“…It’s a tortilla with cheese, meat and vegetables.”
So begins the famous joke by Jim Gaffigan about working in a Mexican restaurant in Indiana where the customers don’t know the difference between nachos, burritos and tostadas. But unlike the case Gaffigan paints, all tacos are not made equal and some Mexican food can transcend the punch line, “Why don’t you say a Spanish word and I’ll bring you something.”
Big Star is a new fixture in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood that’s generating a lot of buzz for its tacos and for its surprisingcomplement, bourbon. The place is a joint venture from Chef Paul Kahan (of Publican, Blackbird and Avec fame) and Michael Rubel (from the wonderful speakeasy The Violet Hour across the street). I visited last Sunday with a group of friends and found the place quite worthy of the compliments I’d heard.
We found the bar (since it really is a bar and not a restaurant) to be much more crowded than anticipated for a Sunday evening. Our group (admittedly large at 7 people) was third in line for a booth, but we were warned that a spot wouldn’t open for quite awhile since those sitting had just arrived. We migrated first to a single spare bar stool in the back corner and then over to a group of open seats close by. Once we were ready to order drinks and food, we had accumulated enough space for all of us to sit or stand comfortably without bumping into other customers. (We never got that booth.) I can’t imagine what this place must be like on a Friday night!
On the suggestion of one of my friends (a repeat Big Star customer), we started the night off with what the bar calls Tres Reyes: a long shot of silver tequila, a nice sangrita chaser and a can of Tecate beer. Three Kings indeed! The tequila was delicious and the sangrita (a traditional Mexican spicy palate cleanser not to be confused with sangria) was a real delight. (I’m investigating recipes for making some of my own. It seems to just be lemon and orange juices, pomegranate or tomato juice and some hot sauce.) The tequila was a very nice smooth one (I wish could remember the brand) not to be confused with tequila’s brash loudmouth, José Cuervo.
We ordered tacos next and got a spread of pork (al pastor), lamb, fish and pork belly. The tacos are small (two bites or so) and on the pricier side ($2 or $3 apiece), but it’s hard to imagine them being more delicious. The pork belly is simple, being just seasoned and braised meat with a bit of cheese and a lime wedge to squeeze over the top and while I didn’t try any, the fish tacos got the rave review “I could eat these forever!” from one member of the group. My favorite though was the lamb which came with lovely little radishes on top. We each had a couple and ordered another round. As a side we munched on standard chips and guacamole, but I highly recommend the queso fundido which is a chorizo and cheese mix that you use to top soft tortilla shells. It made Time Out Chicago’s “100 Best Things we Ate (and Drank) This Year” list.
As we munched, I moved away from the tequila and on to the bourbon. The night’s special was $3 shots of Heaven Hill which was a sweet, smooth bourbon that I’ll be looking into again, but as a budding mixologist, I had to hit up some cocktails. The Old-Fashioned was fantastic. A sturdy bourbon base was brought to life by the Angostura bitters as I slipped that sucker slowly. My friend commented after tasting it that we might need to revisit how we make ours to come closer to this one. I followed that up with what the bar called a Hud which was a bourbon, tangerine and bitters mix on the rocks. While I liked it, the drink seemed to me to be just an old-fashioned that came up short. In both cases, the drinks came with two big Kold-Draft ice cubes, which, if you don’t already know, are specially frozen to sub-zero temperatures and made to cool the drink without significant dilution unlike standard ice. It’s nice to see that the basic behind-the-bar mechanics of The Violet Hour survived the trip across the street.
My friends indulged in a drink called Sarsaparilla – a whiskey and root beer mix which we decided (sadly) lacked synergy and did not amount to more than the sum of its parts – and house-made horchata – which did receive quite positive comments. (Discussion of horchata inevitably lead to discussion of Vampire Weekend. Contra. January 12. Be there!) The Coke came in a super-classy glass bottle of yore which I thought was a nice touch.
Big Star is a hit in my book. For what you get, it’s priced right and there’s no arguing with the food or the drinks. It would be nice if the place was a bit bigger (or equivalently a little less crowded) and cash-only is a bit annoying, but such is the case with most bars actually. It won’t be long before the pork belly calls me back and another whiskey cocktail beckons my name.