Photo by Luz Magdaleno Flores

Do you ever become curious about the people, the history, and the debates behind the taco? “Let’s taco ‘bout it!”

Growing up in Gage Park, I grew up next to the best taquerias, as far as I’m concerned. I recently read an article calling for the upcharge of tacos. It expounded on how not paying more for tacos reflected disrespect for this Mexican food staple. I couldn’t believe that this was even up for debate. I thought, uff, must be the pandemic hitting people hard. 

The author called for Mexican restaurant owners and their patrons to charge and pay more, respectively, for tacos, meanwhile the author herself is sitting in an upscale restaurant in the West Loop—where newly built condos and high-end restaurants occupy former warehouses and factories, and where the Haymarket Monument sits, the site where immigrants found jobs in the 1800s and the famous Haymarket labor demonstration happened that led to winning the eight-hour workday.

Despite being a self-proclaimed taco-connoisseur, I have avoided places that charge what I consider to be an absurd amount of money for a taco. The recent debate about charging more for tacos has really made me wonder about the history of my all-time beloved food item. All I had ever heard about the taco was that it was working-class food. The taco is “street” food. The taco is meant for the people that are on the street living life to the fullest and busy running around. I reasoned that it was a working-class food because it’s made quickly and, most importantly, it’s affordable for people that need affordable food.

A brief history of the taco

The history of the taco is not fully known. Believe it or not, there are taco historians! These historians say that the origin of the taco—meaning soft corn tortillas with deliciously seasoned meat or fish inside of them— began with the main ingredient, la tortilla, created by a Mayan peasant during the Mayan empire approximately 10,000 B.C.

The modern form and its name ‘taco’ probably came from the silver mines of Mexico in the 18th century. The mineros would use thin pieces of paper, which may have been called ‘tacos,’ to wrap gunpowder which they would use as an explosive to uncover silver. I love this because of how well it analogizes the taco: the taco is dynamite on the palate and gives a charge of energy to whoever eats it. 

The taco restaurateur says that charging more for tacos is about respect. Increasing the cost of tacos will not magically bring respect to Mexicans and Mexican cuisine. There are literal political campaigns against Mexicans spreading false anti-Mexican rhetoric. If anything, the respect that Mexicans deserve will develop when the anti-Mexican rhetoric ends, not the other way around. Increasing the cost of tacos would only deprive the working class from one of the foods that is still easily accessible and affordable.

The decent amount of respect that the taco currently has comes from the acknowledgement that it feeds the Mexican community, the working class and others. It’s delicious, easy to find, and affordable.

What scares me the most about the author’s sentiment is the thought that tacos will one day be too expensive to sell or buy in the neighborhood I call home, Gage Park. There are restaurants now, in Chicago neighborhoods, that price three tacos at $19. 

Conclusion: tacos are not the same everywhere. The three spots I mention offer wildly different experiences and co-exist in the same neighborhood. The respect comes in the creativity of the Gage Park neighborhood and the solidarity of its working class. Increasing prices for tacos is the last thing that we need to bring respect to Mexicans and our exquisite cuisine. Now, go get yourself some tacos in Gage Park and tell them South Side Weekly sent ya!

Maritere Gómez grew up in Gage Park and was a neighborhood captain in Best of the South Side 2020. She has been an activist in the city for over ten years, mostly fighting for immigrant and labor justice for her community that gives so much and is not thanked enough. She last wrote an op-ed about the need for a new Gage Park library.

  • Best Al Pastor Taco: La Haciendita

    Another place where the wait is worth it! 

    La Haciendita’s thematic colors are red and yellow, as is typical of many Mexican restaurants. The colors really catch the attention of people as the restaurant sits unassumingly on 51st and Kedzie. The outstanding food, however, is what really has caught my attention and why I return any chance I get.

