Eat + Drink

Tacos, Cemitas and Birria: Why the Windy City is a Mexican Food Mecca

Best Mexican food in Chicago? Try the Cemita Milaneze at Cemitas Puebla. (Photo: Courtesy Cemitas Puebla)

In Chicago, Mexican food is everywhere, from hipster taco establishments to upscale Mexican-French fusion and corner grocery stores serving killer carnitas. But with Chi-Town so far from Mexico in geographic proximity, how did this city become a mecca for Mexican cuisine?

Some of the credit can go to Rick Bayless, the James Beard award winner and “Top Chef Master” who lived in Mexico, wrote a cookbook on the native cuisine and brought serious Mexican food to Chicago in the 1980’s. His seasonal and modern take on authentic dishes was unprecedented at the time and continues to garner national attention over twenty years later.

But much credit is also due to Chicago’s large population of Mexican immigrants — many who reside in Pilsen — for importing their own phenomenal family recipes. For locals in the know, Pilsen is a popular destination for Mexican-American culture and cuisine. Just stop into any of its bodegas or panaderias to discover for yourself.

If you happen to be visiting on a Sunday, the Maxwell Street Market will give you a chance to nibble your way through a large concentration of genuine Mexican food stalls while you do some bargain shopping.

With so many choices, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Here are four standout Chicago Mexican restaurants — and the signature dishes you have to try:

Frontera Grill

Bayless’ original restaurant still packs a full dining room of guests eager to try his signature dishes — it’s one of President Obama’s favorites. You’ll often find ingredients that the chef has grown on the rooftop of the restaurant or in his own backyard. The menu changes weekly.

What to try: First timers should taste a little bit of everything with the ceviche trio and the old school Frontera trio — smoked chicken taquitos, Mexico city-style corn masa quesadillas and ceviche tostadas.

Birrieria Zaragoza

For the more adventurous diner, this family-run spot focuses on a 100-year-old recipe for birria (goat). You won’t find chicken or steak here but rather tender, succulent goat meat that is steamed for five hours and then dipped in a special mole sauce before it’s braised. Mexican natives swear by it and so does pretty much anyone else who has tried it.

What to try: A plate of birria (served like a stew) or birria tacos.

Cemitas Puebla

There are now two locations of this wildly popular family-owned restaurant that specializes in food from Puebla, Mexico. The focus here is on cemitas — sandwiches served on a homemade fluffy sesame seed bun with various proteins and topped with a heap of Oaxacan cheese, a slather of avocado and their own chipotle sauce.

What to try: The Al Pastor (spicy pork and onions) or Carne Asada (steak) cemita.

Authentaco

Great tacos are aplenty in Chicago and much of it comes down to personal preference or atmosphere (like the Big Star patio in the summer). What Authentaco lacks in atmosphere, it makes up in taste. This cash only joint makes their tortillas from scratch throughout the day and loads them with everything from chicken to cactus. They lean towards authentic but also dream up farmers market seasonal specials.

What to try: Sweet potato Pastor taco and Barbacoa taco.