Newcomers to this town expect deep-dish pizza and memorable fine dining. But they’re always blown away by just how great and how varied the Mexican food options are here. They may have heard about Rick Bayless’s huge contributions, and folks hailing from all over Mexico have enlivened the food scene here beyond measure. Here, we aim to measure it: These Mexican restaurants are Caviar’s most popular in Chicago, ranked in order.
The Truck Stop Nachos from this Logan Square fast-casual fave are best in class – loaded with so many pickled onions and peppers and such tasty black beans that the nachos almost seem healthy. (No small feat!) To counteract all that nutrition, we like to add a side of queso and pour it right on top. At lunch, the Baja fish bowl satisfies every time; at dinner, an assortment of tacos (al pastor, barbacoa) and mezcal margarita bottled for two does the trick. Salsa is free, so don’t forget to click some onto your order.
The best way to order these tacos is Smoke Alley-style, either steak, chicken, or mushroom. Either way, the plate will arrive with grilled knob onions, two salsas, guacamole, marinated cucumbers, and a stack of fresh corn tortillas. Don’t miss the add-ons like elote (street corn), perfect guac, and a Caesar salad made with kale and arugula. And really don’t miss the house-brewed beers that are bright with the flavors of tropical fruits and ideally matched to the food.
3. Big Star
If only we could count the number of times we’ve poked around the site looking for that “aha, that’s what I want” moment and landed on Big Star. One Off Hospitality has found the taco sweet spot with its combination of chewy, corny, hand-pressed tortillas and distinctive fillings that don’t taste like anything else. Our go-tos are the Taco de Panza with crispy pork belly and tomato-guajillo salsa and the beer-battered fish with cabbage slaw and chipotle mayo. The Walking Taco served in a Fritos bag is the street fair classic elevated. Don’t forget nachos, which smartly arrive in a pizza box, and if you’re watching the carbs, the house salad topped with a generous portion of pastor hits the spot.
Rick Bayless’s gourmet sandwich shop is that rare place where you might take an out-of-town visitor for a true Chicago dining experience one week, and order in for a midweek dinner the next. The Mexican tortas are stuffed with local meats from Gunthorp Farms (the chicken Milanesa is the most popular) and a host of crunchy-tangy-creamy toppings like pickled jalapeños, tomatillo-avocado salsa, black beans, and Jack cheese. The menu also includes tacos, a nice selection for kids (including a mini version of that Milanesa torta), and a deeply flavored pozole soup with crunchy napa cabbage for a garnish. Save room for churros.
5. La Josie
José Luis Barajas has always been around Mexican restaurants, from his childhood in Mexico City to La Josie, his own spot, which has been serving one of the city’s most ambitious Mexican menus since 1997. The taco salads here are like none you’ve tried, with starring proteins like arrachera steak and adobo-grilled sea bass. In the Platos Fuertes section, look for ridiculously perfect enchiladas made with hand-pressed tortillas and skirt steak, or three kinds of cheese, or chicken. We almost forgot the cocktails! Margarita, mezcal margarita, paloma … they’re all good to go.
Sometimes this transportation-themed taco shop is as busy at the nearby CTA Irving Park station, so you’ll want to remember that delivery is always an option. The menu lists tacos both classic (carnitas, al pastor) and creative (bacon-wrapped shrimp). The burritos come as thick as a train rail, and the CTA Express Bowls are a great value and include your choice of protein, sides (guacamole, loaded elote), and a drink (mmm Mexican coke). If only you could pay with your Ventra card ….
Hop on the quesabirra train at this low-key Logan Square storefront which specializes in the newly trendy tacos. These cheesy-beefy concoctions come two to an order with a side cup of consomme for dipping. That same great stewed beef also stars in burritos and tortas. The entrees are all old school, so think fajitas or enchiladas with rice, beans, and salad. But once you go quesabirra, it’s hard to go back.
8. Seoul Taco
A little bit salsa and a little bit of K-pop, the tacos, quesadillas, burritos, and bowls at this unique spot show just how nicely Mexican and Korean cuisines can play together. For the best mashup, try one of the burritos stuffed solid with kimchi fried rice, lettuce, cheese, sour cream, and spicy sauces. Those avoiding gluten will be happy to find the rice-based gogi bowls with a runny fried egg on top.
Sonoran-style dishes are the highlight at this unusual Mexican restaurant set on the border of Lincoln Park and Bucktown. They are best known for their signature cheese crisps, which are a bit like cracker-crust pizzas. You can order them as usual (the four choices include chorizo and green chile), but if you’re willing to put in a minute’s worth of work, order those crisps in Take and Bake kits which allow you to experience them at their freshest. Tag on grilled shrimp skewers and a side of homemade flour tortillas.
10. Lena Brava
Baja-style seafood cooked over a live fire was the hallmark of this West Loop restaurant when it opened in 2016. In recent years, chef Andres Padilla has taken the menu into more carnivorous territory. Halibut Veracruz now shares oven space with a luscious wood-roasted chicken, pork carnitas, and a New York strip prepared like carne asada. Ember-roasted sweet potatoes and cheesy cauliflower mash are but a few of the inspired side dishes.
