La Pasadita [#1] defeats Flash Taco [#16]

I wasn't really expecting this one to be close, but I was surprised at how not close it was. The nearest Flash Taco [review] came to pulling an upset was in my stomach [ba-dump-bump-CHING!].

La Pasadita [review] advances to the second round.

Flash Taco: Round 1 Review

#16. Flash Taco
1570 N Damen

Steak Burrito Grande

$5.25 (no extras)

I used to love me some Flash Taco. I'd go so far as to say that it provided some extra incentive to go out to Wicker Park, knowing that my night would culminate in a drunken plate of Enchiladas Flash. Then one day about two years ago, I had a late morning meeting around the corner on Milwaukee Avenue. And I ate Flash Taco ... completely sober.

The Food: Well, it's not like they're cheating anyone:

That's a BlackBerry 8700c you see in the background, which is a pretty wide, clunky-looking phone. You could probably fit about twenty of them in a grande burrito. This is more food than any normal human could eat in one sitting; it's pretty gratuitous, really.

The faint praise ends there. This was a sloppily-prepared, rather tasteless concoction, especially when compared to La Pasadita's entry from yesterday. The steak (they're modest enough not to call it "carne asada") was tough and rather salty-tasting; a couple of pieces weren't even edible. The refried beans and veggies just seemed to weigh the plate down. And both the green and the red salsas were lackluster. I do rather like Flash Taco's tortillas, which are left on the grill for a little bit and sink in some of that flavor, but a tortilla does not a burrito make. I finished about 60% of the thing before giving up.

The Experience: I was just about the only customer in the restaurant at 5 PM today, and the first thing I noticed was the loud, contemporary, sort of Spanglesh techno music playing, which was like something straight out of a Mexico City gay discotheque. It's funny, because my stock memory of Flash Taco involves traditional Mexican country; perhaps they turn that music on late at night when the gringos come in, but play gringo music when they think nobody is watching.

I don't mean to poke too much fun. The service has always been both efficient and reasonably polite, which is no small feat when they're serving lines of drunken barhoppers that can snake around the corner onto Damen Ave. They have a cool mural above the counter (partially visible in the picture above) and are probably the only taqueria in the city limits to boast a flat-screen television. The people-watching is always outstanding; even when the restaurant is empty, you have a perfect view of the Six Corners intersection.

I've had some arguments with friends about whether Flash Taco used to be better, or we simply remembered it that way in the afterglow of an evening out. Either way, I really can't recommend it until your BAC reaches a certain level. The Enchiladas Flash become satisfying after two or three drinks; for the more traditional fare on the menu, we're talking at least a six-pack.


I couldn't get to sleep last night. Perhaps it was stress over the big meeting that I have at the end of this week, or Obama's declining poll numbers, or problems with my apartment's air conditioning. But just as likely, I think it was guilt over failing to include Tecalitlan in the Burrito Bracket.

My original rationale for not including Tecalitlan was that it was "too much of a sit-down restaurant". But that's a pretty flimsy argument. No fewer than four restaurants in the bracket are "sit-down" places that feature table service.

Too expensive? That argument doesn't fly, either. Although Tecalitlan does have some specialty items like enchiladas and fajitas that cost a little bit more, it also has burritos available for $5 -- exactly what I paid at La Pasadita yesterday -- as well as tortas for $3.50, and tacos for $1.75. Nor are these throwaway items: they offer no fewer than 11 different varieties of burriots, ranging from juevo to cauliflower.

I really don't have a leg to stand on. Tecalitlan is a lot closer in spirit to Lazo's or Arturo's than it is to say, Caoba, which is clearly a different genus of Mexican restaurant. It's frequently mentioned in conjunction with phrases like "great cheap Mexican food", and it's not fair to punish it simply because it also happens to have some delicious enchiladas on its menu, or serve up a mean margarita.

So one last series of changes to our bracket before this competition really gets rolling:

  • Tecalitlan moves into the #3 seed.
  • Chipotle, which was seeded way too high at #3, gets bumped down to #7.
  • Picante Taqueria moves from #7 to #10, leaving the Arturo's-Lazo's confrontation intact, and setting up a Chipotle-Picante gringo grudge match.
  • The #10-#12 seeds all move down one notch.
  • The original #13 seed, Taqueria Traspazada, moves into a "play-in" game with Taco & Burrito Express for the 15th seed.
Got all that? You don't have to -- just look at the bracket.


