Fancy, Shmancy

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Arturo's Tacos [#8] defeats Lazo's Tacos [#9]

If you follow college hoops at all, you'll know that matchups between the 8 and 9 seeds are supposed to be scrappy fights to the finish, but this one was over from the first bite. Arturo's Tacos [review] advances to the second round to face La Pasadita, while Lazo's Tacos [review] is consigned to the dustbin of burrito obscurity.

Lazo's Tacos: Round 1 Review

#9. Lazo's Tacos
2009 N. Western
Torta de Milanesa
$3.95 (no extras)

Having been to Arturo's Tacos but never to Lazo's, I had assumed that they were two peas from the same pod. Perhaps not identical twins, exactly, but at least two brothers with a solid sibling rivalry. Indeed, there are some surface similarities. Each has a liquor license, and stays open 24 hours to cater to hungry, hungry hipsters. They have broadly similar -- and similarly broad -- menus. And Lazo's and Arturo's are literally right next door to one another. But that's really where the similarities end: Lazo's and Arturo's are little more than estranged step-cousins that happen to occupy the same block.

The Food: Brought out almost suspiciously fast by my waitress, this was a bland torta that managed to be less than the sum of its parts. The bread was incrementally fresher than that from Arturo's, and the steak patty was a little thicker, but the overall result was undermined in a number of ways. Most noticeably, the tomatoes were not very fresh, a problem made more acute by Lazo's decision to use whole tomato slices, rather than dice them into chunks. The guacamole and table-side salsa appeared to have been store-bought, while the meat itself was overdone, giving it a tough, stringy quality. By all tastes and appearances, it was a torta prepared without much care or concern.

The Experience: Abjectly depressing. Lazo's has a very large seating area, perhaps 75 tables strong, including several TVs, a bar, and a performance area for bands. I'm sure it can get hopping on Saturday nights. But today the space was all but abandoned (just me and a couple of businessmen having a long, two-Tecate lunch), and there was none of the warmth that can be found at Arturo's. The interior was dimly lit and sparsely decorated, with ceiling tiles and ugly faux-stone walls, and the tables were scrunched together into an undifferentiated mass. The overall effect was like that of a 80s-style rec room built for children that had long since gone to college:

Based on the Yelp reviews, Lazo's is also supposed to have some issues with indifferent service. That was not a particular problem today -- my order was taken quickly, and the food came very quickly, although it took a long time to procure my check, as it did at Arturo's. Nevertheless, there was the sense that they were going through the motions until the nighttime crowd rolled in.

By the end of my lunch, I had developed a distinct dislike for this restaurant. In fact, I can't think of a single reason to go to Lazo's when Arturo's is right next door. We'll log the verdict and update the brackets shortly.


Arturo's Tacos: Round 1 Review

#8. Arturo's Tacos
2001 N. Western
Torta de Milanesa
$3.95 (no extras)

Situated just across from the Blue Line at the busy Milwaukee- Armitage-Western intersection and the de facto boundary of Bucktown and Logan Square, Arturo's is a neighborhood institution that means different things to different folks. Not quite properly described as a diner, it is a take-out joint for some and a family destination for others, a place to linger into the wee hours of the morning with a Negro Modelo or to get in and out quickly with a good meal. If this all sounds a wee bit romantic -- well, it's hard not to be when you're enjoying a good late afternoon torta on a beautiful late summer's day.

The Food: Ah, the torta. Sometimes regarded as the red-headed stepchild of a Mexican menu by those who can't fathom Mexican cooking without a tortilla -- there are no tortas at Taco Bell or Chipotle -- it often surpasses the burrito as the signature dish of an authentic taqueria. If you've never tried a torta, just take one look at the picture below to see what you've been missing. Almost literally bursting at the seams with its breaded steak, Arturo's torta makes quite a strong first visual impression.

This torta was distinguished by its proportionality and texture. The bread was appropriately thin and had just the right about of crispness to it. The steak had been crushed to the point where it was wafer-thin -- at one point, I heard the distinct sound of a piece of beef being beaten into submission in the cocina. And the sandwich was dressed up with just about the right amount of sour cream, guacamole, lettuce, and tomato.

Still, there are room for a few nitpicks. The torta was a bit undersalted, and I say this as someone with a fairly salt-averse palate. It could have used a slightly more generous layer of beans. And although it neared textural perfection, the bread was not quite boulangerie fresh.

Overall a fulfilling (and very filling) A-minus/B-plus effort.

The Experience: The clientèle was more diverse than the Burger King Kids Club, and almost perfectly reflected its surrounding neighborhood: roughly forty percent English-speaking and sixty percent Spanish-speaking, and a mixture of hipsters and yuppies and families. Service was extremely prompt upon sitting down but less so after the food had arrived, which is perhaps typical of this sort of establishment. Arturo's has a relaxed and easy-going vibe, accentuated by the large amount of sunlight streaming in from the windows on two sides of the building, and a high ceiling painted to look like the sky, complete with images of clouds and seagulls (or were they doves?). All in all, the sort of place that makes you want to indulge and have an afternoon beer; I regret not having one today.