I gotta hand it to the guys from Music Direct in Chicago - they do a great job in turning me on to some great restaurants when I go in to visit - some famous in the Chicagoland region and some very good ones that are not so famous. A few weeks ago, I was in to see the gang at Music Direct and Jason and I had talked about going to Manny's Deli for lunch. (See my entry on Manny's here.) One of the guys asked me, "Do you like fish tacos?" Well, of course I do! He said, "Jason, you need to take him to Lagartija!"
Jason asked me, "Haven't I taken you to Lagartija?" Nope, not me, buddy. "It's a little Mexican joint, not far from here. They have the best shrimp tacos..." Finally, he made an exaggerated wave of his arm and said, "Screw Manny's! We're going to Lagartija!"
(First of all, I have to apologize for the quality of the pictures. The camera lens on my cell phone was smudged and I didn't realize it until after I downloaded the pictures onto my computer. I was able to clean 'em up a bit, but they're still not up to snuff.)
La Lagartija Taqueria is a small place on Ashland Ave, just south of Ogden Ave. and about a quarter mile east of the United Center in Chicago. (see map) Lagartija in Spanish is "little lizard" and there's a large and colorful metal lizard on the wall of the contemporary Mexican restaurant. The little lizard is the mascot for La Lagartija and their owners, Luis Perea and Laura Cid-Perea who opened the little taqueria in 2010.
The Perea's are no strangers to the Chicago food scene. Laura Cid-Perea used to work for Rick Bayless and his Frontera Grill/Topolobampo restaurants. (See my entry on Frontera Grill here.) In 2001, Cid-Perea, a Mexico City-raised, Le Cordon Bleu (Paris)-educated pastry chef, left Bayless' employ and opened the Bombon Bakery. It was immediately popular with people looking just for eclectic snacks all the way up to people needing cakes for birthdays, weddings and bar mitvahs. Cid-Perea also became the personal pastry chef for a number of celebrities in the Chicago area.
Luis Perea was a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and had also worked for the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant empire in Chicago. Cid-Perea and Luis Perea opened the Bombon Cafe on Ashland in 2005. But instead of selling primarily cakes and pastries, they also sold Mexican food. Very good and eclectic Mexican food.
The original Bombon Bakery location caught fire and was destroyed in 2008, devastating the Perea's spirit. They continued to run the Bombon Cafe and had a secondary location for their bakery that was still going, but in 2010 they decided to open La Lagartija just down the street from the Bombon Cafe. It immediately became one of the top Mexican restaurants in Chicago.
We were able to find parking just down the street from La Lagartija one early afternoon. Jason told me, "Two bad things about this place - parking and the service is slow." He told me to pay for about 90 minutes of parking. "It shouldn't be that long," he said. "But they make everything literally from scratch and it takes a while for the food to come out."
We sat up front in the brightly lit restaurant and were given menus to look over. A number of items on the menu were completely foreign to me in that I had never heard of some of these foods before. Jason, who is a regular at La Lagartija, was helpful in explaining some of the dishes. They had a listing of Alambres on the menu and Jason said that they were basically these large tacos with different types of filling inside. "They're huge," he said. "And the different types of meat and vegetables and cheese they put in there all sort of fuse together in this..." He stopped, rolled his eyes and looked down. "It's just outstanding, I can't describe it any better than that."
He suggested the tacos - his favorites are the shrimp and chicken tacos. I'm not large on chicken tacos, but he was telling me that they must marinate the chicken in a fruit juice. "The meat is sweet and fruity tasting," he said. "The best chicken tacos I've ever had."
I ordered three small tacos - the skirt steak, shrimp and fish tacos. Jason ordered chicken, shrimp and fish tacos. I wanted to try the al pastor (pork) tacos, but wanted to try these three first. If I was still hungry afterward, I'd get an al pastor.
Jason also ordered something called a cazuelita - basically a baked cheese dish, or known as a queso fundido that was mixed with chorizo (below left). He got some flour tortillas to go with the cheese and chorizo. They also have these with just cheese, or also with cheese and mushrooms, poblano chiles and their al pastor.
The sauces the waitress brought to the table are completely different from any type of salsa or hot sauce I've had at any Mexican restaurant (above right). First of all, they're served in small bowls and they're all made fresh each day. The green sauce had hints of peppers, cilantro and sort of a fruit taste with a quick bite to the taste. The darker of the red sauces had a smoky, peppery taste to it with a little more spicy taste. The other red sauce I found to be sort of bland, but still had a nice spicy bite to it.
Another thing Jason ordered for us were licuados (below left). Licuados are basically a runny Mexican milkshake that is made with sweetened rice milk and touched ever so lightly with a bit of cinnamon. Oh, man, it was good. But it was, oh, so rich and filling. The water they gave us to drink at the table was a sort of lemon water, very citrusy in its taste. One other thing that I found that is wrong with La Lagartija is that they have no alcohol so you couldn't get a beer or a margarita. At least, I didn't see anywhere where they had a bar with alcohol. That's fine, the food was great without it.
The food - yes, the food. The tacos came out about 15 minutes after we ordered. Each taco was a little different with onions on top of the skirt steak taco, a sort of spicy mayo cream on top of the shrimp tacos, and a combination of chopped greens with chopped tomatoes and avocados on top of the fish taco. I tried the skirt steak taco first and it was delicious. I topped it with a little of the smoky red salsa and it gave it a great kick to the taste.
The next taco I tried was the shrimp taco. I looked at the shrimp and they were battered. I told Jason, "Aw, geez, I don't really like battered seafood in tacos."
Jason sort of looked at me, smiled, and said, "Don't worry, you will."
The batter on the outside of the shrimp was sort of a tempura-like coating, lightly fried and moist to the taste. The shrimp encased in the batter were not overcooked and rubbery like you get with deep fried shrimp, but were plump and juicy to the bite. Jason was right - all preconceived notions about deep fried seafood on tacos went out the window with La Lagartija's shrimp tacos. "Didn't I tell you," he asked after I finished that delectable taco. It was simply scrumptious.
The fish taco was also very good in its own right. The white fish was grilled, then chopped and placed on the tortilla shell. The toppings of the greens with the tomatoes and avocado was very fresh. The green sauce went extremely well with the fish tacos.
Jason offered me a bite of the queso/chorizo fundido. He said, "Chorizo is usually pretty greasy. But for some reason it's not here." I had gotten food poisoning on chorizo a number of years ago and I usually shy away from the Mexican sausage. But the taste of the chorizo at La Lagartija was very flavorful. It had a little spicy kick to the meat, probably blended with chile peppers, I'm guessing.
He also offered me a bite of the chicken meat from his taco. I got a fork full of the chopped chicken and I will say that it was exactly as he described. It had sort of a sweet, fruit taste to the chicken. On a taco, this would also be very good.
Even though I was getting full - mainly thanks to the licuado - I got the waitresses attention and ordered an al pastor taco. Between five and ten minutes later, she brought it out to me. The al pastor pork was smoky in flavor, had a great seasoning to it, but was a little overcooked for my taste.
I'd have to say the skirt steak was very good, as was the shrimp taco. Actually, all of it was very good, easily one of the best authentic Mexican meals I've had in my life. I told Jason that I would have to bring my wife in at some point to try the tacos and the queso fundido at La Lagartija, or maybe try one of the alambres. He said, "My wife is addicted to the place. We get take out from here from time to time. She doesn't even have to verbally tell me where she wants to go. It's that good."
Yes, La Lagartija is that good...