For The Love of Tacos

February 2020 View more

By Shonda Dudlicek, Mark Loehrke, and Grace Perry
Photography and styling by Regan Baroni
Illustrations by Kevin Sterjo

Seared tuna taco from La Mesa

Their very nature—creamy, spicy goodness that you can literally cradle in your hands—fosters our emotional relationship with tacos. This glorious finger food makes life worth living, and we’ve assembled these pages to celebrate our love for them. From cilantro debates and homemade tortillas to walking tacos and margaritas, our feature covers all the best local taquerias. It’s kind of a love story. A taco love story.

1910 Geneva – Geneva

Zucchini, corn, and sweet potato esquites

“Our el macho taco with skirt steak, chorizo, avocado, homemade charred green salsa, and Chihuahua cheese—melted between two tortillas—is considered our best taco,” says co-owner Lindsey De Los Santos. 30 W. State St.  
MUST ORDER The popular zucchini, corn, and sweet potato esquites (shown): “We can’t believe how much people love this taco,” says De Los Santos, “especially considering that it doesn’t have cheese or meat and is vegan.”

A Toda Madre – Glen Ellyn

A Toda Madre

The owners here consider its best taco the barbacoa, which includes braised brisket, melted Chihuahua cheese, pepino relish, scallions, and avocado-salsa cruda (translation: raw). Also popular? The Bien Trucha taco, made with grilled skirt steak, chorizo, melted Chihuahua cheese, and roasted tomatillo-serrano salsa. 499 N. Main St.
MUST ORDER Aguacate: a light-and-bright flavor combination of tempura avocado, pineapple pico de gallo, and chipotle aioli for some kick.

Bien Trucha – Geneva

Bien Trucha

Billed as “a Mexican experience,” this serves as an upscale option for Taco Tuesday in this cozy locale in Geneva’s downtown. The Quiubo, or braised short rib, includes pepino relish, scallions, and the aforementioned avocado-salsa cruda. 410 W. State St.
MUST ORDER Don’t miss the pollo en pipian: shredded chicken breast, pumpkin seed mole verde, queso fresco, and pickled red onions.

Chicks ‘n Salsa – Glen Ellyn

Known for its fire-grilled chicken, hence the plucky name, this indie Mexican grill offers eight kinds of tacos. Classics include chicken, steak, veggie, ground beef, chorizo, carnitas with pico de gallo, cheese, and lettuce. Fresh is the focus—most of the produce is organic, and the rice and beans are vegetarian. 874 Roosevelt Rd. 
MUST ORDER Baja fish or shrimp: The fish is available in crispy beer-battered or grilled tilapia, and both are topped with cabbage, cucumber, cilantro, and chipotle mayo.

Del Barrio Mezcaleria – Geneva

Street art and 200 top-of-the-line tequilas are part of the experience here, along with an edgy decor and urban vibe. The best and most popular taco is the pastor, featuring pork shoulder with grilled pineapple and avocado salsa. 507 S. Third St.
MUST ORDER The vegetarian calabacitas: grilled zucchini with onions, butternut squash, corn, bell pepper, queso fresco, avocado, and jalapeño salsa.

El Callejon – Naperville

Its name, the Spanish word for alley, takes its inspiration from the streets of Mexico, “where everyday people walk to get food,” according to the website. Visit between 2 and 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday for one happy hour (or all three!). 602 S. Route 59
MUST ORDER Mexican-style steak taco: With a corn tortilla, marinated steak, onions and cilantro, it’s considered the restaurant’s best and most unique taco. 
FUN FACT “Mexican style” has onions and cilantro, while “American style” has shredded lettuce and cheese.

El Gran Agave – Lisle

Taco al pastor

“We hand-slice pork shoulder, marinate it with our signature Guajillo pepper adobo, and stack it on a vertical spit, allowing it to baste while it cooks,” says co-owner Angelica Herrera about the taco al pastor (shown). 1650 Maple Ave.
MUST ORDER Tacos Campechanos: authentic Mexican pork chorizo sausage, skirt steak, and shredded chicken—a meat-lover’s dream—topped with onion, cilantro, and avocado.