    The tacos al pastor are prepared with pineapple juice. When you walk in, the al pastor meat is immediately visible on the vertical rotisserie. A large pineapple sits on the pork meat marinating it for hours with sweet, sweet pineapple juice. When the cook prepares the al pastor taco, they slice the meat off along with some of the pineapple. I won’t judge if you close off this article now and run to La Haciendita.

    Other favorites are nopales (cactus salad) tacos with frijoles de la olla

    A major bonus is that this restaurant has a parking lot. In Chicago, parking spots are a thing! Gage Park has not yet been plagued by the pay-to-park-only spots, but it is getting there, and 47th and Kedzie can get busy, so the first time I noticed the parking lot “only for La Haciendita visitors” sign, I had to pull over. 

    I’ve had countless meals at La Haciendita over the years. It is always packed with families or individuals needing some “self-care” and tacos. I have waited embarrassing amounts of time to be seated at this restaurant. I have witnessed grown people stomp away after being told the wait would be over two hours.

    Taqueria La Haciendita, 5151 S. Kedzie Ave. 8am–12am. (773) 434-3864.

  • Best Hood Taqueria: La Quebrada 

    Where the hood and the taco meet.

    The La Quebrada building is decorated with red and yellow suns all around its walls. The best part though, are the windows advertising the food specials. One of them is the $5.99 breakfast special. 

    This restaurant does not disappoint. I’ve had countless meals and coffee here with my family and neighbors in Gage Park.

    It also has a parking lot! In one of the corners of the restaurant, there is a placard with the saying, “Somewhere in the Hood.” La Quebrada “gets” the neighborhood of Gage Park. 

    La Quebrada tacos are straightforward, flavorful, tender. The salsa de molcajete is warm, like the tomatoes and jalapeños were just taken off the boiling water and placed on the comal. The tacos here taste like they were truly homemade.

    Their food and drink menu is endless. They serve individual tacos to parrilladas – a small, table size grill filled to the rim with seafood and meats. The parrilladas come with a side of tortillas, arroz and frijoles

    My favorite is the carne asada taco and al pastor taco with cilantro and cebolla. I always add a little lime with the warm freshly-made salsa. Excuse me, *brb*, driving to La Quebrada as I’m typing this.

    La Quebrada Restaurant, 5100 S. California Ave. Sunday–Thursday, 8:30am–9pm; Friday–Saturday, 8:30am–10pm. (773) 737-4575.

  • Best Taco Truck: El Rayo Taco Truck

    Speaking of the taco as an electric power charge, one of my favorite places to get tacos in Gage Park is El Rayo Taco Truck. Summertime Chi provides for some activities that winter does not—like standing for a handsome amount of time to place your order because the line is so extremely long. It was the middle of summer right after the golden hour, people were lined up at 47th and Kedzie to order tacos. You cannot miss the truck despite the brick-and-mortar taco spots around it. El Rayo is lit up with outdoor lights all around its outline. It flaunts the Mexican flag in celebration of Latinx Heritage Month.

    After a long day of summer fun, a taco hits exactly right in the belly. The truck displays some enticing dishes on the menu, like steak tacos, burritos, and sopes, decorated with green and red salsa, some cebollitas and chiles toreados. I recommend them all. 

    I heard about this taco truck very organically. I was with my mom who had just had food from El Rayo with a neighbor. The neighbor was raving about the tacos they serve. My mom couldn’t wait to show me this spot. She loves cooking at home, so when she said we had to check it out, I knew there must be a reason. She would just not stop talking about it! 

    We drive up to 47th and Kedzie. There is a row of cars behind the taco truck and a line of people standing outside. The only suspense I like is the suspense I experience while waiting to get in my taco order. 

    The wait is worth it. Flavorful, seasoned perfectly, not to mention the green salsa; it is not watered down to a weak mild spice for uncultured palates. The serving comes with chiles toreados (deliciously charred and sautéed jalapeños sprinkled with salt). It also comes with carrots and broccoli en vinagre. Perfection is the only way to describe the tacos served at El Rayo.

    El Rayo Taco Truck. (773) 441-3516

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