Cocina Tarascas

March 08 2009 - 8:21 PM

While planning a birthday dinner for someone who enjoys Mexican food, I thought I'd hit upon the perfect location in Mixteco Grill. Unfortunately, I also severely underestimated the popularity of the restaurant because when I called to make a reservation, I was informed that the earliest time we would be able to get a table would be 9:30 pm. Oy veh, where else to turn on a busy Friday night for a dinner that was to take place in two hours? Someone suggested trying Cocina Tarascas instead, a Lincoln Park restaurant featuring "Mexican cuisine with a Caribbean twist." Oh, and let us not forget their most infamous claim to fame: the 45 1/2 oz. margarita. Well, I surmised that even if the food was mediocre, the excess alcohol would be enough to cover all sins. Cocina Tarascas it was!

To get a better sense of the restaurant, I dutifully hopped over to their kaleidoscopic website, which can only be described as faintly ridiculous or perhaps embodied with a quaint '90s charm. I was immediately knocked off my feet by the smooth, sultry strains of Andrea Bocelli's "Besame Mucho." Hoping that we wouldn't run into the same problem as before, I called Cocina Tarascas to make a reservation. Alas, the gentleman who picked up the phone informed me that the restaurant didn't take reservations…but then proceeded to record my name, the arrival time and the number of guests in my party for the "waitlist." So, six of one and half a dozen of the other? When we arrived, there was a long line of people spilling out the door, and I certainly wasn't complaining as we neatly leapfrogged past all of them to sit down at our table, conspicuously marked with a "Reserved" tent card.

The dining room itself is nothing to brag about: cramped, dim and noisy with the shouts of raucous diners. If you do take the opportunity to look around though, efforts have been made to liven the room with reproductions of Frida Kahlo paintings and other Mexican-themed decor.

Upon being seated, we were immediately given two baskets of tortilla chips and salsa. Our server arrived soon afterwards to take our drink order; we opted for a pitcher of frozen mango margaritas and a pitcher of lime margaritas on the rocks. For the tequila aficianados out there, Tarascas does offer a solid list of tequilas to choose from. Glasses were delivered with the appropriate salt on the rims and a lime wedge garnish. These were a hefty 16 oz in volume, but they paled in comparison to the 45 1/2 oz behemoths at the next table over. I imagine that drinking out of a giant margarita glass would be rather unwieldy, but it would afford you similar bragging rights to drinking out of a glass boot. The margaritas themselves were also quite flavorful, with the proper buzzed-before-you-know-it potency.

Cocina Tarascas' menu features some higher-priced meat and seafood entrees, including mahi-mahi and carne asada. However, we all chose to skip that section and targeted the "Mexican favorites" instead, featuring the standard complement of tacos, tostadas and burritos. According to my dining companions, the tacos were just all right, but the burritos (billed as "Lincoln Park Best") were excellent.

I decided to try the restaurant's newest offering, a jibarito sandwich. Though it has not received the acclaim of deep-dish pizza, the jibarito is a local invention by Puerto Rican immigrants living in Chicago. It consists of crisp, twice-fried plantains flattened into "bread slices," with meat, cheese, mayo and lettuce filling in between. Tarascas stuffs their jibarito with a generous pile of sliced steak, and it is a veritable explosion of meaty and cheesy goodness. My sandwich was accompanied by cilantro-lime rice and habichuelas guisadas, or Puerto Rican-style beans, both of which were excellent foils to cardiovascular challenge of the jibarito.

There are certainly other places in the city where one could get cheaper or more authentic Mexican, but Cocina Tarascas is a solid casual option in a section of town not particularly known for its ethnic eateries. The restaurant is open for lunch on weekends and serves dinner only on weekdays.

Cocina Tarascas
2585 N. Clark
(773) 549-2595