Tacos on Ashland: La Pasadita and Tierra Caliente

March 19 2010 - 4:04 PM

Chicago's food scene has won plenty of attention for its pizza and hot dogs, but I have often thought that the city's greatest unsung achievement is its Mexican food. Sure, we may not be in Texas or Southern California, but it is nearly impossible to throw a rock without hitting a corner taqueria in this town. We have legions of roving Tamale Guys who satiate our drunken cravings for tamales out of ziplock bags. We have Maxwell Street Market, where street food is served with the excitement of an open-air bazaar. Then, we have Mexican titan Rick Bayless to cover the haute gourmet end of things as well. Take that, San Diego.

However, fancy 30-ingredient mole sauce is not the reason we are gathered here today. Instead, we are here to celebrate the classic taco, elegant in its simplicity, difficult to master. With all the taco joints around town, how do you separate the fresh tomatillos from the canned? I will not pretend to have exhaustive knowledge of the city's taquerias, but here are two of my favorites, which happen to be conveniently located within a couple blocks of each other.

As you step out of the Division blue line stop, you might notice a large sign painted onto the side of a building, welcoming you to La Pasadita, "Home of the mouth-watering charbroiled steak." Further approach reveals that there is not just one restaurant named La Pasadita in the vicinity, not two, but three. Why are there three Pasaditas all on the same block? Good question, one that has even been memorialized in a painting inside one of the Pasaditas. Alas, there are no ready answers.

Having eaten at all three Pasaditas, I feel that the most appreciable difference between the restaurants is ambiance and menu offerings. Simply put, the southern-most Pasadita (#1132) is the nicest in terms of full-service treatment. If you want to seat a large group and to choose from a full menu of tacos, burritos, and other platters, come here first. The walls are decorated with picturesque landscape murals, and the crowd is a mix of Hispanics and hipsters. The Pasadita on the eastern side of Ashland (#1141) has an entirely different feel. This closet-sized branch has a countertop with stools, and sticks to a no-nonsense menu of mostly tacos. It is worth nothing that there is a Ms. Pac-Man arcade game in the corner. The bar-like austerity of this restaurant probably contributes to its reputation as the most "authentic" of the three Pasaditas. Finally, the remaining Pasadita (#1140) is somewhere between the other two, and does a brisk business in take-out tacos and burritos.

If you find yourself at the largest Pasadita with a full menu in your hands, do not be distracted by the fajitas or other fancy items. You are here for the tacos, and primarily, for the carne asada steak tacos. Above is a one such taco, packed with seasoned charbroiled steak that has been chopped and topped with a sprinkling of onions and cilantro. With a squeeze of lime and a dash of tomatillo salsa, this taco becomes the solution to world peace. Er, so long as there are enough to go around. Should you want to branch out from carne asada, the lengua (tongue) is excellent as well.

Just a bit further north on Ashland is Tierra Caliente, a small bodega painted vivid yellow. Walk inside past the racks of bread and dried chili peppers, and you will see a boisterous crowd gathered around the counter, where tacos are being expertly assembled. Tierra Caliente is known for being one of the few taquerias in Chicago with a proper al pastor cone. Though many restaurants put al pastor on their menu, proper al pastor is sliced, layered and roasted on a vertical spit much like gyro meat, with a pineapple on top of the cone. Over time, the pineapple juices slowly drip and carmelize on the al pastor meat below. The "cheat" method to bypass this process is to quickly griddle the al pastor before serving, in which case you're probably better off skipping the al pastor for something else instead.

The al pastor taco comes loaded with an impressive amount of meat, too much to eat gracefully. I usually split the contents of my taco between the two tortillas allotted, which makes consumption a little more manageable. The meat is tender and bursts with pineapple flavor, a perfect blend on pork, fat and sunshine.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have $2 that are burning a hole in my pocket.

La Pasadita (3 adjacent locations)
1132/1140/1141 N. Ashland
(773) 384-6537

Tierra Caliente
1402 N. Ashland
(773) 772-9804