En Fuego Mexican Grille – Oakbrook Terrace

With 14 taco varieties, it’s good to get some guidance. Carne En Fuego—with grilled marinated skirt steak, chorizo, and arbol salsa—is  billed as its best taco. The pollo en fuego substitutes grilled marinated chicken breast for the steak, but keeps the other ingredients central. 17W648 22nd St. 
MUST ORDER Any of the 13 other varieties… because you can never try too many tacos!

Fat Rosie’s – Naperville

Known for its drinks, Fat Rosie’s carne asada is the best taco, with a secret recipe marinade that’s “craveable and insanely savory,” according to the staff. It’s a rare occurrence if an al pastor—guajillo-marinated grilled pork shoulder, grilled pineapple, salsa verde, onions and cilantro—isn’t ordered. 47 E. Chicago Ave. 
MUST ORDER Coliflor frita: A fried cauliflower taco is not something you see at most Mexican restaurants, nor is the talking comedic cowboy in the baño.

Fire It Up – Naperville

Unique offerings include an Asian taco (braised pork, Napa cabbage, citrus dressing, homemade spicy soy ginger sauce, and house-pickled red onions) and a veggie taco (chimichurri rice and beans, tortilla strips, and a vegan horseradish herb sauce). 1523 N. Aurora Rd.
MUST ORDER Taco flight: Test your capacity by downing three each of four varieties (out of 11 choices) to create a delicious dozen.

Habanero Mexican Restaurant – Plainfield

Habanero Mexican Restaurant

Known for its friendly service, Habanero serves an array of $2.25 tacos—carne asada, carnitas (weekends only), fish, al pastor, and two veggie options: sautéed bell peppers and grilled cactus—in a family atmosphere. 16108 S. Route 59
MUST ORDER Grilled chorizo chicken sausage: This housemade taco features a special blend of spices, described as a “perfectly infused bite every time.”

Invicto – Naperville

Authentic and inspired street foods here include arabes (diced pork shoulder and bacon) and carne asada (diced steak and chiles torreados). Come for the seven taco varieties, including three veggie options, but linger for the churro shakes. 1727 Freedom Dr.
MUST ORDER Aguacate Fritos: panko-crusted fried crispy avocado slices, serrano crema, and cotija cheese.

Jefa Tacos – Aurora

Jefa Tacos

Free chips and (warm!) salsa await at this taco outpost near Butterfield and Farnsworth. The asada is the best taco, says owner Marlene Pena, and features premium skirt steak, which is marinated and grilled. The fish tacos (shown, below) are also popular: beer-battered tilapia, cabbage slaw, pico de gallo and chipotle mayo. 1555 Butterfield Ave.
MUST ORDER Jefa Taco (shown, left): skirt steak and grilled chorizo topped with melted Chihuahua cheese and roasted pasilla salsa in a corn tortilla.

La Mesa – St. Charles

With “modern Mexican” as part of the name, expect some authentic flavors with a modern twist at this new restaurant on the Fox River. The barbacoa taco is a braised beef brisket, slowly roasted and topped with homemade pasilla gravy, arbol salsa, queso fresco and homemade onion straws. 51 S. First St. 
MUST ORDER Seared tuna: lightly seared ahi tuna, Sriracha aioli slaw, and watermelon radish, served on lettuce or a tortilla.

La Quebrada – Aurora

Lengua (tongue) tacos at La Quebrada

The tacos on the expansive, 12-page menu are served solo or with salad, rice, and beans. Varieties include asada (steak), pollo (chicken), al pastor (pork), chorizo (Mexican sausage), and cecina (thin steak). Daily breakfast, handmade tortillas, and a Sunday brunch make La Quebrada a dining destination. 723 S. Broadway 
MUST ORDER The unique lengua—that’s tongue—taco (shown). “From the lengua to the chips,” says one reviewer, “it’s like eating at abuelas.”

