Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Portillo's

Location: 100 W. Ontario St.
Cost: Normally less than $10 per person, but for our feast it came to $15

Passover finally ended, and a feast was in order. I know I was talking about how great it usually is to end the holiday with some Lou Malnati's pizza, but I was in the mood for another Chicago classic... Portillo's. Portillo's has always been a big pig out spot for me. Back when I went to overnight camp (Camp Chi) during the summers, the buses would conveniently return us home at a spot across the street from Portillo's (Arlington Heights location). In high school, when we were finally allowed to drive off campus for food we'd hit up the Vernon Hills location all the time. The point is that I've had a ton of Portillo's, but I hadn't had any since starting JEC. I'd discussed so many hot dogs, italian beef sandwiches, and french fries, but I hadn't talked about a standard that you can get throughout pretty much all of the Chicago land area.

So last night the Bulls and Blackhawks were on TV, and instead of going to a bar to watch we decided to stay in. It just so happens that Ricky works down the street from the River North Portillo's. So he picked it up on his way home from work.

Logistics
Each Portillo's is a pretty large building with an order at the counter and take a number set up. It can be pretty hit or miss on how busy things are, but it's usually pretty packed at lunch time. They're all about efficiency though (people taking your order while you wait in line, lots of employees on busy shifts), so it's usually doable in your lunch hour. They do a big drive-thru business as well. I'd say the worst of these drive-thrus is at the River North location where you basically have to drive through a back alley near the the restaurant.

The cost is cheap. You can get a hot dog for $2.35, italian beef for $4.65, a large salad for $7, a large milkshake for $2.99, a large fry for $1.85, and a slice of chocolate cake for $2.40.

The Food
So I'll get started with the salad. You've got to go for the Chopped Salad at Portillo's. Its strong suits are the Gorgonzola cheese, pasta, tender chicken bites, and a fantastic house dressing. It's right up there with the Malnati salad and the Wildfire Chopped Salad in my book.

The Chopped Salad

Each of us then proceeded to order an Italian Beef Sandwich, Chicago Style Hot Dog, and Fries. With the beef, I'd call it a mix between Al's and Mr. Beef style. My buddy Steve Bacalar says this is his favorite I-beef in the city, but I think it's still below Al's. In general it's meatier than Al's, not as meaty as Mr. Beef, but the meat has more seasoning than Mr. Beef. The giardiniera is a little plain, but the sweet peppers made up for it. The gravy could use a bit more flavoring, but I'm just getting picky at this point (obviously I liked the gravy enough to get my sandwich dipped). Hot dog is pretty standard. The casing had a nice snap (+1 point), but the bun always seems to get a bit soggy (-1 point). The fries are also pretty basic crinkle cut guys. They go kind of heavy on the salt for my taste.

 The Chicago Style Hot Dog

 The French Fries

The Dipped Italian Beef
(Sorry that it doesn't look so good, but it's soaking in gravy! In a good way though) 

I'm still up in the air about the Milkshakes at Portillo's. It could be a little thicker, and there's always a bunch of chocolate syrup that hasn't been mixed in well enough sitting at the bottom. Still, it's cheap, huge, and pretty tasty. Now the Chocolate Cake at Portillo's can't be beat. It's often overlooked because you usually don't have room for dessert. My family always used to get Dairy Queen ice cream cakes for birthdays, but the Portillo's chocolate cake has nudged those out more recently. It's never too dry, and the frosting isn't overbearing to the cake.

The Chocolate Milkshake

 The Chocolate Cake

Overall
I wouldn't call Portillo's a gold standard for hot dogs, fries, or I-beef, but I would say that it's a consistently good option all across Chicago land. They have some "surprise" dishes that will blow you away in the Chopped Salad and Chocolate Cake, while you can't really go wrong with a dog or beef. I'm giving Portillo's 3.5 out of 5 Pearls.


Addendum
I've recently gone to the Vernon Hills location for Portillo's. It's spot on the same. They do a great job of handling crowds and I wolfed down a lovely salad and I-Beef. I know it's a chain and all, but they set a pretty good standard for other places trying to make classic Chicago dishes.

