[Plus: Mexican Worth the Trek: Northern specialties, handmade flour tortillas, and 14 salsas at a pollo joint in west-suburban Northlake]

Abuelo’s Mexican Grill

2007 S. Damen | 312-733-0329

$

MEXICAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | closed sunday | BYO

Brothers Angel and Hugo Gomez have transformed a grungy storefront across from the Damen Pink Line stop into a sparkling sandwich shop wallpapered with Latin American record jackets and National Geographic covers. Sopes, tacos, burritos and tortas are well conceived and delicious, demonstrating fine attention to detail. The chorizo sope is a beautiful construction, a soft masa platform topped with piquant meat, artfully mounded with colorful cabbage; shrimp in tacos are fried to tempura laciness, splashed with crema, and dabbed with not-too-hot-but-flavorful salsa (imported from Canada!). The menu is pan-Mexican: the Gomezes are from Cuernavaca, in central Mexico, and they serve cecina from their native Morelos as well as burritos in the flour tortillas of northern Mexico, dressed with the pickled red onions of southern Mexico. Entrees, served with griddled vegetables, have a lot of personality. A torta of marinated steak is griddled medium rare and juicy with sweet chile morron, and cochinita pibil yields cinnamon hints and more dimension than you’d expect. —David Hammond

Birrieria Zaragoza

4852 S. Pulaski | 773-523-3700

$

MEXICAN | BREAKFAST: SATURDAY-SUNDAY; LUNCH: SUNDAY-MONDAY, WEDNESDAY-SATurday; DINNER: MONDAY, WEDNESDAY-FRIDAY | CLOSED TUESDAY | BYO

Juan Zaragoza learned to make birria from a master: Miguel Segura, who runs the venerable Birrieria Miguel at the market in Zaragoza’s native town of La Barca, Jalisco. Birria is a regional Jalisciense variant of the more widespread barbacoa, meat traditionally slow-cooked in a pit. These days ovens have replaced the pits. Zaragoza goes through five to seven young goats in a weekend, seasoning the meat with kosher salt before gently cooking it in a sealed steamer on a stovetop for up to six hours. Unlike most birrieros, he makes his consomme, which is tomato-based, without drippings from the meat, which results in a clean broth without the fat and excessive saltiness that can ruin a plate of chivo. After steaming, he lightly applies an ancho-based mole to the meat and transfers it to an oven. Handmade tortillas, freshly pressed and heated on the grill until slightly puffed, are an exquisite vehicle for the goat, lightly drizzled with the consomme and garnished with salsa, onions, cilantro, and lime. —Mike Sula

Carnitas Don Pedro

1113 W. 18th | 312-829-4757

$

MEXICAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH: SEVEN DAYS | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

The Sunday-morning pork rush at Carnitas Don Pedro presents a trial of forbearance appropriate for the after-church crowd. First one must worm one’s way between two counters and a handful of small tables to the back of the line, which may snake into the kitchen, where sturdy men are stirring giant brass vats of roiling pig parts with paddles. Whether you’re in the line for a table or the line for takeout, you’ll be inching forward among a scrum of customers, cooks, and waitresses. If you’re taking out, you’ll eventually return to the front of the store, where birria, barbacoa, menudo, brain tacos, and a piquant cactus salad are ordered on the right side; chicharrones, fresh chorizo, and mountains of glistening, steaming carnitas on the left. Specify meat, fat, offal, or some of each and the man with the long knife chops it, piles it high in a cardboard boat, wraps it tight in butcher paper, then hands you a sizable snack to help you fight the urge to break into the package on the way home. At $5.80 a pound, the well-seasoned carnitas here are among my favorites in the city—the high turnover ensures they’re hot and juicy, and they come with a brilliantly flavored dark green salsa flecked with plenty of red chile. —Mike Sula

La Cecina

1943 W. 47th | 773-927-9444

$$

MEXICAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

Cecina, the salt-dried traditional steak of Guerrero served rehydrated and grilled, is deliciously toothy and succulent. Other representative foods from Guerrero here include a guajillo-spiked chicken soup in a bright red broth with fresh squash and carrot. This place is swimming with seafood: fried smelts were especially tasty spritzed with lime, and ceviche was helium light. Less routine menu items include quail, game hen, and bull’s testicles. The tortillas at La Cecina are handcrafted, and we enjoyed quesadillas with requeson, Mexico’s answer to ricotta, and fish (minced and fried in the tortilla). No booze is served, but there are healthful beverages including a fresh-squeezed concoction of mixed veggies and fruits and a milk shake of mamey, a starchy, honey-tinged tropical fruit. —David Hammond

