Sky Full of Bacon

So You Wanna Be a Big Star

In a city with one trillion taco joints, it takes something special to get attention for a new one. I expect if Oprah opened one, if Roger Ebert was slicing the pastor off the cone, if Scott Turow was sprinking the cilantro on your tortilla, they could get attention denied to the opening of El Taco Muy Bien Caliente #2 on Cicero just south of Diversey, and likewise, when Paul Kahan, award-winning chef, and Donnie Madia, a restaurant entrepreneur so super-powered he rescues construction workers from certain death, open a taco joint, well, you may have read something about it.

As it happens, I came to Big Star last night after a few weeks of trying close to a dozen different utterly obscure, authentic taco joints around town. And so I have two very different reactions to it. The crowd there seemed ecstatic, and I think if your frame of reference is that here’s a space that used to be the utterly forgettable Pontiac Cafe, and it’s located in an area which has more than its fair share of stupid bad restaurants for young people with more capacity for alcohol than taste, then Big Star has a lot going for it. Taken as a bar, which could just as easily be serving chicken nugblets and potato skinks, you can’t argue with a plate of reasonably tasty tacos on fresh-made tortillas for a couple of bucks each. You can quibble— things were never quite warm, even though we were within arm’s reach of the kitchen; I don’t know why radish slices have to come on everything, their cool wet crunch damping down the savory warmth of a taco full of meat; there’s a reason why Mexican restaurants always put your meat on two tortillas, which will be quickly revealed— but you can’t really argue with the appeal, given that the prices could easily be double what a typical Mexican taqueria charges, and instead they’re at par (albeit everything’s smaller than it would be in a Mexican place). If I had to go to a bar like this with somebody, this is certainly one I’d consider, and feel that I’d shown off an interesting aspect of our culinary scene, and not gotten hosed pricewise.

Taken as a Mexican restaurant, though, in a city with a pretty high bar for gringos offering artisanal Mex (or their Mexican ex-employees doing the same), I had more trouble with Big Star. Basically my feeling was, anything that’s pretty unique to them, was good and interesting— the pork belly taco, with tender braised pork belly, is easily the best thing we tried, and some roasted lamb (replacing, alas, the goat which they opened with) was also tasty and impeccably done. Pastor, on the other hand, is just bizarre— big chunks of pork, with very little of the crispy outer edge you want pastor to have; if they’re going to do an inauthentic style, couldn’t they crisp them under a salamander to fake being more authentic? Great pastor is rare enough in Chicago, but at least it exists, and it was very much not in need of reinvention.

Likewise, I was underwhelmed by a fish taco, partly because proportions were off (too much mayo, a huge honkin’ slice of avocado) but also the fish tasted kind of strong (I was never sure if it was supposed to be fishy, or was simply a bit past its prime, though that’s hard to imagine given the turnover they must have) and is doused in an offputting seasoned salt. And finally, it doesn’t help that the tortillas, though handmade in the front window, are bland and oddly rubbery (somewhat like the interior, which is painted in Art Gum Eraser gray, and generally feels like you’re dining in the U-505).

So again, the worth of Big Star has everything to do with what you’re looking for— out of the ordinary Wicker Park bar, great.  Example of what Chicago has to offer in terms of Mexican food, you need to get out of Wicker Park and see what’s really out there, among the little family joints… that will never be big stars.

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