Addendum
I just went to the location in Buffalo Grove / Arlington Heights. I went for the salad this time and split a hot dog and fries with my sister. It's the same place with a slightly smaller layout and a seemingly endless drive through line. 


Portillo's Hot Dogs (Chicago) on Urbanspoon
Portillo's (Vernon Hills) on Urbanspoon
Portillo's on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Maggiano's Little Italy

Location: 516 N Clark St.
Cost: Typical Dine in Cost is near $20 per person (our case where we catered in ran closer to $7 per person)

My med school is split up into 4 colleges. This is basically a simple way of dividing up the whole class for when smaller sessions are necessary. Additionally, each college has a mentor (Dr. Golden in my case) and holds events. We've done some pretty cool stuff like going to bulls games and live airings of Wait Wait Don't Tell Me. On top of that we sometimes have a lunch get together in the middle of a busy day of classes. So the other day, our college's senator, I'll just call her Knuckles, had lunch catered in from Maggiano's.

I've also been to the restaurant itself a bunch of times, but I'm going to focus more on this meal. It's been a while since I've gone in, and this may be a more accurate portrayal.

Logistics
I never realized that we'd get so many catered lunches in medical school. You'd think it's rather hypocritical to learn about healthy behaviors and then get restaurant food on a rather regular basis (at least twice per week [and yes I realize the equal to or greater hypocrisy of my blog]). Either way, I've been able to see good and bad catered lunches enough to criticize them knowledgeably.

The delivery was a little late (about 10 minutes [ref. Maddie Jones]). It's not that big a deal to be late, but there is a certain allure to walking into a room filled with smells of Italian goodness. The food was delivered hot. Also, they had a typical red checkered table cloth to serve on which was a gimmicky added bonus.

I think the overall event cost less than $200 and served around 30 people. If you dine in, they have a pretty sweet deal. If you get a classic pasta dish for $12.95 they give you a whole other serving to take home automatically. I'm not saying it's amazing (since pasta is pretty cheap), but it is a lot of food for not much money.

The Food
Our order included some Parmesan Garlic Bread, Gnocchi in Tomato and Vodka Sauce, and Chicken Pesto Linguine. The garlic bread was crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and excessively buttery. It had all of the flavors and textures in order, but I think it went a little overboard with the butter. The Gnocchi was practically gone by the time I got to it. It didn't seem homemade, but I wouldn't expect it to be, especially with a large catering order. The sauce was really tasty with a creaminess and tangy kick. The gnocchi itself was a bit tough but at least not super mushy like at Coco Pazzo. I was very impressed that the chicken in the Chicken Pesto Linguine wasn't overcooked (which is a common pitfall for large catering dishes with chicken). There could have been a better chicken to pasta ratio though. The linguine wasn't anything special, but the pine nuts added a good crunch and flavor to a few lucky bites. The pesto was a bit heavy on the cheese and oil. Still, a big unhealthy pasta dish can be done in the right way, which I think was the case here.

The Parmesan Garlic Bread

The Gnocchi with Tomato and Vodka Sauce

The Chicken Pesto Linguine

Overall
Maggiano's to me is a pretty standard Italian restaurant with big, bold flavors and large portions. There is a factor of overdoing the sauciness or oiliness of dishes that bugs me though. Still, I usually end up eating way past my hearts content, and every time I've eaten there it's been an overall good experience. Consistency is definitely a strong point here. I'm giving them 3 out of 5 Pearls.


I'd also like to throw a special "thanks / mad props / you're awesome" to Knuckles for putting this meal together.

Maggiano's Little Italy on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Lou Malnati's

Locations: 439 N Wells (Chicago) and 85 S. Buffalo Grove Road (Buffalo Grove)
Cost: Around $10 per person

So it's passover right now, and I've had a post waiting to be written for just this time. Some of you may think it's a bit evil of me to write about pizza while you're stuck with the matzo equivalent, but my family always loved going to Lou Malnati's the second we were allowed to eat chametz again. For that matter, my history with Lou's goes way back. Lou's is where I learned how to eat pizza with a fork and knife. It's also where I learned that unscrewing the top of the parmesan cheese before passing it can be very funny (and that doing the same with the red pepper flakes doesn't have the same effect). For this post though, I'll focus on my two most recent experiences.