Cemitas Puebla

3619 W. North | 773-772-8435

$

MEXICAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

Long loved by Chicago’s fanatical food fringe, Cemitas Puebla (formerly Puebla Taqueria) hit the big time with an appearance on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. But the attention is well deserved: proprietor Tony Anteliz Jr. and his pop, Antonio Zurita, are scratch cooking granny recipes from Puebla, where the latter picks up spices, herbs, and stringy queso Oaxaca on a regular basis. The chipotle en adobo that dresses these sandwiches is the linchpin, smoky with a slow burn, made in-house with morita peppers and Grandma Esperanza’s pineapple vinegar. The cemita Milanesa is one of the draws: a crisp, light sesame-seed bun made to order at a local bakery, a layer of avocado, a schmear of chipotle en adobo, a crisp-fried butterflied pork chop topped with a shower of Oaxacan cheese, and, in summer months, papalo—like cilantro on steroids—which Tony’s mother grows for the restaurant. Swoonworthy as this may be, go with an Atomica, a belly-bursting combo of Milanesa, carne enchilada, and ham finished with Oaxacan cheese and avocado. Or a cemita pata, made with long-simmered cow’s foot mixed with vinegar and carrot then chilled and sliced in the fashion of headcheese. Along with the cemita, tacos Arabes are a signature of Puebla: juicy strips of marinated spit-roasted pork shoulder sheared off a spit, given a healthy dose of chipotle en adobo, griddled, and wrapped in a thick pitalike flour tortilla reflecting the Lebanese influence on Puebla. Orientales are the same succulent spit-roasted pork wrapped in a pair of corn tortillas. And god knows one needs an appetizer or two before downing an Atomica coupled with a taco Arabes. Chalupas fit the bill, crispy masa disks with multiple choices of meat and salsa—I like the salsa roja with cecina and salsa verde with chorizo. Or try a chicharron quesadilla, a heady mix of fried pork skin, cheese, and peppers, served blisteringly hot. —Gary Wiviott

Huaraches Doña Chio

1547 W. Elmdale | 773-878-8470

$

MEXICAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | BYO

Huaraches Doña Chio couldn’t be more modest: maybe four or five tables, no decor to speak of, TV on the counter usually tuned to Univision. But it’s one of very few Mexican restaurants in Chicago serving huaraches, gorditas, and sopes handmade from fresh masa. This means your huarache is patted out, pressed, and grilled to order, so it’s slightly crispy on the outside and moist and chewy on the inside, never tough or stale or dry. You can get your huarache prepared with a layer of red or green salsa under the rest of the toppings (or fillings, if you’re ordering a gordita), but I recommend going without—that way more of the fried masa stays crispy. (And you can always add it yourself from the bottles on the tables.) The selection of toppings is impressive too: not just standards like pastor, asada, and chorizo (with or without potatoes), but also tinga (spicy marinated chicken), rajas (grilled poblanos with onion), squash blossoms, nopales (cactus), brains, and huitlacoche (“Mexican truffles”) mixed with whole kernel corn. One huarache is a full meal—I didn’t bring a tape measure, but I’d guess they’re 14 inches long and more than half that wide. And don’t try ordering two gorditas unless you don’t have to do anything but lie down for the next three hours. Doña Chio also offers sopes, tacos, tortas, tostadas, burritos, and enchiladas as well as breakfast. There’s posole and menudo on weekends, but given the quality of the masa, I’d be hard-pressed to forfeit a huarache for them. —Philip Montoro

Nuevo Leon

1515 W. 18th | 312-421-1517

$$

MEXICAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: MONDAY-SATURDAY TILL MIDNIGHT, SUNDAY TILL 11 | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

