Taqueria Traspasada [#15b] defeats Taco & Burrito Express [#15a]

Taqueria Traspasada [review] was a clear winner in its eat-in match over Taco & Burrito Express [review].

I feel a little bit bad for Taco & Burrito Express because we picked an item (tortas) that aren't really its strength and also because it faced an opponent in Traspasada that probably shouldn't have been a #15 seed to begin with. Traspasada, you see, I had been consistently misspelling as Traspa-z-ada (with a 'z'), and as a result I had not seen its generally promising reviews. It should probably have been more like a #7 seed. On the other hand, this is a fairly weak part of the bracket -- whoever wins the Chipotle/Picante #7/#10 match-up is pretty close to being a lame duck -- so I don't mind adding some competition. The match-up between Traspasada and El Taco Veloz next week should be very competitive.

Updated Vegas odds are as follows:

La Pasadita ............... 3-1
Tecalitlan ................ 9-2
De Pasada ................. 5-1
El Taco Veloz ............. 8-1
Irazu .................... 10-1
Taqueria Traspasada ...... 16-1
Dona Naty's Taco ......... 18-1
Arturo's Tacos ........... 35-1
Carnicerias Guanajuato ... 40-1
Lobos al Fresco Tacos .... 50-1
Chipotle ................. 50-1
Picante Taqueria ......... 70-1
Carniceria Laura ........ 100-1

Taqueria Traspasada: Eat-in Match Review

#15b. Taqueria Traspasada No. 2
811 N Ashland
Torta de Milanesa
$4.75 (no extras)

There are basically two kinds of taquerias: those that are run by men, and those that are run by women. Dona Naty's and De Pasada are good examples of the feminine variety. These restaurants generally take slightly longer to prepare your food, and take more care in doing so. The seating areas are more accommodating, you will probably be served chips and salsa, and the decoration in the restaurant will be bright and welcoming. The attitude is that you've come to slow down and eat a good meal. On the other hand, there are those more "masculine" taco shops like La Pasadita and Flash Taco. Here, the watchword is efficiency: they know that your time is valuable and so is theirs. You want to get in, get out, and get on with your life, and get some good tacos in the process. The seating areas are designed to maximize turnover rather than comfort, and the menu is likely to be abbreviated to those dishes that the restaurant can prepare best.

Taqueria Traspasada (which we've been misspelling as Traspazada in some previous references) is decidedly on the masculine side. The entire restaurant is a long, narrow hallway, with a kitchen crammed into the back, and advertisements hawking specials pasted onto the windows. There are rows of benches to sit on, but no tables. The service is friendly enough, but it isn't a place to linger. And tacos are the common currency: at one point, the counter dudes hired a homeless guy to wash their windows, and paid his bonus with an extra steak taco.

For further ruminations on this subject, you'll have to wait until I publish my master's thesis, Gender Roles in La Cocina: A Post-Feminist Anthropology of Small Taquerias on Chicago's Ashland Avenue, which will take place just as soon as I receive my MacArthur grant. In the meantime, the important thing to keep in mind is that either type of taqueria can serve up some pretty good food, as La Pasadita and De Pasada respectively can attest.

The Food: So much of a torta depends upon the bread, and Taqueria Traspasada had the best bread that I've tried so far. Formed into spear-shaped pieces that are crisp, toasty, and slightly flaky on the outside, but still soft enough on the inside to soak up all the torta juices, this bread was just about perfect, and reminiscent of a good croissant. And if you combine good bread with a good house salsa, there's pretty much no way that a torta is going to fail, even if the filling is milanesa de perro. Traspasada's salsa was good too, nice and peppery and bringing out the seasoning in the meat.

And that's really about it. This torta had great bread and great salsa; it wasn't going to fail. As a bonus, it included avocado in addition to sour cream, and the tomatoes were a vibrantly fresh red. The steak itself wasn't fantastic, but it was adequately seasoned.