Lou's has a bunch of locations around the city, and for Ricky's birthday we ordered it in. A little while after that, my cousins (Jeff, Annie, Nathan, and Daniel) came in town, and we went to the big location in Buffalo Grove. I'll mention a bit about both.

Finally, before I really get rolling, I'd like to say something about the "best pizza" debate in Chicago. I like Lou's, Gino's and Giordano's. I think they're all delicious, but in the same way that deep dish is unique, each one of these places has their unique strengths. There's a type of pizza I would order at each, and I can see why people have their preferences. For those that like whole tomatoes, Lou's is the clear choice. Giordano's fans seem to go for a doughy, cheesier pie, and Gino's fanatics love that cornmeal crust. That being said, I was raised on Lou's and am probably biased that way in the debate (but I'm not going to put down the other places in my efforts to proclaim deliciousness).

Logistics
Delivery
Somehow, even though we live 2 blocks away from the location in Lincoln Park, I kept getting passed around from place to place while they claimed that we weren't in their delivery zone. Oddly enough the spot in River North ended up covering our territory. I was a bit perturbed by the phone calls, but the pizza came quickly and was piping hot. There's not too excessive of a delivery fee either.

Dine In
The Lou's in Buffalo Grove is gigantic. The building is a landmark, and the walls are covered with valuable sports memorabilia. There's always a crowd, and the only thing you can really do to speed up the process is to call in your pizza order ahead of time. Sometimes they're nice and put out appetizers to keep the crowd from revolting. It should be noted that the parking lot is a battlefield. I was going for a spot when an older lady (probably late 70s), honked, flipped me off, and took it for herself. It was just too funny for me to get mad though.

The service is always solid, and we've experienced every setting from small parties of 2 to large banquets of 40. They're great at accommodating, but it's always awkward in my mind about who should serve the pizza. They leave it on little stands by your table. If the server is around and sees that your plate is empty, they'll grab you another slice, but there's always a moment when you're not sure whether or not to get it yourself. Ultimately, I've learned not to hesitate when getting the next slice.

The pizza is fairly priced, and probably on average with most other deep dish places. A large pie that will stuff 4 people runs close to $20 with some toppings. They also have a family sized Malnati salad for $10.25 which is usually the appetizer of choice.

The Food
Like I was saying, we started off both meals (delivery and dine in) with the Malnati Salad. It's a bed of romaine lettuce with tomatoes, olives, gorgonzola cheese, roasted salami, and mushrooms. It comes with a house dressing that is unbelievably tasty (kind of a sweet italian), but I always ask for the 1000 Island dressing on the side. It's by far my favorite salad dressing at any restaurant (I've even been known to dip my pizza in it [don't knock it till you try it]). We always go for either the Lou or the Malnati Chicago Classic pizza. The Lou comes with spinach, mushroom, sliced tomatoes, and three cheeses. For a veggie pizza this may be as good as they come (I'm also a big fan of Edwardo's spinach). The Malnati Chicago Classic is basically a sausage pie, but it's not just crumbles of sausage, you get a patty made into a whole layer. This is the keynote of the menu. All of their pies come with a buttery crust and relatively whole chunks of tomato on top. The crust is thick and flaky while the tomatoes provide a unique freshness that other paste based sauces don't. There's enough cheese for me, but not nearly enough to congeal into a large hunk like some people prefer. I think a fair way to put this is that there's always some strings of cheese pulling when you try to serve the pizza, but they're always manageable with a little pull or swipe of the spatula. The veggies on the Lou are well balanced, and the cheeses contribute a nice savory blend of flavors. The sausage has a spicy bite and a ton of juiciness. The one thing to watch out for at Lou Malnati's is an undercooked crust if they're really busy (which is often). The simple way to get around this is asking for your pizza a little more on the done side.