Another Late Entrant

While on a recognizance mission today I discovered Carniceria y Taqueria Laura on 1051 N. Ashland. Although primarily a supermarket, I went inside and confirmed that it does in fact contain a small taqueria with a few tables. I can't possibly exclude it; one of the aims of the burrito bracket is to pit well-known destinations against mom-and-pop establishments. Besides, it has "taqueria" in its name!

Therefore, we need to improvise a bit, and the natural thing to do is to pit it off in a play-in game against Supermercado Guanajuato up the block, which is also a traditional supermarket with a built-in taco shop. These taquerias have been designated #14a and #14b respectively; the winner will assume the 14 seed proper and face off against corporate monolith Chipotle. This whole area of the bracket has become "non-traditional" involving two supermarkets, the only major chain in the competition, and a Costa Rican restaurant; should all be very interesting. The bracket and map have been updated accordingly.

La Pasadita: Round 1 Review

#1. La Pasadita
1140 N Ashland
Carne Asada Burrito
$5.00 (no extras)

La Pasadita has quite a reputation among chow-hounds and burritophiles, but it might do a little bit of a number on the uninitiated. In fact, on my first visit a couple of years ago, it did a number on me too. This visit had come after a very long morning: my laptop had completely broken down, and I had located a repair shop on Ashland Avenue. After taking the Division bus eight blocks too far westbound (I had juxtaposed Ashland and Western in my mind -- perhaps the result of a hangover), I finally located the repair shop, only to be told that the laptop's motherboard was damaged and that I might as well buy a new machine. Seeking some comfort food, I found my way into La Pasadita and ordered a carne asada burrito. It was reasonably good, but my Chipolte-damaged palate was looking for something different: a Mission-style burrito full of cheese, beans, guacamole, and every other accoutrement that you can think of. Instead, La Pasadita's burritos are of a different breed, something which probably had its roots in the street vendors of northern Mexico rather than the kitchens of San Francisco.

The Food: That's right: La Pasadita's burritos do not contain beans. They do not contain cheese. They do not contain sour cream, and certainly not guacamole. They do not contain tomatoes. In fact, you cannot even order most of these things on the side; tomatoes and sour cream, available for 50c each, are the lone exceptions. The standard ingredients in the burrito are onion, cilantro, and your choice of meat; that is all. (Note: this applies only to the 1140 N. Ashland location, which is where I ate today. The 1132 N. Ashland location next door includes a significantly wider menu as well as table service).

So this is a burrito for which the meat very much has to speak for itself. And fortunately, it does. La Pasadita's steak is cut into thin slices and grilled on a skillet to order. The charcoal flavor really shines through, and while the meat probably wouldn't be served at David Burke's Primehouse, its quality is well above par for taqueria standards. The meat does contain a little bit of lean fat (just the perfect amount to my tastes, actually). On the other hand, because of the preparation method involved, the burrito is distinctly not greasy, and it goes down easily before and after.

The onions and cilantro are fresh-tasting, and that's about all they really need to be to complement the meat. Similarly, the green salsa is reasonably potent, but not overpowering even in relatively heavy doses; the grilled steak retains the dominant position in the flavor bouquet. Because of its simplicity, the burrito is decidely more impressive in the first three bites than the last three, but the portion size is just right, so that's not a major concern.

The Experience: There are actually three La Pasaditas located essentially right next door to one another: the two that I've mentioned, plus a third location on 1141 N. Ashland which serves as more of a takeout joint. I would recommend the 1140 N. Ashland location if you're after a quick bite, but to reiterate its menu is very minimal: just five different kinds of fillings (which I believe are carne asada, lengua, pork al pastor, veggie, and chile relleno; chicken is NOT among them) and two different "vessels" (tacos and burritos). You'll have to head south a few steps if you want to try another permutation.