The Experience: As I've mentioned, Traspasada really isn't a place that's designed for eating in. The interior itself is pleasant enough, with lots of light streaming in through the windows, but if it was more crowded than it was in the late afternoon today, it would be almost too cramped to eat there, and you'd certainly have trouble maintaining a conversation with more than one friend. The counter to this, on the other hand, is that the kitchen prepared my food very quickly, and it didn't take longer than 10 minutes or so to get in and out with my meal.

There is perhaps some room to critique Traspasada's price, which was between 50 and 80c more expensive than the other tortas we've tried. Nor was this torta especially filling, although for someone like me with a relatively small appetite, that is as much a plus as a minus. (It was also a reflection of the light, crispy bread, which didn't weigh the torta down). Really though, I have no trouble at all coming up with a little extra cash for fresh ingredients, especially if avocado comes as part of the standard set-up. Taqueria Traspasada is another diamond in the rough, a clear winner in this week's bracket, and a very dangerous #15 seed.


Taco and Burrito Express: Eat-in Match Review

#15a. Taco & Burrito Express #3
1547 N. Ashland
Torta de Milanesa
$4.29 (no extras)

Taco & Burrito Express doesn't get much love. There are rarely more than a handful of customers inside. It doesn't even have a listing on Metromix, and it has just one review on Yelp -- mine. My theory is that this has to do with its extremely generic name. Wicker Park is notorious for its dismissal of anything corporate, and "Taco & Burrito Express Inc. #3" sounds like one of those trixie- and-bro- approved taco huts that belongs in Lincoln Park. In fact, there is a "Taco & Burrito Expres" [sic] in Lincoln Park, although given its misspelling of the word "express", it is not clear whether it is part of the same chain or a separate entity trying to avoid a trademark infringement lawsuit.

Nevertheless, I have some affection for this humble looking taco shop on Ashland Avenue. It stays open late, and makes for much better drunk food than Flash Taco. Okay, so it isn't La Pasadita, but the chaotic atmosphere of La Pasadita is sometimes the last thing to need when your stomach has already begun to growl and your head has already begun to throb. For getting in, getting out, and getting full, TBE #3 is a reliable option.

The Food: The Burrito Bracket, of course, isn't really designed to reward safe-but-not-sorry Mexican food. Rather, it's designed to identify uncannily good Mexican food, particuarly from those obscure little taquerias that you might never have discovered on your trips through the neighborhood. As such, although I endorse Taco and Burrito Express #3, I didn't necessarily expect it to outperform its low seed in this format. So how did it fare under critical (and sober) review?

Well, pretty much how I was expecting. This torta graded out at a B-minus or C-plus in almost every respect. The bread was fresh, but could have been crisper, and had become slightly soggy by the end. The breaded steak was adequate and consistently textured, but somewhat underseasoned (TBE's carne asada torta, on the other hand, has tended toward the salty side when I've tried it in the past). The condiments were fresh and well-proportioned, and the beans were tasty, but the salsa lacked a certain zest. Now, there are certain items at TBE that are quite good, particularly anything involving their chorizo, which seems to be a house specialty. But there wasn't much to lift this torta above replacement-level status.

The Experience: If you've gone to Taco & Burrito Express late at night, you've probably encountered an older, motherly-looking woman, whom I overheard being referred to today as La Vieja ("the older one"). La Vieja pretty much kicks ass, making sure that the kitchen is working hard, and that her customers go away feeling welcome and full. La Vieja was not there this afternoon -- instead it looked like her daughter was -- but you could still detect some of her influence; TBE is clean and well-lit and pleasantly if a little quaintly decorated. There is no table service (meaning no free chips-and-salsa), but it's a comfortable place to sit down. The food can take slightly longer than average to prepare, but overall the service is very friendly and a definite plus for this establishment. Whether those bonus points are enough to carry it past the mysterious Taqueria Traspazada, its opponent in this week's eat-in match, we will have to see.