Husband and wife owners Bryan and Jennifer Enyart have settled into a more casual menu and vibe since opening this Logan Square spot a few years ago. But their love of Mexican flavors comes through in every bespoke dish. A sweet corn tamale arrives bruléed with Parmesan mayo and served with a roasted tomato salsa, while sikil pak offers a kind of spicy pumpkin seed dip for chips that gets more addictive with each bite. Fantastic carnitas aside, it would be easy to go vegetarian here.
12. Frontera Grill
Rick Bayless’ flagship restaurant, now in its 35th year, still feels like a culinary tour of Mexico led by the consummate guide. Pedigreed meats are bathed in distinctive marinades, grilled over wood, and adorned with spectacular sauces culled from regional foodways throughout Mexico. Pork loin arrives with manchamanteles – a mole crafted from almonds, pineapple, and sweet spices — while the chicken breast arrives in a squash blossom crema. The build-your-own taco plates come with gobs of garnishes and reheating instructions, and the tortilla soup is the definitive version against which you will judge all others.
This Lincoln Park old-timer is the kind of Mexican restaurant that only exists in Chicago. It has more than a little Greek diner in its DNA, so specialties include a fat gyros burrito loaded with meat, tomatoes, lettuce, and creamy “thathicki” sauce. In the morning (set your alarm), breakfast tacos and burritos come in all variations, with eggs, cheese, ham, bacon, and turkey bacon in any combination. Come lunchtime, the tacos go traditional: Think chorizo, lengua, and al pastor.
The Mexican small plates at this sleek River North cocktail spot can easily make a meal if you combine two or three — perhaps the trio of handcrafted guacamoles, crispy chicken flautas, and street quesadillas filled with veggies and cheese. If you need something more substantial, tacos come generously overstuffed with smoked brisket, ancho-rubbed pork, or beer-battered mahi mahi, three to the order. And those cocktails you’ve clamored for at the bar? Yours for the asking. Try the Amiga Sandia, which combines Casamigos blanco tequila with fresh watermelon and basil.
This modest restaurant is considered destination dining by fans who drive in from all over Chicagoland for the house specialties. The menu, however, needs a bit of translation. A Stelote Burrito, for instance, combines fire-grilled steak with elote street corn, onions, and cilantro, while A Fish Called William Burrito combines strips of tortilla-encrusted tilapia with avocado and cabbage. Many don’t ever look past the Mother Clucker, which tucks an entire pound of grilled chicken with creamy tequila-lime sauce into a burrito that’s dinner tonight and lunch tomorrow.
16. Los 3 Panchos
DePaul kids keep this place buzzing morning, noon, and night. Morning means huevos rancheros, omelets, and burritos; at lunch, attention turns to Mexico City-style street tacos and cheese fries, if not sopes and tortas, while dinner is time for loaded nachos and enchilada dinners served with rice and beans.
“Barrio” means neighborhood, and the one in question is the trendiest part of River North. So look for some boundary-pushing dishes you won’t find elsewhere. How about a lobster quesadilla or octopus tacos with garlic crema and crispy potatoes? The ever-popular skirt steak tacos with a creamy poblano sauce and crisp fried jalapenos are always hard to resist, but this menu deserves some exploration.
Taco-burrito restaurants are to Chicago what diners are to New York: They promise a kind of food that pleased crowds in decades past. A classic of the genre, this small mini-chain serves up gut-busting platters, enormous burritos and Chicago-style tacos loaded with ground beef, cheese, and sour cream. Count on rice, beans, and a heavy dose of nostalgia.
19. Mayan Palace
In a city with such varied and great Mexican food, it can be a little hard to find the kinds of combination platters you’d find in a traditional Tex Mex venue. Enter this Lincoln Park stalwart that will have a combo plate with your name on it, whether you’re hankering for tacos, tamales, chile rellenos, enchiladas, flautas, or, ideally, some magical combo of the above; all with rice and beans, of course.
20. Tacos Tequilas
This Logan Square spot combines two things that Chicagoans love: tacos that could legit pass for Mexico City street fare and stiff margaritas. Few spots on this list can boast such a variety of good drinks to go: margarita bombers and Long Island iced tea and sangria. The tacos are great, but hungry folks should scroll straight to the platters of enchiladas enmoladas bathed in house red mole.
21. Burrito House
With four northside locations, Burrito House covers a lot of ground, both its footprint and its menu. Just about any hankering will be met, whether you’re thinking tacos, tortas, sopes, or tostadas. The menu also takes a detour to so-called Burgerland, where your kid or spouse can find something to eat while you consider the competing merits of a shrimp fajita dinner plate and a steak French fries supreme, which is kind of like “nachos meets poutine.”
Birria is on the menu here, and it comes in all forms – in tacos, in a dinner with a side of consomme, in quesabirrias, and in birria ramen. We love Mexican plates with enchiladas or flautas with rice and beans, but if you don’t have the appetite, there’s a full roster of lighter fare, including sopes, huaraches, and caldos (soups).