Whichever location I've been to, La Pasadita has always done a brisk business at just about any time of day or night, and this afternoon was no exception. There were perhaps 25 or 30 customers that cycled through the restaurant in the 20 minutes or so that I was there. I was one of just two gringos among them; although that ratio has been higher on past visits, this speaks to the fact that this is a real, functioning taqueria, and not just some landing spot for drunken hipsters (hey, it takes one to know one).

The counter girl was a little sassy in a way that's a tiny bit reminiscent of The Wiener's Circle, but not rude by any means. There is a very ample seating area, and one of the line cooks will bring your food out to you. Turnaround time is not instantaneous, but remember -- they don't keep their steak sitting around in a vat, and you don't want them to. Overall, my (lofty) expectations were met, and it's going to be a tough act for Flash Taco to follow.


RIP Taco Cafe? (Hello, Irazu?)

I moved to Wicker Park on the 1st of July. Ever since then, the corridor of North Avenue that hosts Taco Cafe has been a boulevard of burrito broken dreams. Taco Cafe, you see, has been closed.

Teased by promises of "philly tacos" and veggie chili at 5 in the morning, I assumed that was a temporary state of affairs. My pet theory was that the owner lived in Pilsen and celebrated a little too much on the Fourth of July. Having been in the neighborhood for the occasion to witness fireworks displays intense enough to scare Michael Ware, I could understand if he needed a couple of days off.

But alas, it's a month later, and Taco Cafe remains closed, the only sign of its existence a hastily-written sign that reads: "We Will Be Closed ~ Thank's Taco Cafe" [sic].

There were other clues, too, that something wasn't quite right with Taco Cafe. The storefront isn't blighted exactly, but the windows are dirty and the interior is dusty. Moreover, there are a conspicuous lack of recent reviews on the foodie sites that I frequent. The most recent Yelp review is from July, 2006. No Metromix reviews since May 2006. There is a CitySearch review dated 11/23/2006, but that's still more than eight months out of date, and for all I know the reviewer could been writing up an experience that she'd had months earlier. This was all very strange; this is a relatively gringo-ized and well-regarded Mexican restaurant located at a major intersection, and one that stays open until 5 AM. You'd expect to see more than, oh -- zero reviews since last Thanksgiving.

Finally, I came across this: The Re-Open Taco Cafe Petition, which noted that "The Taco Cafe located @ 1608 W North Ave has been closed for several weeks". (There were some hints in the petition that its closure was due to health code violations). Based on some detective work I did on AltaVista, I determined that this petition had first been posted no later than July, 2006, which is right about when the reviews slowed to a halt. Therefore, I think we can conclude that Taco Cafe has been closed for at least a year, and probably closer to 13 or 14 months.

It looks like we need a replacement for Taco Cafe's #6 seed in our bracket. My friend Jessi, who may be writing some guest entries on veggie burritos later on, insisted on Irazu, which is well within our boundaries on Milwaukee Avenue. I resisted at first. I have nothing against Irazu; on the contrary, I regard it as one of the better "cheap eats" restaurants in the entire city (hell, one of the better restaurants PERIOD). But it primarily bills itself as Costa Rican rather than Mexican.

Jessi pointed out that Irazu does have burritos on its menu. It also has tacos, and sandwiches like the Pepito that aren't called tortas, but serve as the functional equivalent. So there is a sufficient variety of "Mexican" fare to qualify it for our competition. Moreover, Jessi pointed out, if my sole criterion was places that were authentically "Mexican", I'd have to wipe out at least two-thirds of my bracket before the first burrito was consumed.

And so, Irazu is in, but with the following qualification: I will only consider its "Mexican" items (burritos, tacos, and sandwiches/tortas) for the purposes of this competition, but not its variety of Costa Rican fare. As such, a #6 seed seems about right for Irazu. It would surely be seeded within the top three overall, and perhaps as high as #1, if it had its whole menu at its disposal, but we're forcing it to operate with one hand tied behind its back. Still, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if the best cheap "Mexican" restaurant in Wicker Park turns out not to be a Mexican restaurant at all.

Oh, and if Taco Cafe rises from the dead before the first round concludes, we will find some way to include it, probably by means of a play-in game.