Saturday, July 10, 2010

Big Star

I'd like to tell you all about a place, but to do that I first need to tell you about a man. Pedro Ordonez comes from a family of restaurant owners in Mexico City. After a rough and tumble lifestyle in the D.F., Pedro came to America to attend the University of Illinois. Through a series of events Pedro ended up at the Feinberg School of Medicine, and by a matter of fate happens to now share a lab bench with me for the summer. One day Pedro came into the lab all distraught. Because of how compassionate I am, I asked what was bothering him. You see, Pedro had been dearly missing an authentic taste of home, specifically a Taco Al Pastor. He'd tried place after place and come up with a mouth of empty spices and empty dreams. I told Pedro that I would put it upon myself to find him a proper taco, and that's what leads us to today's post.

When it comes to Tacos Al Pastor, the talk of the town is clearly Big Star. My friend Danny Weiss has been urging me to go there for quite some time now, and I believe he's more well versed on their menu than jokes about the Professor's gchat status. On our adventure for the best taco, Pedro and I were also joined by Maddie, Kim, and Josh. So after work, we set out from different corners of the city to meet at this Wicker Park hot spot.

On Damen and Pierce, right across the street from Lisa's old apartment, there used to be an out of business gas station. That eventually made it's way into a breakfast joint, but now it's the hottest taco stand in the city. There's no sign anywhere, so you need to know where you're going, but it's kind of a large place with a huge crowd at all times. You really can't miss it.

Big Star is open from 4pm till late, and it's busy that whole time. We got there at 5:45 or so and by some chance we got sat at an inside booth within 10 minutes. I've heard that normally, you should expect to wait upwards of an hour some nights to get a table. You can't make reservations, but you can give them your cell phone number and go enjoy walking around Wicker Park while you wait for your table. We ended up being super lucky because just as we got sat indoors it started pouring rain. There's a ton of outdoor seating, and when it started to ran, there was a mass influx of people into the covered bar area and around our table.

One of the reasons the wait might get so long is because people stay at their tables forever (and with good reason). There are so many different tacos to try and so many cheap drinks that you could stay there all night. If you don't get a table, you can always sit at the bar or just stand around the bar with a taco and a beer. So the lesson is that you may have to wait a while for a table, but there are plenty of eating, touring, and drinking options in the meantime. For us, it was a pleasure that we never felt rushed or urged to get up from our seats.

The service was unbelievably fast. Our beers never took much longer than a few minutes, and each time we ordered a taco it came out in under 5 minutes. There was no rush to our service, just impeccable speed. One more option for eating is going to their To Go window and eating at one of the park benches. Since they crank the tacos out so fast, this isn't a bad idea at all if you're in a rush.

The cost is a real highlight of this place. They had $1 beers (7oz), and a long list of other drinks including nicer beers and margaritas. The tacos were all $2-3. Some of the side dishes were $1 as well. You can really stay here to drink and eat all night to your hearts content for $20. Did I mention that this is all cooked by one of Chicago's most popular chefs, Paul Kahan? This is the same guy that runs another JeffEatsChicago favorite, The Publican. Rick Bayless does his Mexican street food at XOCO, and Paul Kahan goes with Big Star. These guys want everyone to enjoy their great flavors, so they're going cheap.

The Food
We started off with some Chips and Salsa because it's an essential for any Mexican dining experience. Unlike Dos Diablos, these were real chips. They tasted like El Ranchero chips which was awesome (you know, the kind in the green bag).  It came with two types of salsa (green and red chile based) which were pretty good, but the highlight was the Chiles Torreados (serrano chiles, onions, and lime). These packed a huge kick and really got our taste buds going. We eventually ordered a Chips and Guacamole as well. The guac was fresh and had a nice balance of lime and herbs while maintaining a rustic look that let us know it was made to order. A final side to begin with were the pickled onions, which turned out to be pretty much good on everything.

Chips, Salsas, and Chiles Torreados

Chips, Guacamole, and Pickled Onions

For our meals we basically all ordered a bunch of tacos. The Taco Al Pastor, which is supposedly the greatest thing there, was delicious, but the table's overall opinion was that the flavors were a little too sweet. Still it was very tender and juicy. The Tacos de Borrego (lamb) came out incredibly moist and scrumptious. Plus each taco came with it's own cup of jus for dipping (and drinking). The favorite taco of the night for everyone was the Taco de Panza (pork belly). The spicy kick and amazingly well cooked meat were the highlights that made many of us ask for another. I personally liked the Taco de Rajas de Poblano (cheese and poblano peppers). It was like eating a spicy creamed spinach taco but better. Josh was a big fan of the Tostada de Pollo (chicken) and the nice grilled flavor that came with it. The Tostada de Pescado (fish) wasn't quite as good as the one from Carbon at the Taste, but it was pretty close. The fish was light and properly cooked, and the sauces complimented it nicely. For both of the tostadas, I would've preferred if they were tacos since the crispy shell was hard to handle without making a huge mess. The special of the day was a Tostada de Nopale (cactus) which I'd been dying to try. This however was a little disappointing. As Josh put it best, "it tasted like a petting zoo." You know that smell, well that's how it tasted. Still it was one small bump in an amazing meal. Finally, Kim ordered the Frijoles Charros (stew of beans and bacon), which she seemed pretty fond of.

 Tostada de Pescado

Tostada de Pollo

Tostada de Nopale

Taco de Rajas de Poblano

Taco de Panza

Taco al Pastor

Frijoles Charros

I once heard someone ask Rick Bayless if he's trying to do authentic Mexican cuisine. He made it very clear that he's trying to do authentic Mexican dishes, but he wants you to still realize you're in Chicago. Paul Kahan does very much the same thing here by incorporating local ingredients with an authentic flare. As far as Pedro's concerned, it wasn't perfectly authentic (so the journey continues), but it was pretty close. His favorite was definitely the Taco de Panza.

Really besides one or two dishes that were so so, this place was the perfect taco bar. We stayed there for a few hours just eating tacos and drinking $1 beers. We probably could've stayed all night. I'm giving Big Star 4.5 out of 5 Pearls.

Big Star on Urbanspoon


  1. I must say that I am amazed that you get through an entire post on a restaurant in Wicker Park without once mentioning hipsters. Considering your deep-seated aversion to the type (see Crust post) and your automatic pairing of Wicker Park with hipsters (See Feast post) AND the fact that many of the patrons and all of the waitresses appeared to be hipsters, this was quite a feat. Perhaps the food, alcohol and ambiance were so intoxicating that you didn't even realize that you were dining in hostile territory.

  2. Alright, so we definitely had to travel through a jungle of hipsters to get to Big Star. If any of you have seen the South Park episode where Cartman has to drill through a crowd of hippies, it was kind of like that. However, as you alluded to, there was just too much else to talk about. The food, drinks, and service were so good that even the boldest pair of glasses and skinniest pair of male jeans couldn't have interfered.


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