La Pasadita [#1] defeats Arturo's Tacos [#8]

... Wipe Out!.

In one of the most definitive (and least surprising) verdicts in Burrito Bracket history, La Pasadita [review] has defeated Arturo's Tacos [review] to advance to the Final Four. It's final score of 41.5 also ties it with ... itself ... for the highest overall score in the competition to date.

Ladies and gentlemen, we've got a juggernaut on our hands. The winner of next week's De Pasada - Dona Naty's match-up will do its best to unseat La Pasadita in Round 3.

Arturo's Tacos: Round 2 Review

#8. Arturo's Tacos
2001 N. Western
Barbacoa Tacos
3 @ $1.80 each + 45¢ sour cream each = $6.75

Defeated #9 Lazo's Tacos in Round 1 [review]

As a rule of thumb, there is an inverse relationship between the size of a restaurant's menu and the quality of its food. Case in point: consider The Cheesecake Factory, which has a menu the size of a phone book, versus Charlie Trotter's, which doesn't really even have a menu at all, but simply dictates to you what you're going to be eating that evening (possibly with substitutions for food allergies -- if they're in a good mood). Even within the realm of fast food, this principle largely holds true. Chains like In-and-Out Burger, Chipotle, and Potbelly Sandwiches focus on small, simple menus featuring well-sourced ingredients. As a result, there are more efficiencies in their food costs, keeping the menu more affordable, and the quality is considerably higher, enough so that even a self-proclaimed food snob like me will find himself eating there once in a while.

Arturo's Tacos has a very large, diner-style menu: the menu literally takes up the entire length of the wall of the establishment. Some things on its menu, things like the milanesa torta, are quite good. Other things on its menu, things like the barbacoa tacos that I ate today, perhaps should not be offered.

The Food: Well, these were certainly good-looking tacos. Arturo's is more cognizant of presentation than perhaps any other restaurant in the bracket save Tecalitlan, and that presentation extends both to its interior decoration and to the food itself. Aligned neatly on the plate, and accompanied by a lime wedge and the streaming sunlight of Armitage Avenue, my tacos were almost self-consciously photogenic --as opposed to La Pasadita's, which might generously be described as "fugly".

Unfortunately, there's no way around it. I have a soft spot for Arturo's Tacos -- I consider it to be a Chicago institution, and it has served up many a good meal to customers in a variety of states of sobriety. But these barbacoa tacos simply weren't any good. As you might infer, the primary problem as with the meat, which was overcooked, stringy, and had a rather unpleasant aftertaste; it seemed like it had been sitting in a vat for awhile. The tortillas were also a little too tough and the sour cream verged on being runny; just not a good experience all around. The salsa was redeemable, at least.

The Experience: On the other hand, good food or bad, at least Arturo's heart is in the right place. The interior of the restaurant is beautiful, with a slightly kitschy, almost grotesque aesthetic that is distinctive without being overdone. The service was extremely prompt -- it might not have been three minutes from the time I ordered my tacos to the time they were sitting in front of me. Although it looks like they've slightly upped the prices on their tacos recently, the operation is certainly endearing enough that it's earned a mulligan on a bad meal here and there. But this was one of those bad meals.

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.


Elite Eight Preview

With apologies to Taqueria Trespasada, and to a lesser extent Carncierias Guanajuato and Taco & Burrito Express, all of which I would recommend to one degree or another, things are going to get much more interesting now that we've advanced into the second round, and weeded out some of the weaker taquerias in our bracket. Following is the world's briefest -- and hopefully only -- preview of my next eight lunch dates.

#1. La Pasadita versus #8 Arturo's Tacos

Barbacoa Tacos

This will be our first and perhaps only venture into barbacoa in the bracket; the secret ingredient was originally supposed to be al pastor, until I realized that La Pasadita did not carry pastor on its menu. It's that barbacoa that throws a little bit of a wild card into this matchup, since it's something that involves careful preparation and a house recipe that can differ significantly from taqueria to taqueria. The two things we can say almost for sure about La Pasadita are that (1) everything on its menu is good; (2) nothing on its menu is as good as its carne asada. How we resolve the tension between those two platitudes is going to go a long way toward determining the outcome here. That is not to say that what Arturo's does is unimportant -- it surprised us once before by turning out a very solid torta in Round 1. But this is still La Pasadaita's match-up to lose.

Vegas Odds: La Pasadita is a 5-1 favorite.

#4. De Pasada versus #12 Dona Naty's Taco
Torta de Milanesa

These restaurants remind me a lot of one another -- both are tremendously friendly family businesses that are overshadowed by flashier neighbors (La Pasadita in De Pasada's case, and Taco Veloz for Dona Naty's). I would not read very much into Dona Naty's #12 seed -- it has already won twice, first in its eat-in match where it delivered pastor tacos that were worthy of our Honor Roll, and then with a chicken burrito in Round 1 that wasn't that far behind. Still, De Pasada is nothing if not consistent, and tortas have not been a particular strength of Dona Naty's on past visits.

Vegas Odds: De Pasada is a 5-2 favorite.

#2. El Taco Veloz versus #10 Picante Taqueria
Al Pastor Burrito

This is probably the biggest mismatch of the second round, at least on paper. Both Veloz and Picante exceeded expectations in the first round -- but for Veloz, those expectations had been very high, whereas for Picante they had been quite low. Veloz also has something of a structural advantage in the non-food categories, and the weather could be a factor -- we'll be into November by the time this match-up occurs, and if God has thrown off the global warming switch and restored Chicago's weather to what it normally should be this time of year, it's not going to be much fun eating at Picante's outdoor patio.

Vegas Odds: El Taco Veloz is a 9-1 favorite.

#3 Tecalitlan versus #6 Irazu
Chicken Tacos

Irazu was unambiguously better in the first round, crushing Lobos al Fresco while Tecalitlan barely skated by Carnicerias Guanajuato. Indeed, Irazu is probably the favorite in spite of its lower seed. But I'm not sure that chicken is going to play to Irazu's strengths, since most of its dishes are either meat- or vegetarian-based. Tecalitlan, meanwhile, as one of the more gringo-friendly restaurants in the bracket, and ought to know how to keep us white boys happy by serving up some good chicken. This is definitely the signature matchup of the second round.

Vegas Odds: Irazu is a 4-3 favorite

Odds to Win Bracket

La Pasadita ............... 2-1
El Taco Veloz ............. 3-1
De Pasada ................. 5-1
Irazu ..................... 6-1
Tecalitlan ............... 10-1
Dona Naty's Taco ......... 20-1
Arturo's Tacos ........... 50-1
Picante Taqueria ........ 100-1

The main changes here are Veloz and Irazu moving upward and Tecalitlan moving downward, based on their respective performances in Round 1. I've also shortened Pasadita's odds slightly after several positive "off-bracket" experiences, but it is by no means a shoo-in. Who do you like? Who are you rooting for?