During the last presidential election, Latinos for Trump cofounder Marco Gutierrez warned that if the U.S. doesn’t do more to stop undocumented immigrants from entering the country, “you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.” Chicago is already approaching that utopian scenario. Our city has hundreds, if not thousands, of Mexican restaurants where taqueros and taqueras expertly griddle chunks of marinated steak and carve ruby-colored al pastor from trompo rotisseries, then deposit the meats in warm corn tortillas and top them with chopped onions and cilantro. Dress their creations with fiery red, green, or black salsa and a squeeze of lime and take a bite, and you’re in carnivore heaven.
So it was no surprise when a recent survey by the urban planning website CityLab found that Chicagoans gave our city high marks for both tacos and public transportation, making Chicago the national sweet spot for combined taco/transit contentment.
The study, inspired by a tweet by Natural Resources Defense Council staffer Carter Rubin, asked readers to rate the quality and availability of tacos and public transportation in their metro areas from one to ten. Over a thousand people had responded by the time the results were published in mid-December. According to CityLab’s David Montgomery, 83 Chicagoland residents—about 70 from the city proper—participated. (The survey is still live, if you want to have your say.)
On average, Chicagoans gave local tacos an 8.2 rating, the best score of any northern metropolis. Unsurprisingly, people from metro areas closer to the Mexican border, such as San Diego, Phoenix, and Houston, rated their tacos the highest, but most of these Sunbelt cities received low transit ratings.
Meanwhile, Chicago’s public transportation score of 8.1 was the highest of any U.S. city. That’s certainly debatable, since New York’s MTA is far more extensive than the CTA, and D.C.’s Metro arguably has nicer stations and railcars. On the other hand, those systems have had major meltdowns in recent years, while the CTA is relatively well maintained. Mayor Rahm Emanuel gloated about that fact in a New York Times op-ed in July 2017 with the Mussolini-esque title “In Chicago, the Trains Actually Run on Time.”
Near-northwest-side alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who’s of Mexican ancestry, argued that Chicagoans should be proud of the CityLab survey results. “It’s not blustery rhetoric, it’s a fact: Chicago is the best,” he tweeted along with a graph of the results, garnering a thousand likes. In a subsequent tweet, he attributed the win to “leftists who fought for public control of mass transit and hardworking immigrants.”
The CTA had not provided an official statement in response to the survey results by press time, but a spokesperson indicated that the agency is pleased by the accolade.
However, Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke argued that we should take Chicago’s high transit rating with a grain of salt and not let city officials rest on their laurels. “Truthfully, this reveals little about transit in the region except that people who read CityLab are transit-privileged,” he said. “They most likely represent a narrow segment of our population: college-educated people who value transit, work downtown, and can afford to live near the best train stations.”
Burke added that a recent study found that for about 75 percent of Chicagoland workers, a transit commute to their jobs would take over 90 minutes. He noted that a lower percentage of Chicagoans take public transportation to work than their New York, D.C., Boston, and San Francisco counterparts, and local bus and rail ridership has fallen in recent years. He argued that increasing state funding for transit is critical if we’re going to reverse that trend.
Streetsblog reporter Lynda Lopez, a first-generation Mexican-American, said we can’t take Chicago’s awesome and affordable transit and taco culture for granted. She noted that there’s a danger of housing costs and retail rents in many gentrifying neighborhoods becoming too expensive for recent immigrants and mom-and-pop restaurants, especially in areas near el stations. “If we value Chicago’s cultural diversity and cuisine, we need to prioritize equitable access to transit and affordable housing to make sure diverse communities can remain in the city.”
But perhaps the expert on the subject of our city’s taco and transit prowess is Jose Bustos, owner of the Chicago Taco Authority in the Old Irving Park neighborhood, located a stone’s throw from a Blue Line station. His taqueria is decorated with bus stop signs, vintage photographs of the transit system, an old fare box, and a full-size replica of the side of an el car attached to a wall of the dining room.
“Chicago is definitely a great taco town,” he said. “It’s because you have so many people from Mexico here, from so many different places.” According to the 2010 census, a full 21.4 percent of Chicagoans were of Mexican descent. “So people have many different ways of cooking the same kind of taco.” For example, while his restaurant specializes in charbroiling, when he has a taste for some flattop-grilled carne asada, he heads to Taqueria Los Gallos in Little Village.
Juan Zaragoza, who owns the goat-focused Birrieria Zaragoza in Archer Heights, which was cited as the favorite restaurant in town of Reader food critic Mike Sula, agrees that the presence of immigrants from all over Mexico helps make Chicago’s taco scene great. “Some of our taquerias are even better than what you might find in Mexico.”
He’s from La Barca in the southwestern state of Jalisco, famous for goat tacos, and he noted that people from Mexico City and Michoacán have also brought their own styles of cooking to Chicago. “Michoacán is well known for carnitas [lard-braised pork]. Once they drop that on a soft tortilla with the right salsa, you’ve got something special.”
Zaragoza added that good CTA access has been a factor in his restaurant’s success. “We’re fortunate that the Pulaski Orange Line stop is down the street and the Pulaski bus runs right by our front door. That certainly doesn’t hurt us.”
To celebrate our city’s new title as the public transportation-and-taco satisfaction capital of the U.S., we’ve put together the Chicago Transit and Tacos map, featuring more than 100 taquerias and other spots for tacos— including many of the best in town—located within walking distance of el stops.
On the map, red pins show Chicago’s top taquerias and Mexican restaurants near stations, and green pins highlight other places for tacos that are worth visiting. Click on the pins to view the addresses, phone numbers, and websites for the restaurants. Click the “CTA stations” box on the map sidebar to view the el stop locations (blue pins).
Thanks to everyone who provided input and assistance with this project, including Sharon Bautista, Juan Dominguez, David Hammond, Howard Kaplan, Lynda Lopez, Matt Michel, JB Montaño, Titus Ruscitti, Mike Sula, Ann Torralba, Steven Vance, Anne Yoder, and Jeff Zoline.
Do you disagree with my taqueria selections? Feel free to “taco” ’bout it in the comments section. (Sorry.) And remember, you can’t spell “taco” without “CTA.” v
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.