Las Palmas – Multiple locations    

A restaurant that has a location in Toluca, Mexico, definitely knows tacos. Its most popular version is the seasoned ground beef tacos, served with a choice of soft flour, corn, or crispy tortillas. Try the buffet in the Naperville location: $7.95 to $10.50 per person. 1255 E. Ogden Ave., Naperville, and 311 Ogden Ave., Westmont
MUST ORDER Tacos al carbon: three grilled skirt steak tacos served with cebollitas (Mexican baby onions), nopalitos (baby cactus salad), and hot pico de gallo.

Los Dos – Downers Grove

Los Dos

Get here early to try the rotating specials of the day. The spicy fried chicken is counted as the best by the owners of Los Dos, but recent offerings included the roasted lamb, spicy fried shrimp, and pork belly tacos—the latter sold out by dinnertime. 2251 Maple Ave.
MUST ORDER Salbute: an open-faced taco with chicken, cabbage, pickled onions, and tomato.

Quiubo – Naperville


This open and airy Water Street location has a modern feel and unique flavors. The pescado taco features crispy beer-battered tilapia with Napa cabbage, tomato, and cilantro, tossed in mango aioli and topped with pickled red onions. 120 Water St.  
MUST ORDER The unique Pulpo taco: Zarandeado-style charred octopus, roasted onion, radish, avocado, and serrano peppers topped with crispy potatoes and lime zest salsa. 

Rito’s Mexican Restaurant – Aurora

A northern Mexican specialty, the base of the chipotle taco is marinated grilled chicken, topped with cabbage and purple onions. Daily drink specials include a $5 margarita on Thursdays. 3450 Montgomery Rd.
MUST ORDER Cesina tacos: “Delicate combination between soft, tenderized cecina meat and Mexican sausage topped off in a Mexican style of onions and cilantro,” says co-owner Rito Huizar, who is a native of Zacatecas.

Taco Maya – Bloomingdale

Taco Maya

You’ll find 10 specialty tacos here, including some unusual offerings from chef Patricio Elizondo. Try the chicken tinga, with shredded chicken, tomato, and a chipotle pepper puree. The signature taco—steak, bacon, and pineapple—is the restaurant’s most popular. 162 E. Lake St.
MUST ORDER The vegetarian paneer taco: The marinated soft cheese base is topped with a jalapeño mint sauce, grilled onions, cilantro, and red and green peppers.

Totopos – Naperville

Owner Maribel Molina Cortes says the shrimp tacos served at Totopos hail from a special recipe handed down from her father, who passed away two years ago. Her most popular offering is the steak taco, which is served either Mexican style (with cilantro and onions) or American style (with lettuce and tomato). 2048 Aurora Ave.
MUST ORDER Taco arabe: a larger, hand-rolled taco “served with seasoned steak, melted cheese, grilled onions, spices, and an extra-hot peanut salsa.”

Uncle Julio’s – Naperville

Come on Tuesdays for an interactive Taco Bar experience: ground beef or shredded chicken kept warm in individual Dutch ovens and 13 fresh ingredients presented tableside on a spinning wooden tray, so everyone can reach. Try the kitchen-recommended spicy, cowboy, flamingo, or twist flavor combinations. 1831 Arbriter Ct.
MUST ORDER Spicy seared tuna: corn tortillas, ahi tuna, mango-jicama slaw, red bell pepper, and chipotle crema served with cilantro rice and black beans.

Yerbabuena – Lisle

Cochinita pork tacos

This cozy downtown cochina owned by Miguel Ascencio features an expansive menu and a pet-friendly rooftop patio. Try the pastor pineapple with pork marinated in ancho, garlic, vinegar, and onion, topped with pineapple, tomato chipotle salsa, onions, and cilantro. 4734 Main St. 
MUST ORDER Cochinita pork tacos (shown): pork achiote baked under banana leaves, with fresh citrus salsa made with fresh lime, grapefruit, red vinegar, chopped onions, and habaneros.

