Despite Pilsen’s claims to the crown, the best Mexican food in Chicago can be found within the confines of Little Village—which makes a trip to Riot Fest a good opportunity to pair its abundance of music with the Douglas Park area’s wealth of restaurants and food vendors. Though the fest doesn’t allow reentry, you can make time to dig in before or after your visit—and in doing so, you’ll directly support the community that’s giving up its regular Sunday futbol matches in order to host your favorite bands.
La Chaparrita Grocery
2500 S. Whipple
Fri-Sat 11 AM-11 PM, Sun 11 AM-10 PM
A taco at La Chaparrita is like a religious experience. The taquero baptizes the tiny shop’s piping hot charola with salty, fatty stew broth before adorning it with tortillas. The white corn blankets become softer and more flavorful as they convene with the blessed griddle, making perfect cradles for expertly seasoned grilled, roasted, and steamed meats sprinkled with onions and cilantro. With the first bite, you’ll be born again, and eating any other tacos will feel like blasphemy. If your server (likely part of the family that runs this mom-and-pop operation) asks if you want grilled onions, say yes—La Chaparritas’s cebollitas melt in your mouth. Required fillings include tripe (ordered crispy) and al pastor (ordered with cilantro, onions, and pineapple). If you like, add a generous squeeze of cool avocado salsa or smoky, fiery salsa roja, a specialty of the shop. Beverages include tepache (spiced, fermented pineapple water) or not-too-sweet horchata.
Taqueria El Milagro
3050 W. 26th
Fri-Sun 7 AM-7 PM
If breakfast or early lunch is in order, this is a great spot. The restaurant runs school-cafeteria style, so that you can see everything before you make your choices: a scoop of chilaquiles verde, a chile relleno, or any of a wide variety of moist, steaming tamales (rajas are excellent) with sides of rice, beans, and cabbage salad. Stewed chicken and shredded, stewed pork also rank high on the menu. Eating at Milagro means mingling with the multigenerational families of Little Village (especially on Sunday mornings), and the cheery dining room holds enough large tables to accommodate big groups. And yes, it’s also the place whose neighboring tortilleria cranks out the thick, salty tortilla chips and ten-packs of corn and flour tortillas you see at grocery stores. Take some with you to go, fresh off the line.
La Michoakana Golden
3125 W. 26th
Fri-Sun 11 AM-10 PM
This Mexican sweet shop makes all its paletas, ice creams, and fruit gazpachos in-house, and the portions are generous for the price. The ice cream (in flavors such as coconut, Nutella, cucumber, and pineapple) rivals some of the city’s best gelato in texture and taste. The paletas are silky and flavor forward—try the strawberries and cream, made from a fresh sweet cream base with sliced strawberries lining each side. The giant chopped-fruit gazpachos are traditionally served with sweet-and-tangy chamoy syrup, and you can also get the whole thing sandwiched with ice cream. The shop sells drinks too, among them mangonada—chilled and diced mango with that same syrup and layers of lime juice and chile, served with a straw wrapped in tamarind.
Doña Torta Mexican Restaurant
3331 W. 26th
Fri-Sun 8 AM-9 PM
The giant tortas at this neighborhood spot are the stuff of Guy Fieri’s dreams. It’s a good thing that he hasn’t discovered them, because a photo of his porcupine coif would look mighty out of place among all the futbol jerseys on the walls of Doña Torta’s small dining room. Given that the sandwiches are nearly as big around as their plates and generously stuffed with fillings (the Bomba includes breaded steak, sliced sausage, cheese, pineapple, and avocado), you’re unlikely to feel like trifling with the handful of fries on the side. But you might want to wash down one of these monsters with a refreshing fruit water, made in-house.
3936 W. 31st
Fri-Sun 6 AM-10 PM
Another great breakfast option is this healthy Mexican spot, which has been in the neighborhood for decades. It offers many vegetarian soy-meat options in addition to traditional fare such as carne asada and posole. Thick house-made corn tortillas enhanced by chia seeds make for surprisingly airy quesadillas, and the fresh-pressed juice combinations and light fruit salads will leave you feeling energized and ready to brave a festival crowd.
La Casa de Samuel
2834 W. Cermak
Fri-Sat 8 AM-1 AM, Sun 8 AM-11 PM
A stone’s throw from the park, this popular spot proudly serves exotic meats such as wild boar, alligator, and rattlesnake, which are unusually chewy but not otherwise all that strange. If you’re pinching pennies, it’s better to stick with classics: tacos and quesadillas on homemade tortillas, heaping plates of fajitas, ceviche, and margaritas (in lime, strawberry, mango, and banana). Live mariachi bands often play for Sunday brunch, but plan ahead—the line can get long.
2200 S. California
Fri-Sat 8 AM-2 AM, Sun 8 AM-midnight
This family-owned chain follows a “bigger is better” philosophy, and its original location at California and Cermak would be a fine spot to sip a giant frozen margarita and nosh on chips, salsa, guacamole, and pickled vegetables after a long day in the park. You can pick from standbys such as tacos, tortas, and tostadas as well as giant platillos heaped with seasoned steak and seafood. If you’re up early and need a bit of the hair of the dog, stop in for the full Mexican breakfast menu and have a michelada. Note: The kitchen piles shredded cheese on almost everything, so if that’s not your thing, speak up when you order.
Lagunitas Tap Room
2607 W. 17th
Fri-Sun noon-9 PM
Lagunitas definitely isn’t locally owned, but the California-based brewer’s Chicago outpost is mere blocks from the Riot Fest grounds. Why not pop in and try a few quality beers? The tap room serves bar food too, but there’s no reason to bother when you could take a short walk and eat the best tacos of your life.
The Tamale Lady of Cermak
Cermak just west of Marshall
Hours: Keep your eyes peeled
The Tamale Lady of Cermak is a revered neighborhood figure who sells incredible homemade tamales (and decent hot coffee) on apparently random mornings throughout the week. Look for her until about 11 AM. Once you’ve handed over your dollars, you can post up on beautiful Marshall Boulevard with fare that blows the blue-cooler and red-cooler guys out of the water. She’s so beloved that someone has even created an Instagram geotag for her: “Tamale Lady on Marshall Blvd.” v