They serve a heap o’ flour tortillas and meat in the northerly Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, and for more than 40 years this restaurant has done a fine job of doing the same. Tacos de sabinas are house-made white tortillas with a soft, crepelike consistency—they seem to melt around strips of seasoned steak. Frijoles con chorizo is a densely textured accompaniment that’s worth every calorie. Carne a la tampiqueña is the classic skirt steak—found all over Mexico—with beans, enchilada, and guacamole, steak’s soul mate. We really liked the guisado de puerco in salsa roja, a piquant stew with slow-cooked, chile-sauce-saturated pork. Pork also makes an appearance in tangy tamales. If you come earlier in the day, consider ordering some of the breakfast chilaquiles or machacado con huevo (seasoned steak in egg). You can BYOB, or for a couple bucks get a cup of Mexican cocoa. —David Hammond

La Pasadita Restaurant

1141 N. Ashland | 773-278-0384

$

MEXICAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: Friday & saturday till 3:30, other nights till 2 | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

La Pasadita had 15 minutes of fame a few years back, when LTH Forum anointed the hole-in-the-wall on the east side of Ashland one of the year’s Great Neighborhood Restaurants, while top British chef Heston Blumenthal and friends paid a late-night visit to the larger of the two restaurants on the west side (at 1132 N. Ashland). But truth is, all three are local institutions, notwithstanding the debate about which is “best.” Fans of the original praise the authentic atmosphere—counter seating only, and not much of that—and a menu limited to a handful of tacos and burritos. I enjoyed the carne asado burrito packed with smoky, chewy steak, onions, and cilantro (no beans, lettuce, tomato, etc) and decent doubled-up soft corn tortilla tacos folded over barbacoa, tongue, and chile relleno with onions and cilantro. But 1132’s creature comforts beckon, even though it’s nothing fancy. The food is on about the same level, with choices including quesadillas nortenas, cheese-stuffed corn tortillas smothered with onions and fresh tomato sauce, and parrillada especial, heaped with enough chicken, spicy sausage, carne asada, and thinly sliced short ribs to feed a family of four for a mere $25. Aficionados will appreciate the salsa negra. —Anne Spiselman

La Quebrada

4859 W. Roosevelt, Cicero | 708-780-8110

$$

MEXICAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: friday & saturday TILL 11 | BYO

You’d expect a restaurant specializing in the cuisine of Guerrero, on the Pacific coast, to have some decent seafood, and La Quebrada does—especially the shrimp cocktails and ceviche. But when I go to this tiny joint in a dilapidated industrial zone, I want the goat barbacoa and fresh tortillas. La Quebrada’s rendition of this dish is exceptional, featuring meaty hunks, perfectly cooked to a slightly pink center, served with cilantro, onion, and guacamole. On the side is a bowl of frijoles de la hoya, plump pinto beans in a mild broth. Handmade tortillas are pliant and absorbent, providing a perfect platform for piling on meat and vegetables soaked with the house molcajete (salsa ground and served in a mortar). Cornmeal also finds its way into other selections on the menu, among them huaraches, which are a vegetarian’s nightmare/carnivore’s dream come true, topped with a selection of tasty animals including marinated pork, chicken, regular steak, and cecina. To drink there’s freshly squeezed orange or carrot juice, as well as aguas frescas, lightly flavored beverages of sweet rice flour and cinnamon, tamarind, or hibiscus. —David Hammond

Restaurant y Pozoleria San Juan

1523 N. Pulaski | 773-276-5825

$

MEXICAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY 24 HOURS, OTHER NIGHTS TILL 1 | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

At Restaurant y Pozoleria San Juan in Humboldt Park, one of the few remaining posole places in Chicago, the hominy soup ($7.75-$8 for a large bowl) is available in the three colors of the Mexican flag: red, the sort seasoned with guajillo chiles and typical of Jalisco, and the green and white varieties more typical of the neighboring state of Guerrero. (If you want pig foot in your bowl you have to ask for it specifically.) Pedro Aguilar, the owner and sometime cook, serves the hearty dish with baskets of crispy chicharrones. Apart from the namesake dish, there’s classic Mexican from breakfast (huevos rancheros) to dinner (carne asada). —David Hammond

Sabas Vega Carnitas Restaurant

1808 S. Ashland | 312-666-5180

$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH: SEVEN DAYS

Family owned since 1966, this former butcher shop now specializes in carnitas. Shimmering with fat, the drop-dead-gorgeous piggy bits are available seven days a week, but weekends are when Sabas Vega shines. Crowds line up starting at 6 AM for weekend-only treats of birria de chivo, tender goat accented with chile; barbacoa made exclusively from cheek meat and tender as a dying lover’s last words; menudo, the perfect cure for that wild Saturday night; and cabecitas de chivo, steamed goat head. Rice and beans shine with flavor and glisten with lard, cactus salad is a flavorful counterpoint, and there’s a full range of aguas frescas and soda, American and Mexican. The waitresses are efficient, and occasionally some strolling mariachis make the rounds. —Gary Wiviott

