New-School Taco Trucks are Changing the Game for Chicago’s Culinary Scene
By Judy Giannetto
You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t love a taco. All that flavor stuffed into a handy dandy tortilla you can devour on the go is pretty hard to resist.
As one of the nation’s culinary centers, you can bet Chicago’s home to great versions of Mexico’s iconic street food. In fact, some of the best Chicago taco trucks are fusing cultures, getting inspired by regional staples, experimenting with haute cuisine, and serving up the whole taco food truck experience with a plateful of fun. Although, if you miss that traditional taco flavor, there’s plenty of that to go round, too.
1. La Cocinita
Savor the flavors of Caracas’ famed “Calle del Hambre” (“Hunger Street”) with a stop at La Cocinita. This food truck, which hails from New Orleans, specializes in contemporary Venezuelan-inspired street food. And though its name means “little kitchen,” the helpings are anything but.
In addition to arepas—a traditional dish made from ground maize dough that owner, chef, and Caracas native Benoit Angulo has been making since the age of 9—La Cocinita serves tasty tacos and signature “burri-tacos” stuffed with braised chicken, braised pork, roasted sweet potatoes, black beans and queso fresco. Top them off with your choice of aromatic sauces such as Guasacaca (Venezuelan guacamole), chipotle crema, roasted jalapeno salsa, or, if you’re feeling particularly fiesty – the appropriately named “Stupid Hot” sauce.
La Cocinita’s fan following is so big that the food truck now has a brick-and-mortar home in Evanston, IL (1625 Chicago Ave.). But you don’t have to take our word for just how tasty this taco stop is. La Cocinita has gained national fame, being featured on the Cooking Channel’s Taco Trip with Aaron Sanchez and in the Wall Street Journal, and it was voted one of the 101 best food trucks in the country by The Daily Meal.
You’ll usually find La Cocinita in downtown Chicago around Clark/Monroe, Adams/Wacker, and Franklin/Randolph. Also check out @LaCocinita on Twitter, and the food truck’s website for upcoming locations.
Three Legged’s logo—a three-legged, bandana-wearing dog—tells you right off that this taco truck has heart. It donates 3% of its profits to local purveyors, charities, and nonprofits, including the Greater Chicago Food Depository and Heartland Animal Shelter. Which means you don’t have to feel quite so bad about going back for a second helping. Which is exactly what you’ll want to do.
If you fancy a funky taco (who doesn’t?), Three Legged’s southern Mexican-inspired menu is a surefire palette pleaser. Try quirky taco takes like vegan achiote tofu, served with cashew spread, pomegranate salsa, arbol chili, and peanut; or polenta with sweet potato purée, red onion, and onion ash oil. Or, for a little Asian-Mexican fusion, there’s the ahi crudo taco, filled with tuna, ginger, scallion, guajillo aioli, jalapeno, and sesame.
Even Three Legged’s more traditional picks are served up with a twist. Try a grilled shrimp taco with avocado, radicchio, and radish; xak chicken, with avocado, cabbage, poblano, and ku’ut bi’ilk spicy salsa; and cocinita pibil, with achiote pork, orange, mezcal, onion, and cotija, among other picks. You’ll also find delicious appetizers and salads thrown in the menu mix.
Check out @ThreeLeggedTaco on Twitter for upcoming locations.
Lucha Libre-masked superheroes cooking up regional Mexican specialties make a trip to The Tamale Spaceship the ultimate in out-of-this-world street food feasting.
These masked taco tempters are a talented bunch. Co-founder and owner Manny Hernandez hails from Chicago’s award-winning Frontera Grill. Pepe Balanzar (a diehard Lucha Libre fan with a massive mask collection) has served at top spots like Topolobampo. And Erik Arriaga is a veritable Mexican cuisine guru, preparing secret family recipes and never-before-seen combinations designed to tingle your taste buds.
Honestly, you’ll wrestle with indecision choosing from the likes of Yucatan-style roasted pork tacos with purple pickled onions, cilantro, and habanero salsa; and baja-style fish tacos, featuring Negra Modelo beer-battered fish, chipotle-mayo, cabbage, pico de gallo, and sesame seeds.
Room for more? Take your pick from a long list of appetizers and sides, like flautas, ceviche, and croquetas.
Find their next location on Twitter @tamalespaceship.
4. Antique Taco
Wednesdays at Antique Taco’s Bridgeport location (1000 W. 35th St.) are taking “tasty” to a whole new level over the summer. This famed Chicago taco joint has teamed up with The Fat Shallot for festival-style food trucking, with up to six food trucks taking up residence on the restaurant’s patio for the day. Most importantly, you’ll have the chance to sample Antique Taco’s signature street food, with tacos that verge on haute cuisine.
Owner and chef Rick Ortiz blends “the freshest available foods from the Midwest with my Mexican heritage. Our menu reflects my experience from every kitchen I have worked … and my travels abroad.”
The result is a tantalizing taco menu, packed with savory, decadent ingredients like River Valley ranch mushrooms, Catalpa Grove Farm pork, Tamarind BBQ, and elote-style cauliflower. A couple of favorites: sweet and spicy chicken, with yoghurt, cucumber, jalapeno, pink onion, and mint; and crispy fish, with Alaskan cod, tempura, spicy tartar, smoked cabbage, scallions, and sesame.
