatty – rich, tender and succulent. It reminds me of two of my favorite dishes on any menu in Chicago: the short ribs at sola, and the slab bacon at Bluebird. It hits that perfect note of being a little bit indulgent, while still being consumable in large portions. And the thing is, since La Pasadita doesn’t load up its tacos with all the other crap that Chipotle does, I would guess that its calorie count is still much, much lower. Their barbacoa is not something that you’d want to eat every day, exactly, but it’s giving you much better bang on your buck.

I did cheat a little bit by ordering sour cream on my tacos. Actually, this was somewhat unintentional; I asked my waitress for sour cream on one of my tacos as a sort of experiment, but something was lost in translation and it came on all three. Good thing it did, because the sour cream was a natural complement to the zesty meat, and something that I’d recommend highly with this dish. Pasadita also has three kinds of salsa available – the pico de gallo was a little bit off, overly salty and not especially fresh, but both the green and the mysterious black salsas were very good. Finish off with ample helpings of onion and cilantro, and you’ve got a gourmet-quality meal on your hands for barely more than six dollars.

The Experience: For this visit, I went to the “full service” location at 1132 N. Ashland. The largest of Pasadita’s three neighboring storefronts, La Nueva is also the most chaotic, since it has the most comprehensive menu and is also processing considerable take-out business. It helps to know the ropes a little bit. When you’re ready to eat, just sit down – no need to hang out at the counter. And when you’re ready to leave, just head to the counter – no need to hang out at your table, since the waitresses seem to have a magical ability to arrive at the cash register exactly when you do, and remember exactly what you ordered. It’s chaos – but it’s organized chaos. That’s not to say the service is overtly friendly, but it’s as friendly as it needs to be. My only minor complaints really where the mix-up over the sour cream, and the volume of the music, which was turned up loud enough that there was no way in hell that I was going to be able to check my voicemail while waiting for my tacos.

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