Dona Naty's Taco [#12a] defeats Carniceria Leon [#12b]

We're still waiting on our first really close decision. I got a little sarcastic in my write-up on Dona Naty's Taco [review], but these were some very, very good tacos, right up there with the carne asada burrito at La Pasadita in terms of the best individual dish that we've had so far. Carniceria Leon [review] by contrast was just average.

This was an "eat-in" match, so all that happens now is that Dona Naty's gains sole occupation of the #12 seed and advances into the first round proper, where it will match up against Taqueria Super Burrito next week.

Current Vegas odds to win the entire bracket are as follows. I'm happy to take any action that you want to give me!

La Pasadita ............... 3-1
De Pasada ................. 4-1
Tecalitlan ................ 5-1
El Taco Veloz ............. 6-1
Irazu .................... 10-1
Taqueria Super Burrito ... 20-1
Dona Naty's Taco ......... 25-1
Arturo's Tacos ........... 30-1
Lobos al Fresco Tacos .... 40-1
Chipotle ................. 40-1
Carniceria Guanajuato .... 40-1
Picante Taqueria ......... 60-1
Carniceria Laura ........ 100-1
Taco & Burrito Express .. 100-1
Taqueria Traspazada ..... 100-1

Edit: Tecalitlan odds adjusted downward as bettors take note of its tough potential second round matchup against Irazu/Lobos.


Carniceria Leon: Eat-in Match Review

#12b. Carniceria y Taqueria Leon
1402 N. Ashland
Tacos al Pastor
3 @ $2.00 each = $6.00 (no extras)

This review is getting out a little later than expected. On Tuesday I had to wait for the Comcast guy to come and fuck my cable up even worse than it was already fucked up, and on Wednesday I had to prepare for a fantasy football draft. Cable television and football are not as important as burritos, but sometimes you have to take time out for the little things.

To be honest, however, I had a few apprehensions about visiting Carniceria Leon. It isn't the most inviting place from the outside, with bars on the windows and signage obscuring the view inside. Carniceria Leon is principally a small supermarket, and there is perhaps some puritanical streak in most Americans that makes them reluctant to consume food on the premises of somewhere where they can also buy the raw ingredients. The deli is one exception to this rule, and a couple of generations ago we had the soda fountain at Woolworth's, but in general this phenomenon is much more common in other cultures.

The Food: None of my apprehensions related to the food. On the contrary, I was expecting some delicious pork, and I thought that the choice of al Pastor probably favored Carniceria Leon from the outset. The first thing you notice when you walk to the back of the market where the lunch counter is located is in fact the al Pastor spit.

This is truly fast food; my taco was prepared almost literally within seconds of my order, accompanied by the usual onions and cilantro. Unfortunately, the results were a little disappointing. The pork was relatively dry, and -- I don't know how to explain this -- very porky tasting, to the point of being slightly gamey. Although the accompanying salsa, a sort of verde-rojo hybrid, was good, the meat was not spiced very aggressively (especially by al Pastor standards), leaving the pork itself to do most of the work. From reading some other accounts, it seems that the quality at Carniceria Leon can differ significantly based on the time of day, and I think I might have caught it at an awkward time (about 4:30 in the afternoon) where the meat wasn't at its freshest.

Two other details. The tacos are also $2 each, which seems to be slightly on the expensive side, but they give you an awfully generous portion of meat; two tacos here are equivalent to three at most other places. Also, Carniceria Leon has bottled, Mexican coke. In the cola bracket, Mexican coke > RC > American coke > Pepsi.

The Experience: If the food was not as good as I was expecting, the experience was perfectly pleasant. The eating area was fairly small, but there were quite a few customers for this time of day, including a couple of families, and you could see the owner walking around the store checking in on everything. The counter guy knew plenty enough English for me to get my order across, and I had no sense of feeling unwelcome.

Carniceria Leon is right down the block from me, and I'll probably give it another chance in a month or two and report on those findings here. For the time being, however, it's about to get eliminated from the bracket.