For more Antique Taco pitstops, check out @antiquetacos on Twitter.
5. Pink Taco
Festival favorite Pink Taco brings a punk vibe to your street food experience, with rocking flavors served from Brandy, the ultimate in punk chick taco trucks.
Grab some nosh while you mosh, with traditional fillings like chicken, pork, brisket, and shrimp, as well as sweet potato for the vegetarian palette. Whatever filling you order, you’ll find it packed into light, flavorful tortillas, with everything made from scratch.
A few more menu items to tempt you include burritos, quesadillas, nachos, chili cheese fries, and street corn. And for an even wider selection any day of the week, you can swing by Pink Taco’s permanent home in downtown Chicago (431 N Wells St.).
Visit @pinktaco on Twitter for upcoming food truck locations.
6. Big Star
Big Star makes you feel like, well, a big star. This taco haven’s original home in Wicker Park sees hordes of locals clamoring for a seat on the sprawling patio — and a bite out of flavorful, trendsetting tacos (there’s a second location in Wrigleyville, by the way).
Fortunately for those of us who can never seem to get a seat, Big Star also has a taco truck. Fan faves include crispy pork belly with salsa verde, chicharron, jalapeño, onion cream, and cilantro; yuba tofu with guajillo salsa; spit-roasted pork shoulder with grilled pineapple; and the famed Walking Taco, with corn chips, spicy pinto bean dip, cholula, queso chihuahua, onion, and cilantro. Although you really can’t go wrong with anything you pick.
You’ll find Big Star food trucks at many of Chicago’s happening special events. Visit @BigStarChicago for the latest.
You’ve got to love it when two of your favorite cuisines meld into foodie nirvana—especially when that nirvana comes in the form of a taco.
The name might be a little misleading, but at multicultural Chicago Lunchbox, Asian street food meets American-style comfort food to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Try the Sloppy Thai, Chicago Lunchbox’s take on traditional Sloppy Joe, using ground chicken stir-fried with bell peppers and Thai basil. Or the Long Time taco filled with sweet grilled Filipino pork sausage. The Viet is another great choice, bursting with grilled pork marinated in savory Vietnamese-inspired sauce. And you really can’t go wrong with the Beefy Korean, packed with grilled beef infused with sweet Korean-style marinade.
If you’re not in the mood for a taco (which we find very hard to imagine), try any one of Chicago Linchbox’s exotic fillings as a sandwich, salad, rice box, or noodle box instead.
Find Chicago Lunchbox on Twitter (@ChicagoLunchBox), or at any one of its frequent stops around the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, or downtown at 600 W. Chicago Ave., the Daley Plaza, and Adams/Clark.
Not a morning person? You will be after a visit to Amanecer. Its name means sunrise, and its tacos are all the inspiration you need to roll out of bed and into that bright morning light.
This is simplicity at its best, with fresh, organic ingredients like eggs, meats, beans, cheeses, and salsa made to order in the Texas tradition of breakfast tacos. Best of all, they’re served out of a smart car.
A firm favorite among Northwestern University students looking for a hangover cure-all before class, Amanecer also has a permanent location close to the university campus in Evanston (512 Main St.). And, in fact, its co-founder Mario Vela has strong ties to the university scene—he’s currently the Director of Employer Relations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
Ask Mario about his favorite taco, and he’ll tell you it’s all of them. Make your own educated guess, choosing from delights such as pork chorizo mixed with refried house-made pinto beans; carne seca (shredded dried beef) with scrambled eggs, onions, and tomatoes; or a vegetarian version made with golden potatoes.
Check out Amanecer’s Evanston campus stops at Church/Maple, Garrett/Sheridan, Chicago/Sheridan, Noyes/Sheridan, or Foster/Sheridan. Or find them on Twitter @amanecertacos.
If you’re a big fan of plantains, you’re going to love this food truck. Taquero Fusion’s entire menu is inspired by Latin American street food, with surefire winners like carne molida (made with savory beef and plantains), and fusion chips and salsa (which combines salted tortilla and plantain chips). Wash it all down with a juaritto fruit punch, infused with mandarin and lime.
If your appetite is as big as your love of tacos, then go for the ultimate crowd pleaser, the Taco Meal Box, which includes two tacos with fusion slaw, fusion salsa, and your choice of side.
Taquero Fusion doesn’t only serve up good eats; it serves up goodwill as well. The food truck offers its services for “Taquero Fusion for Dollar$” events, with up to 20% of pre-tax sales donated to charity.
While you’ll often find them downtown around Clark/Monroe and Adams/Wacker, as well as at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, you can check out additional locations on Twitter (@taquerofusion).
Let’s end on a traditional note. Ask just about any Chicago taco lover where to find the authentic stuff, and undoubtedly the answer is La Patrona (followed with a lot of lip smacking and a dash to the nearest Twitter feed to find the food truck’s next stop).
In the spirit of traditional taquerias (only on wheels), La Patrona serves affordable, flavorful, authentic Mexican tacos, handing over a plateful of three corn tortillas filled with pork, steak, or chicken—and a side of rice and beans on request. You can also gorge on delicious burritos, tortas, and sopes. And you can bet they’re all homemade using the freshest ingredients..
You’ll often find La Patrona downtown at Adams/Wacker and Clark/Monroe. Also check out @patronachicago on Twitter for more locations.