 The Lou

  The Malnati Salad

 The Malnati Chicago Classic
(sorry about the glare, it was dark in the restaurant and this was the best I could do)

Overall
When I think deep dish pizza, my first thought is Lou Malnati's. Much like when I wrote about Walker Brothers, I felt like I couldn't tell much new information to those that have been in Chicago for at least a little while. Still, many of my readers are recent transplants to the area and need to know how amazing the pizza is. I've had it so many times that I can say it's some of the best around, but I also can't say it's perfect. I'm giving Lou's 4.5 out of 5 Pearls.


To those of you celebrating Passover, I wish you a Chag Sameach and strongly suggest hitting up Lou's when leavened bread is an option again.

Addendum
After writing this post I went to the Lou Malnati's in the South Loop at 805 S State. It's probably a bit more difficult logistically. They don't have a full bar, and the seating isn't as expansive as the BG location.The lines are just as difficult as the other spots too. Still, the pizza and salads are consistently fantastic. You can expect the same great service and food as the other spots.

Lou Malnati's Pizzeria (River North) on Urbanspoon
Lou Malnati's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon
Lou Malnati's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Capt'n Nemo's

Location: 3650 N. Ashland
Cost: $6.50 per person

When I was a little kid, and my family was going to a Cubs game, we always got together with my friend Ian and his family beforehand to go to Capt'n Nemo's. Our dads had seemingly discovered the best sub sandwich place ever. Being a little kid, I had no appreciation for these wonderful sandwiches, but one day they built an outpost in Buffalo Grove (which now has closed). Not only was it delicious but it had the best deal ever, the 5-5-5 deal ($5.55 for 5 things [sandwich, chips, drink, cookie, soup]). Another key bit of information on the old BG Capt'n Nemo's was that it was exactly the right distance from our high school so that we could speed on our lunch break and call in an order so that we could make it back just in time for next period.

So last weekend was Ian's birthday, and I thought that there'd be no better way to celebrate than by the two of us grabbing a sandwich at the Lakeview/Wrigleyville Capt'n Nemo's.

Logistics
Nemo's locations have a pretty distinctive look. It's an order at the counter set up that you might expect at most sub shops. The best part is how they've decorated the seats. Instead of regular backs to your booth, they have famous caricatures painted on. We chose the Chicago sports themed booth. As far as the line goes, you probably won't have to wait very long unless it's right before a cubs game.


The deal isn't necessarily as good as the one they used to run in my home town, but it's still above average. For $6.29 you get a sandwich, drink, and cup of soup. Plus, if you pay with cash they give you a 7% discount. Also, everyone gets a free sample of soup while looking over the menu.

The Food
For our free soup samples, Ian and I chose the Turkey Chili. I know it was just a sample, but it was a large enough sample for Ian to buy a quart to take home. It's on the thicker side and has large chunks of beans and turkey. We both got the special with the Split Pea Soup. They may have the best vegetarian split pea soup around. It's not too runny or mushy like many split pea soups can be, and the seasonings are just right.

The Turkey Chili

 The Split Pea Soup

Ian ordered the Super Cheese with swiss, brick, provolne, muenster, american, lettuce, tomato, onion, and the Captain's Secret Sauce. I ordered the Seafarer (tuna salad, brick cheese, hard boiled eggs, mayo, lettuce, tomato, onion, and the Captain's Secret Sauce). The first thing to say about their sandwiches is that they use an unbelievable bread. It's got a crunch without too much toasting, and there's a ton of substance. Ian's was literally overloaded with cheese, which I think was what he wanted. He also got extra secret sauce which is a red vinegary kind of sauce that ads a nice special flavor to all of their sandwiches. The Seafarer is the gold standard of tuna sandwiches. I love the inclusion of the hard boiled egg, and their tuna doesn't fall into the common pitfall of too much mayo. The cheese comes in thick slices too.

The Super Cheese

 The Seafarer

Overall
Capt'n Nemo's consistently provides patrons with loaded sandwiches and classic soups. You never feel shortchanged after eating one of these subs. The only problem they ever have is if the sandwiches are too overloaded with a particular ingredient and slightly out of balance. Typically I get perfection. I'm giving them 4.5 out of 5 Pearls.