My Taco Tour of Downtown Aurora

By Adam Schmitt

The week my son was taking an improv camp at the Paramount School of Performing Arts in downtown Aurora, I decided that I would work on my book at the library after dropping him off. To make lunchtime more fun, I created my own taco tour, where each day I would walk to a new location for lunch. After this extensive research, I felt my work (uh, sampling tacos) was strong enough to share. The commentary below only highlights what I loved about the experience. Tacos bring people happiness, folks—no room for haters here. Let’s take the tour.

  1. Taqueria El Tio & Restaurant
    Just a block from the library, this was an easy start to the tour. The staff was friendly, seating cozy, and was a perfect work break. I ordered pastor and asada tacos, sat back, and waited for the happiness. The marriage of meats and tortillas did not disappoint; I would stack these against any other location in our area. But what made it a double bonus was the value. It was Monday, which meant dollar tacos. When I paid my bill of $3.32, I couldn’t use my card because I hadn’t hit the $5 minimum. For the value, this place can’t be beat. 
  2. Jalisco Tacos Authentico
    Just up the hill is one of the more popular taco destinations of Aurora. What I love about Jalisco’s—and really, each of my stops—is they don’t skimp on toppings. So many Americanized tacos are notoriously short on ingredients, but not here. The pastor had the highest flavor content of the tour (so far, but just wait). Jalisco’s is also a perfect date night location due to its proximity to a Mexican bakery. The combination of tacos and a treat? Don’t waste that evening on just anyone—save this for when you’ve found “the one.”
  3. La Quinta de los Reyes
    My family has been coming to La Quinta for years, and it never disappoints. What makes this a worthy stop is all the extras. Salsa can be great anywhere, but salsa made at your table for you? And guac to go with it? That’s just something you can’t get most places. When you go, aim for a Friday evening, when the horns of the mariachi band blast energy into the hearts of taco lovers—it’s an experience you have to try for yourself.
  4. Tecalitlan Restaurant
    The Tecalitlan taco is one that all others will be compared against. Why the bold statement? Two words: homemade tortillas. Only in Mexico had I before experienced them, and it truly is a food adventure that you can’t come back from. My taco platter came with beans (which I hate) and didn’t touch. When the waitress asked me why, she stirred hot sauce into the beans, pushed my chips toward me and said, “Now try, you’ll like it.” A few chips with beans later and I was back in her good graces. I thanked her and let her know that my wife can’t even get me to eat beans. She told me to bring my wife in next week. Which I will, because I am not about to lie to this woman.
  5. Taqueria Durango
    The tacos here seemed slightly pricier, but when three pastors with cilantro and onions arrived, I saw why: Never in my life had I seen seasoned pork spilling from a tortilla like this. It was beautiful. It was delicious. And I went to the counter to pay I realized why: Spinning, glowing, and dripping for all to enjoy was the pastor wheel, seasoned pork stacked two-feet high with pineapple on top allowing the sweetness of the juice to counter the salt in the pork. If you’ve never had pastor tacos with meat shaved fresh off the wheel, you may not want to. Every other taco will disappoint you. That’s a promise.

Let’s Walk and Tac’ 

Ah, the Walking Taco: crumbled up corn chips, crumbly taco meat, cheddar cheese, sour cream and salsa. Also known as a Frito Pie, this dish (well, technically it’s served in a chip bag) is one of the most controversial food items of our time. Now, is a Frito bag packed with Tex-Mex flavors a legitimate taco? Of course not. Can we even, in good conscience, call it a taco at all? The jury’s still out on that. But even so, we’re here to tell you: Give the Walking Taco a chance in 2020. 

Food is evolutionary. The way we prepare, produce and consume meals conforms to our time. And whether you like it or not, this oh-so-American take on a Mexican staple is simply a reflection of the current zeitgeist. The Walking Taco is basically the Real Housewives of Mexican food: It’s cheap to produce, inauthentic, kind of embarrassing to admit you love, but so undeniably enjoyable to consume. Eating out of a Frito bag isn’t the most elegant way to dine, sure. But the Walking Taco is freakin’ delicious. Try it for yourself—we love the Frito Pie at Station One Smokehouse in Plainfield.