Tamales lo Mejor de Guerrero

7024 N. Clark | 773-338-6450

$

MEXICAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY

Señora Bustamante’s superior, fat corn-husk tamales—chicken or pork, with salsa verde or rojo; heavier bean with cheese or cheese and serrano; and raisin-studded pineapple and strawberry—rule the weekdays, alongside champurrado and arroz con leche and enchiladas for lunch. These fluffy wonders are a different species from most leaden bricks pulled from coolers across the city, and maintain their airy integrity admirably upon resteaming. On weekends the operation goes into high gear, ladling out pozole, menudo, mole with rice, and a selection of less common banana-leaf-wrapped tamales such as the flat, ash-water-boiled tamales de nejos served with mole, tamales Oaxaqueños, sweet tamales de elote, and pyramidal corundas. —Mike Sula

Taqueria la OaxaqueÑa

3382 N. Milwaukee | 773-545-8585

$

MEXICAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: every night till midnight

This tiny family-run taqueria is one of the city’s very few low-budget restaurants specializing in the sophisticated cuisine of Mexico’s Oaxaca state. Regional specialties not found at your neighborhood Taco Borracho are the rule here, specifically a chocolaty house-made mole blanketing chicken and Cornish hens, a rabbit adobado, lots of whole fishes, and cocktails and soups teeming with creatures of the deep. Starters can be simple, like a plate of grilled cactus, onions, and jalapeños, or exaggerated, like a reservoir of melted queso mined with chorizo that can be dolloped onto a hot tortilla to make a convincing pizza. Pan-Mexican standards —tacos, tamales, and tortas—are largely Oaxacan influenced; the three table salsas are made from different chiles, roasted tomatoes, or pumpkin seeds, and chiles rellenos are done with ancho chiles instead of poblanos. Even the signature Torta Oaxaqueña, a towering, grandiloquent Dagwood stacked with cesina and chorizo, is singular. —Mike Sula

Taqueria Traspasada No. 2

1745 W. Chicago | 312-738-0363

$

MEXICAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 3:30, OTHER NIGHTS TILL 1 | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

At this sit-down restaurant from the owners of Taqueria Traspasada, the spicy marinated tacos al pastor, homemade horchata, and roasted-pepper salsa are out of this world. The tacos come garnished with onion and cilantro, the tostadas are light and crunchy, and along with the usual chicken and steak the meat choices include beef brains and tongue. And don’t miss the torta ahogada, or “drowned sandwich,” meat and pickled onions drenched in a hot red sauce. On Saturdays and Sundays menudo and carne en su jugo are available, as is birria, goat, served in consomme or in tacos. —Kathie Bergquist

Xni-Pec

3755 Grand, Brookfield | 708-290-0082

$$

MEXICAN | MONDAY-THURSDAY 4-9 PM, FRIDAY-SATURDAY 2-11 PM | CLOSED SUNDAY

Now relocated from a desolate stretch in Cicero to a busy corner in Brookfield, Xni-Pec aims to enlighten patrons about Yucatecan cuisine while avoiding, in the words of owner Antonio Contreras, becoming “more a museum than a restaurant.” You can get a bowl of guac, sure, but servers always go out of their way to explain the ancestry behind their more distinctive dishes, and the focus is on authentic chow. Contreras and his mother handle the cooking (several dishes are designated “mom’s recipe”), and other family members handle service. Cochinita pibil, slow-roasted pork, is a must for those new to the cuisine; tikin xic is a beautifully prepared fish seasoned with achiote and sour orange, then steamed with vegetables in a banana leaf. Papadzules, tortillas soaked in pumpkin seed sauce, filled with chopped egg, and draped with tomato salsa, are a lightweight dish with lots of flavor. Other plates you won’t find at most other Chicago Mexican spots include pan de cazon, a stack of tacos filled with black beans and baby shark, and Mama Contreras’s proprietary mole rojo. Be sure to ask about off-menu specials like capirotada, a traditional Lenten bread pudding, full of raisins and memorably delicious. —David Hammond