Capt'n Nemo's on Urbanspoon
Capt'n Nemo's on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mastro's Steakhouse

Location: 520 N. Dearborn
Cost: $85 per person

Disclaimer to the DISCLAIMER (the only thing written by Jeff Pearl on this post)
My roommate, Jeff Schneider, eats a lot of (and is very knowledgeable about) steak. He also has a job. These two things give him a unique advantage over myself in the steakhouse critiquing department. He's well versed on the topic and has eaten a plethora of meals at my side. So far, he's been a pivotal behind the scenes contributor to JEC, and he's now taken the opportunity to write a post. This first bit about me having any standards may be a bit much, but it's a solid post. I look forward to more of the like in the future.

DISCLAIMER!!!!

First and foremost, I’d like to thank future Dr. Pearl for allowing me the opportunity to guest star on his renowned blog.  I have stated many times that I would like to write a post for the site but was always intimidated due the standard of excellence my roommate never fails to meet.  For all that aren’t aware, Jeff takes this page incredibly seriously and it without a doubt shows.  We have grown accustomed to his extremely well written, articulate, fair, entertaining, and informative posts.  So for those reasons and more, I was always reluctant to add my two cents because the last thing I want to do is sully the reputation he has deservedly achieved.  With that being said, this post is written by Jeff Schneider and all opinions, descriptions, rankings, and insight should be credited to me (plus I know more about fine steakhouses than Pearl).  Here goes nothing...

(Writing style inspired by Jeff Eats Chicago successfully established template)

Randi “Silverfox” Schneider and David Schneider recently celebrated 33 blissful(ish) years of matrimony. This happy, aged couple always marks their anniversary by taking their children Jamie (University of Wisconsin, 2006) and Jeff (University of Wisconsin, 2009) out for a special meal.  Joining us was recent New Jersey transplant, boyfriend to Jamie, and Pledge Master to Jeff, David Fintz.  Now, the Schneiders love them some great steak and fish places.  We have been to all the great ones that our fine city has to offer (Joes, Chicago Chop House, Wildfire, Mortons, Gibsons, etc), so naturally we had to see what all the rage was over the trendy, Jay Cutler approved Mastro's.

Logistics
Mastros is located conveniently in the heart of River North.  The service and hospitality are second to none.  When we checked in, they wished my parents a happy anniversary (how did they know considering I made the reservation and didn’t say a word, stay tuned...).  They were extremely accommodating when we asked to be moved from our somewhat sandwiched in table to a much more spacious booth.  Our glasses were always full (a critical factor in any JEC critique), and the waitress gave us excellent suggestions when prompted.  Furthermore, they brought out two glasses of champagne for my parents (resolution to aforementioned mystery:  My Grandmother called ahead and informed them of the special occasion).  Price wise, expect to spend around $80-$90 per person (2-3 drinks per person factored into this price).

Appetizers
We started with two appetizers for the table, shrimp cocktail and tuna tartare.  The presentation of the shrimp was truly something none of us had ever seen before.  The three prawns came out on dry ice so needless to say the mist made for quite the visual spectacle.  Even the patrons at the surrounding tables stopped their meals and conversations to take in the sight.  The shrimp were not only incredibly large but fresh, colder than usual (thanks to the dry ice), and quite tasty.  The tuna tartare, however, was a tad bit disappointing due to the fact that tuna was lost in the dish.  The avocado and the crunchy bottom crust dominated and overwhelmed the fish.  Don’t get me wrong, we all thought it was quite tasty, but again, all would have liked to get more of a tuna flavor.