How to DIY a Taco Bar

Five tips for making fiestas at home

  1. HEAT IT UP Add spice to enhance flavors and add richness to any taco. Offer different levels of heat with various salsas and peppers (hint: tomatillo-based salsa verde is generally hotter than its tomato-based cousins). Instead of sour cream, try chipotle aioli to add a kick. 
  2. CITRUS SQUEEZE Besides making your mouth water, acidity cuts heaviness and gives food a fresh, clean taste. Add premade mango salsa from Whole Foods, pico de gallo from Casey’s Foods, or lime juice to balance out spicy or fatty flavors.
  3. CRUNCH TIME Chopped onions, radishes, corn salsa, and shredded cabbage add unique flavors and texture, perfect for soft tacos.
  4. SOFT SHELLS, POR FAVOR Hard shells plus shredded lettuce and cheese is very American. For a more authentic approach, use soft shells (flour if you must), and Cotija—a hard, crumbly Mexican cheese (above right). 
  5. VEGGIE OPTIONS Offer black beans and avocado slices as substitutes for the protein and fat found in meat for plant-based guests.

Campos Chicken

Recipe courtesy Front Street Cantina, Naperville and Plainfield

Yield: 40 tacos

  • 6 pounds chicken tenders
  • 4 tablespoons black pepper
  • ½ cup onion powder
  • ½ cup garlic powder
  • ½ cup crushed red pepper
  • 1 cup cilantro, chopped
  • ½ cup white onion, chopped
  • ½ cup lime juice
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  1. Toss chicken with remaining ingredients in a large bowl to coat. Cover and chill for 2 hours (or overnight). 
  2. Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Coat pan with a thin layer of oil. Working in batches, place chicken pieces in skillet in a single layer (do not crowd). Cover and cook until a crust forms, about 5 minutes. Turn; cook, uncovered, until chicken is cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes longer. Transfer to a platter; let rest for 5 minutes.
  3. Cut chicken into 1/2-inch cubes. Transfer with any accumulated juices to a medium bowl. Season with salt. 

DO AHEAD Can be made 1 day ahead. Let cool slightly. Cover; chill. Rewarm before serving.

Salt of the Earth

The extensive margarita slate at Arcos Mexican Grill in Woodridge is a reflection of the restaurant’s desire to deliver not only a satisfying cocktail, but a true taste of Mexican culture as well. Operations manager Victor Rangel says that’s why there’s such a focus on using traditional ingredients such as pequin chile, chamoy, hibiscus flower and more—along with seasonal additions like pomegranate, roasted peach, and watermelon. When it comes to fruity favorites, however, the signature roasted pineapple margarita is one of the most popular choices among the more than 20 variations on the menu, thanks to its unique combination of sweet and smoky flavors. 7451 Woodward, Woodridge

Yield: 1 drink

  • 1 pineapple, peeled, cored, and sliced
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 3 cups pineapple juice
  • ¾ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons pequín chile (Tajin)
  • Pineapple leaves, washed
  • 1.5 ounces Cazadores tequila reposado
  • ½ ounces agave nectar
  • 1 ounce Magdala torres orange liquor
  • Vegetable oil, as needed
  1. Peel and cut the pineapple, then brush with oil and sprinkle with brown sugar. Save a slice for garnish. 
  2. Preheat a grill to medium-high heat and place the pineapple slices on the grill, flipping once, until get a nice brown color on both sides, about 4 minutes. Set aside to cool.
  3. In a blender, add the roasted pineapple slices, pineapple juice, lime juice, Tajin and blend.
  4. Strain the previous preparation and put it on the fridge for at least one hour to chill.
  5. In a cocktail shaker, add the roasted pineapple juice, ice, tequila, agave nectar, and orange liquor; shake well. Strain over a rocks glass with ice, and garnish with pineapple leaves. and a pineapple slice.
  • LA COLORADA – An infusion of hibiscus blossoms gives this one a unique twist.
  • IRISH – A dash of Jameson whiskey distinguishes this cultural mash-up.
  • CABO-RITA – This specialty margarita is prepared with Tequila Cabo Wabo Resposado, mixed with orange and blue Curaçao liqueur.
  • MEZCAL MARGARITAS – Three Arcos selections swap out one agave liquor for another—tequila out, mezcal in.

