The rich history of Mexicans in Chicago has led to some of the best cuisine the city has to offer. You can get quality Mexican food in any neighborhood, but they can’t all claim the top spot. So pencil in these casual joints and five-star restaurants to experience the best.
It wouldn’t be a Chicago list without a few of celebrity chef Rick Bayless’ restaurants. XOCO in River North is his least intimidating option, so come here for casual Mexican street food and beers on tap. In the morning, or for dessert, try their fresh hot chocolate and churros. They’re handmade, fried on-site, and always huge. Choose from pistachio, hazelnut, or chocolate-peanut butter. People also love their daily torta specials and steamy soups.
If you’re new to Mexican food, carnitas is slow-cooked pork used in various dishes. And Carnitas Uruapan is Chicago’s resident pork expert. ‘El Guero’ Carbajal has been operating the restaurant since 1975, after emigrating from Uruapan, the Mexican city. Their menu is modeled after street food from western Mexico, all loaded down with crispy carnitas. They’re located on 18th Street, in the heart of Pilsen, alongside some of the city’s other great Mexican joints.
Cemitas Puebla in the West Loop specializes in traditional Poblano foods and sandwiches. They have a simple setup with cheap tacos, quesadillas, and chalupas for sale all day long. The chain has two more locations in Logan Square and Hyde Park, and they’re all worth a visit. Be sure to try their loaded tortilla soup – it’s a fan favorite.
If you’re looking for a more upscale Mexican experience, you can’t go wrong at Rick Bayless’ Topolobampo. It’s his restaurant that’s most often frequented by famous people, including the Obama family, which results in the recommendation to make your reservations about eight to ten weeks in advance. Guests create their own three-, five- or seven-course menus from eight different categories of cuisine, which can seem overwhelming. But with Bayless in the kitchen, you can be confident in knowing everything’s amazing.
La Chaparrita in Little Village isn’t a restaurant in the traditional sense; it’s half-eatery, half-Mexican grocery store, but all delicious. It’s barely noticeable if you’re not looking for it, but it is consistently voted one of the best spots for Mexican food in the entire city. Choose from a dozen of different dirt-cheap tacos and a fresh-squeezed juice to wash them down.
If you’re in the mood for a pastry, Panadería Nuevo Leon is the place to be. It’s been a fixture on Pilsen’s 18th Street since 1973, serving up more than 50 different types of pastries, bread, and tortillas every day. Grab a tray as you walk in and peruse the shelves. Use the tongs to serve yourself, and then pay for your bundle at the door. Locals love it, and people travel from all over to get a taste of their handmade treats.