The Shrimp Cocktail

The Ahi Tuna Tartare


Main Course and Sides
The three manly men all got steaks while the ladies opted for fish.  My father went with the bone-in ribeye, Fintz got the bone-in filet (described to us as Mastros signature cut), and I decided on the porterhouse.  My mother got the salmon, and my sister ordered the blackened swordfish.  For sides, we split the lobster mashed potatoes, sweet potato mash, broccoli, and sauteed spinach.  The biggest overall problem that I found with the proteins was the way they were served.  The plates come out at 400ยบ F which in concept is cool, but we all found our dishes to be over/unevenly cooked.  For instance, I ordered my steak medium rare, but got something closer to medium-medium well (especially on the bottom of the steak and at the edges that were in direct contact with the plate).  The same was true for the fish, with the top being flaky and the bottom being somewhat dried out.  Furthermore, I found the meat to be somewhat tough and the strip side of my porterhouse to be fattier than usual.  As far as the sides, the two potato dishes had a strange, unpleasant aftertaste that none of us could really pinpoint to a specific seasoning.  The veggies were nothing special.  For dessert (and final touch of class) Mastros provided the table with a special triple layer chocolate cake to honor my parents anniversary.  The cake was very rich and quite possibly my favorite component of the entire meal.

The Blackened Salmon

The Swordfish

The Porterhouse with Sides
(Sweet Potato Mash, Lobster Mashed Potatoes, and Sauteed Spinach) 

The Triple Layer Chocolate Cake


Overall
When I rate any steakhouse (and for that matter any specific genre of food) I find myself comparing to my favorites.  My Mount Rushmore includes Joes, Wildfire, Mortons, and Chicago Chop House.  Mastros did not come close.  I found myself walking out disappointed after all the rave reviews I’ve heard from others who have been.  Perhaps I had built it up too much, perhaps I was being overly critical in order to do this fine blog (and more importantly Pearl) justice, but for me Mastros doesn’t rank up there with Chicago’s elite steakhouses.  The overall consensus was 3 pearls out of 5.  Why you may ask considering the food didn’t live up to the hype?  Well, the service and atmosphere were spot on.  The staff go above and beyond to ensure a first class dining experience.  Once again, I’d like to thank Pearl for letting me do my thing.  Have your dogs spayed or neutered.


Mastro's on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Coco Pazzo

Location: 300 W. Hubbard St.
Cost: $40 per person

A few weeks ago the med students (myself included) got an interesting email from the law students. Supposedly there's a new initiative to promote diversity among the law students, and they got some funding to bask in said diversity over a series of dinners. Ideally students would trade stories about cultural backgrounds and get some free food in the process. Generously they extended the chance to attend to the med students. I quickly responded and was chosen to attend a dinner at Coco Pazzo.

Logistics
Coco Pazzo was probably one huge room at a time, but now it's separated into small seating areas by a variety of hanging curtains. The interior has a nice wooden design that feeds well into the upscale Italian dining setting they're trying to portray. We went on a Wednesday night and had a reservation, but I don't think that was essential. You may need to call ahead on the weekends, but otherwise walking in is probably fine.

The service was a little odd since two waiters split our table in half. The check was somewhat of a mess, but my glass stayed full, and all of the food came out in a timely fashion.

It's on the pricier side for sure at Coco Pazzo. Appetizers were in the $10 range, pasta dishes were all right under $20, and entrees ranged from $25-40. Portion size was variable with one of the largest pork chops I've ever seen and a somewhat smaller gnocchi dish for example.

The Food
The first thing we got was a gift from the kitchen which was a plate of some kind of flat bread with tomatoes. I'm not really sure what to think because the texture was mushy, but the flavors were all sharp. I got the Ribollita for an appetizer. It's basically a Tuscan vegetable and bread soup. Typically I crunch up a bunch of saltines in most of my soup, but being a ribollita this kind of came as I like it. The broth was thick, and there were a ton of vegetables. One of the guys next to me ordered the Risotto to start. It was creamy, but the grains were a bit tough, and neither of us were that impressed.

The Bread and Tomato Creation

The Risotto

 The Ribollita

For my main dish I got the Gnocchi with Boar Ragu. The gnocchi was a textural mess. There was no firmness at all, and some of the bites felt a bit like a starchy mush. Thankfully, the ragu saved the dish. It was savory, heavy on the meat, and not too gamey. I also got to try the Seafood Stew. The broth was heavily aromatic, rich, and spicy. The scallops and shrimp were cooked properly as well. I also snagged some pics of the Pork and Lamb Chops, but I didn't get a chance to taste.