Cilantro or Cilantsoap?

The website hosts a litany of rants, including this haiku: “I like to urinate / inside a salad / if it has cilantro.” Yes, that’s a website dedicated to the slander of cilantro. And yes, you can buy cilantrophobic memorabilia on that website, including T-shirts reading “I HATE CILANTRO.” Who would think that the herb ubiquitous in Mexican food—and Latin American cuisine, more broadly—would elicit such rage? And, more importantly, why?

Cilantro’s a polarizing herb: People either love it or hate it. And whether or not we like cilantro isn’t just a matter of being exposed to it, nor is it an acquired taste. In fact, our DNA decides how we feel about it—our response to cilantro is linked to our genes involved in our senses of taste and smell. To somewhere between 3 and 21 percent of the population, the herb tastes like soap. Studies have shown the gene crops up more of East Asian and European descent, while only 4 percent of Latinx folks report a soapy taste on their tacos. And, honestly? If my taste buds were biologically predisposed to equate a bowl of pho with a piping hot cup of Tide, I’d write some rage haikus, too.

Flavor Wheel

The tacos at Fonda mi Pueblito can certainly stand deliciously on their own. But owner Ana Rodriguez loves when customers use them as handheld canvases upon which to sample the many fresh, homemade salsa varieties she has brought to Aurora from her small-town Mexican upbringing. Here are 10 to try from among an endlessly rotating and expanding roster. 31 N. Broadway, Aurora

  1. Aguacate Avocate A popular choice in Mexico City, this green option adds avocado to the mix and works well on both barbacoa and al pastor tacos.
  2. Tamarindo-habanero Hints of citrus lead the flavor parade in another sweet-spicy selection.
  3. Macha Among the most popular options at Fonda mi Pueblito, this red salsa is 100 percent olive oil-based, with toasted red peppers and fried chile de arbol lending their flavors to the mix.
  4. Red Tomale Tomatoes and jalapeños trade flavor notes in this moderately spicy all-purpose salsa.
  5. Three-chile Toasted green peppers are among the ingredients in this strong, smoky, and spicy red variety.
  6. Cacahuale Things really start to heat up with this peanut-based concoction, featuring both arbol and guajillo chiles.
  7. Raw Green Salsa Green tomatillos provide the color and consistency here, while jalapeños add the needed kick.
  8. Chipotle Part of the family of spicier red salsas, this smoky variation includes the namesake pepper, along with a host of secret spices from an old family recipe.
  9. Green tomatillo The distinctive Mexican husk tomato is boiled to create these mild salsas, which tend to work as a dip for chips or on almost any kind of taco.
  10. Mango-habanero One of a trio of sweet-spicy fruit-infused salsas that get their heat from the habanero; pairs well with al pastor tacos.

Flour Power

From left: corn, flour chipotle, and flour tortillas

Buying tortillas at the grocery store may sound like a fairly sterile and pedestrian task, but a trip to El Valle Florido is something special. From the outside, the compact market—situated in a quiet Aurora residential neighborhood—is virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding houses, but inside awaits the warm embrace of a traditional family-run Mexican corner store and something else: the smell of fresh tortillas, which have been made daily out of this location since 2009. While the production volume at El Valle Florido may suggest a tortilla factory, the experience onsite is more akin to a cozy village shop, which is perhaps why it has become a must-stop destination for local customers looking for not only a great tortilla (including these varieties), but a little taste of authentic Mexico. 278 Beach St., Aurora

  • Corn Great to double up for the small, handheld street-style tacos that have dominated the scene of late.
  • Flour Available in both taco and burrito sizes, this classic is among El Valle Florido’s bestsellers.
  • Flour chipotle With a touch of chipotle folded into the dough, the tortilla itself becomes a bigger player in the flavor profile of your favorite taco or burrito.