According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, over 2.5 billion people each day eat “street food.” Most of these foods are served by vendors on the sidewalk or roadside, typically featuring fresh, local ingredients and seasonings. It’s a tasty, quick, ready-to-eat option. Chicago has versions of this trend, largely focused on the ubiquitous food trucks that roam the city. But for those who like a more permanent location, there’s a new cantina in River North that may just be the perfect spot for tasty Mexican street fare and awesome margaritas.
Taco Joint Urban Taqueria & Cantina recently opened up at 158 West Ontario Street in River North. This is the second Taco Joint to open in the city. This second location of the Lincoln Park outpost is owned by Edgar Castaneda and Marcos Castaneda (ZOCALO Restaurant and Tequila Bar). The first is located at 1969 North Halsted. Both are designed to evoke the feeling of a cantina in a small Mexican town – natural wood and iron with colorful distressed walls and murals. The Halsted location is small and intimate. This new River North location, while maintaining that sense of charm, is quite large and can accommodate larger groups. In either case, the food is uniformly superb and the drinks are awesome.
The food strives to offer different tastes and flavors from many areas of Mexico including Barbacoa (braised beef with cilantro, onion, and roasted jalapeno salsa) from Central Mexico, Cochinita Pibil (pulled pork with pickled red onions and spicy habanero salsa) from the Yucatan, and Birria (oven-roasted goat with cilantro and onion)from Jalisco.
For starters, don’t miss their guacamole which is some of the best in the city. They offer three types: Tradicional (avocado with tomatoes, red onion, cilantro, and Serrano); Rojo (avocado with roasted tomatoes, roasted onion, and roasted red jalapeno salsa); and Fruta (avocado with grapefruit segments, morita-peach salsa, and toasted pumpkin seed). If you’re like me and can’t decide, just order the sampler platter and enjoy them all.
For lighter cravings, try any of their Antojitos (street “snacks” designed to satisfy cravings). My favorites were Elotes (grilled corn on the cob with mayonnaise, cotija cheese, and chile piquin) and the Chiles Toreados (pan-fried pardon peppers seasoned with arbol-chile oil, lime juice, and course salt).
The tacos are amazing, served on a small hand-made soft tortilla and supremely overstuffed. Try the Barbacoa for a mouth-watering experience. The Al Pastor (grilled chicken with pineapple and tomatillo) was also worth a second order.
You can get the full idea from their online menu which also includes their cocktail menu.
Of course, no visit to a Mexican cantina is complete without a sampling of Mexico’s national spirit – tequila. Taco Joint has over 50 tequilas, all made from 100% blue agave. In fact, if you head over to the area where they have booths, you will find a series of photos detailed the harvesting and distillation process of the blue agave. Education and fun all at the same time! For my money, the best of their inventive cocktails is the Grapefruit Margarita made with El Jimador Reposado tequila, Cointreau, ruby red grapefruit, lemon juice, grapefruit bitters, and house-made, citrus/chili-infused agave nectar. The glass rim was coated with salty chili piquin - not too hot and a perfect accompaniment to the tart grapefruit and the hot/sweet agave.
As a “street food” establishment, Taco Joint has a late night menu and one of the coolest of their offerings is their take-out window which is open daily from 11 a.m. until they decide to close it later at night. If you’re in that area enjoying one of those 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. bars – head on over to Taco Joint for a quick post-bar snack to help satisfy those late night street food cravings.
Taco Joint is open at 158 West Ontario Street for dining in weekdays, 11 a.m. – 12 a.m.; Friday & Saturday, 11 a.m. – 2 a.m.; and Sunday 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. The take-out window is open daily from 11 a.m. – late night. You can contact them at 312-337-8226. You can also visit their website, follow them on Twitter, and like them on Facebook.