The Pork Chop

The Seafood Stew

The Gnocchi with Boar Ragu

 The Lamb Chops

Overall
Coco Pazzo offers up somewhat high end Tuscan food that I'm not sure lives up to the price. I don't think I'll be going back any time soon, but there are enough positives and negatives in my mind to make me consider this an average locale. I'm giving Coco Pazzo 2.5 out of 5 Pearls.


Coco Pazzo on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Barrio Urban Taqueria

Location: 714 W. Diversey
Cost: $23 per person

It was DWeiss's birthday the other week, and a dinner was arranged. The plan was to get some dinner and then head over to Kirkwood to meet up with one of his friends who was also celebrating her birthday. Interestingly enough the other part of this birthday extravaganza planned their dinner at the same place as us, Barrio Urban Taqueria. We had quite the crew with us for dinner including the Professor, Spector, Frey, Raffe, Kacy, Pustilnik, Yelin, and JEC's biggest fan Jason Weil.

Logistics
The layout of Barrio was rather interesting. It's basically one large oddly shaped room with a somewhat misplaced bar that unevenly divides things. They have some TVs but a rather odd number which leaves many people without a view (important to us since the Blackhawks and Bulls were playing [although it's not like we chose a sports bar for dinner so I don't know how fair this complaint is]). More interestingly they seemed very inefficient in serving customers. There was quite a crowd waiting and lots of empty space in the restaurant which I quickly realized was due to the lack of tables and chairs in their possession. Multiple times I saw them ask to take extra chairs away from table that weren't using them (not a huge deal, but kind of weird).

The service was pretty good, and the waitress went through all of the obnoxious troubles of serving a large group with multiple forms of payment. They also have some guy bring a cart over to your table to make guac. It reminded me of the spinner salad presentation at Don Roth's only without any flare.

The cost was pretty good. Most people got tacos which come with 4 of your choice for $10. It was plenty of food for that price. The other entrees weren't much more either as far as cost was concerned.

The Food
So we started with some chips with Guacamole and Salsa. The salsa was pretty mediocre but more importantly the texture was too much of a paste. Someone (not placing any blame) asked for the guac to not be too spicy, and we ended up with a bunch of mashed avocados. It was pretty disappointing flavor wise, but at least there was a lot of it (unlike at Dos Diablos). Most of us got a Margarita as well. They were heavy on the sugar and rather light on the alcohol.

The Guacamole

 The Margarita

Like I said before, the majority of people got some selection of Tacos (Skirt Steak, Carnitas, Tongue, Grilled Fish, Battered Fish, Chicken, Shrimp, or Vegetarian). The universal opinion of the tacos were that they were kind of bland. Everyone appreciated that you could mix and match rather than order some set combination of 4 tacos like at Mercadito, but this didn't make up for the absence of flavor. DWeiss said that the carnitas taco was the best. Specs and the Professor ordered Shrimp and Scallop Fajitas. They were both bothered by how small the scallops were as well as that they had to remove the shrimp tails themselves (not being a big shrimp eater, I'm having difficulty figuring out whether or not that's high maintenance). I got the Lomo de Res Arbol. It was basically sauteed beef in a spicy chili sauce. I was warned that it was spicy and didn't worry that I could handle it, but the flavor wasn't worth battling the spice. The meat was a bit overdone and there wasn't anything else to the dish. Also, the beans on the side seem to be straight from a can (or at least of that quality [not that canned beans are that bad, they're just not special]). Also, the rice is just plain with some peas and corn and not the yellow Mexican rice you'd expect. Possibly most surprising about my dish and the fajitas was how much empty space they left on the plate (there was plenty of food, but they need smaller plates).

 The Taco Platter

The Lomo

 The Shrimp and Scallops Fajitas

Overall
There's really no reason to rush to Barrio Urban Taqueria. It's just slightly sub par across the board, and there are so many better options for tacos in Chicago (like Big Star). I'm giving them 2 out of 5 Pearls.


Barrio Urban Taqueria on Urbanspoon