Dona Naty's Taco: Eat-in Match Review

#12a. Dona Naty's Taco
1813 W. Chicago

Tacos al Pastor
3 @ $1.49 each = $4.47 (no extras)

Located on a well traveled but unremarkable stretch of Chicago Avenue on which the primary landmarks are burrito joints, Dona Naty’s Taco is in danger of blending into the landscape, the sort of place you’d stumble by on your way back home from Tuman’s Alcohol Abuse Center. El Taco Veloz, our #2 seed, is just down the block from Dona Naty’s, and Tecalitlan, our #3 seed, is just across the street. There is also a pizza restaurant named Naty’s a couple of storefronts down, which presumably has the same ownership.

I have to say it: I understand that Naty is a fairly common shortening of Natalia, and I’m not saying that every little taqueria needs to engage a corporate branding consultant, which would probably come up with some Spanglesh-pharmaceutical portmanteau like Talfresca!. But as far as gringo-friendly marketing goes, Naty’s isn’t much better than Taqueria la Cucaracha or (if you want to expand the horizons a bit) Booger’s Chicken Hut. As we learned last week, however, appearances (and names) can be deceiving in burritoville, and Dona Naty’s al Pastor left a lasting impression.

Food: Yep, that's right. Tacos al Pastor are my brand new toy, and I'm sticking with them for another week. Dona Naty's al Pastor set-up is standard: pork, onions, cilantro, a lime wedge, and double tortillas, which makes for some fairly attractive tacos:

Three things distinguished this al Pastor, and all of them are basically positives:
  • First, the cut of the meat. Mr. Taco's Restaurant had some real problems in this department, as their slices were all over the board in terms of size and texture. De Pasada was an improvement, with nice, uniform chunks of meat, but they were basically Chipotle-style cubes rather than slices. Dona Naty's finally got it right, with thin, consistent slices of pork. This is particularly important in the case of al Pastor, because it increases the surface area and allows more of the spice mixture to bind to the pork. So while Dona Naty's spice recipe was nothing incredibly special, and while its salsas were less potent than those at De Pasada, their al Pastor got a lot of bang for its buck.
  • Second, the character of the meat. Namely, there was a fair bit of lean fat on Dona Naty's pork. This is actually a good thing as far as I am concerned: it produces more variety in texture, and if nothing else, leaves no doubt that the meat is literally fresh off the bone, rather than having been over-processed. In fact, when coupled with a spice blend that had some hints of sweetness, it left a little bit of the impression of eating baby back ribs. However there were one or two chunks of meat that were just fat, and therefore inedible, and it made the tacos go down fairly "heavy".
  • Finally, the onions: they were grilled! This is another huge plus for me; one major reason that I prefer Comiskey Park to Wrigley Field is because of the grilled onions on their polishes. The caramelization also provides another source of natural sweetness, again contributing to the "barbeque" flavor of the dish.

So, these were some very good tacos to my palate, although not something that you'd want to have on a diet. One other thing – Dona Naty’s has RC Cola instead of Coke products, which is sort of the equivalent of getting an e-mail from a long-lost friend. I promptly purchased a 12-pack on my way home.

The Experience: This was a little off-putting. After the waitress saw me sit down and brought me my chips and salsa, she sort of retreated to the back of the restaurant and pointed me out to the counter guy, who came and took my order. It was like she'd discretely pressed the gringo alert button to notify the authorities of a shrimp chimichanga order in progress. I'm sure that her English wasn't much, and my Spanish isn't much, but all I had to do was communicate that I wanted three tacos and a can of cola: how hard could this have been? I also can't say much for the decor -- the tables and chairs appeared to have been purchased from a McDonald's outlet store. It wasn't charming, exactly.

Still, its couple of shortcomings aside -- nobody is going to a taqueria for the modernista furniture -- Dona Naty's makes a mean taco, and would have given De Pasada a run for its money last week. We visit its actual opponent tomorrow, the even more bare-bones Carniciera Leon.


Burrito Burr-ocracy

This upcoming week features the first of three "eat-in" matches, in this case between Dona Naty's Taco and Carniceria Leon for possession of the #12 seed. The reason for the "eat-in" matches (a takeoff on the "play-in" matches used in the NCAA basketball tournament) is explained in some detail on the WTF/FAQ page (you guys really seem to love these new navigation elements, by the way, based on the traffic patterns that I'm seeing). Basically, we need a way to get down from 19 taquerias to 16.

The format of the eat-in matches will otherwise resemble that which you've grown accustomed to: I'll eat the same item at each restaurant and declare a winner. The winner of the eat-in match will then advance into the first round proper, where it will face off against Taqueria Super Burrito next week.