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Nov 1, 2007 12:36 PM

Taco Testing Lake County Mexican Restaurants

When it comes to Mexican food in general, I follow one simple rule: make a good taco! Whether it's carne asada, carnitas, al pastor, barbocoa whatever! Just please make it good.

My logic is this, if a place cant even make a good taco then 99% of the time the menu probably wont have anything else I like either. So this is one way to filter out the places worthy of exploring the rest of the menu. Granted this is not ab absolute litmus test for going to a Bayless type place, but lets face it, in Lake County where most of the Mexican places are family owned, very regional, with typically the Abuela in back, possibly hand making tortillas, tamales, asada or mole, this simple test ferrets out the dives from the stars.

Not to mention it gives me chance to check out the overall menu, sauces, inspect the environment for cleanliness and if there is a unsavory crowd there or not, (after all, allot of this is in Waukegan!).

The test:
1) Order the tacos, ask what the house specialty is, order one of those; typically its carne asada (steak), or al pastor (pork), but if they offer up anything else get one!
2) Order it the way they would sell it to the average Joe, how they say they make it, no specials/ or custom jobs, if you rebuild it whats the point? I want it the way they intended it to be presented and taste.
3) Eating: make sure the first bite is just out of the wrapper/foil plain, take the second bite with lime if given, third & forth with the house red and/or green sauces or any other sauces they give you.
4) Finally rate it, what was on it? Onion/cilantro? tomatoes? how was the tortilla? flavor of the meat, flavor of the sauce etc.

I'm working my way west starting from Waukegan (which has undoubtedly the largest Mexican population outside of Chicago) going towards Round Lake and then on to Mundelein and beyond.

That's the plan, I'll post results as I go. Anyone interested in joining me on this quest please feel free to post your results or if you spot a place that I've missed, please let me know.

Taco Buenos
1000 Belvidere St, Waukegan, IL

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  1. La Huitzoquena -

    Overall Taco: 2 stars (out of 5)
    Meat: 2 mild on the spicing, but my carne asada was overcooked from standing on the grill for too long, otherwise nothing special.
    Sauce: 3 average
    Tortilla: 3 average - fresh, package type (El Milagro/Del Rey etc.)
    Quantity/value- good
    Environment: clean, nice inside, easy parking.

    I think I must have hit these guys on an off day or something. It was after the lunch rush (about 1 PM) but even so, the food wasn't being cooked fresh and they seemed preoccupied with other aspects of running the business. I'll have to do another spot check, as I thought these guys had more potential then what I saw that day.

    La Huitzuquena
    318 Belvidere Rd, Waukegan, IL 60085

    1. Taco Buenos

      Overall Taco: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
      Meat: 3.5 was cooked fresh upon ordering, had a nice spice, but not overpowering.
      Sauce: 3.5 they offered 3
      Tortilla: 3 average - fresh, package type (El Milagro/Del Rey etc.)
      Quantity/value- very good-generous
      Environment: small, clean, street parking

      Pictures on the above (main) post & on the link. Taco Buenos was pretty good, I liked the in house sauces and thought the food was fresh and tasty. The store front is a bit creepy being right off of Belvidere like it is, in fact I wasn't sure if it was going to have seating or be carry out, but inside its clean and comfortable. I thought this was enough of a surprise that it bears further menu explorations.

      Taco Buenos
      1000 Belvidere St, Waukegan, IL

      4 Replies
      1. re: abf005

        abf -

        Would you mind adding to your list of criteria? One thing that will always make/break a taqueria for me: Char grilled or pan fried steak. If it's pan fried, I have no interest in going there unless they do something else absolutely excellently like pollo, carnitas, al pastor, barbacoa etc. Pan fried steak just reeks of common denominator no pride mediocrity when it comes to taquerias IMO.

        1. re: gordeaux

          Good point. I'll add it in, although sadly it seem to truly be an exception and not a rule for most taquerias. I think one of the coolest things I've had so far, were handmade tortillas at two of the places while on this quest. I'll be posting one of them next.

          For the record (since I cant edit the above posts):

          Both Taco Buenos & La Huitzoquena fried the steak on commercial griddles.

          1. re: abf005

            "Good point. I'll add it in, although sadly it seem to truly be an exception and not a rule for most taquerias."

            This is why I don't go to most taquerias. Only the good ones. Good luck on your search. I don't venture in that area, so I can't add anything for you. If you're in my necks of the woods, check this thread for char grilled skirt steak joints. Again, good luck!. Definitely admire your chutpah on this one, and look forward to the reports.

            1. re: gordeaux

              I remember that thread well!! I hit the other-other-other La Pasidita as a result of one the posts! It was awesome too, I havent found one like that up here *yet*.

      2. El Famous Burrito -

        Overall Taco: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
        Meat: 2 I'm guessing it was fried on a commercial griddle, but I also think it was stewing in broth afterwards, to stay moist and hot as they held product for serving. The meat was unusually soft/mushy with some sort of stewed aftertaste throughout the taco.
        Sauce: 3 average
        Tortilla: 3 average - fresh, package type (El Milagro/Del Rey etc.)
        Quantity/value- fair -
        Environment: clean, nice inside, easy parking.

        Before anyone points it out, I know this is a chain in the Chicago area with 16 locations throughout Chicagoland, but in this test virtually everyone will get sampled with the exception of Taco Bell!

        My taco was served up "Americano" style meaning lettuce, tomatos & cheese vs "Mexicano" (onions & cilantro), It had fairly generous portions that were in line with the other taquerias in the area. And overall, it was OK, nothing much to really criticize, but nothing to rave about either.

        El Famous Burrito
        3210 Belvidere Rd, Waukegan, IL 60085

        1. My parents swear by Tacos El Norte in Lake Zurich. My dad loves the Carne Asada, my Hispanic mother the Tacos. I had the fajitas there once and they are delicious. I only wish I lived up that way (or they moved down by me!)

          213 S Rand Rd
          Lake Zurich, IL 60047
          (847) 726-9114

          2 Replies
          1. re: libgirl2

            libgirl2- Ah yes the venerable Lake County Mexican chain of El Norte! I've been to 4 location; in Gurnee, Waukegan, Mundelion & Round Lake Beach. All are on my list of places to eventually re-visit, I never knew there was another in LZ, so I haven't been there and I'll have to add it in.

            Quite honestly though, I used to be a big fan of them in the mid 90's when I first moved up to Gurnee from Chicago. But after about a year or two of being close to a weekly regular at any of the above locations, I stopped going due to some really gross food experiences (sad, but true). I'd had too many bizarre things in my food and too many odd-isms happening with the staff while I would eat.

            I'll visit for the purpose of this Taco test, but for this one, I have to get my courage up to go back to first! LOL

            1. re: abf005

              The Tacos El Norte in LZ is very clean and the staff is very friendly.

          2. Tacos El Rey De Oro #2

            Overall Taco: 4 stars (out of 5)
            Meat: 3.5 very fresh, good quality & taste, fried up fresh on a commercial griddle.
            Sauce: 3.5 average
            Tortilla: 3 average - fresh, package type (El Milagro/Del Rey etc.)
            Quantity/value- Excellent
            Environment: large clean, very nice (festive) inside, easy parking.

            This is one my favorite places for Mexican food in Waukegan. I've been eating here for several years now and the consistency has always been right on, no matter the time of day (or night!) that I've visited. So maybe that's why I didn't start here right off the bat since I knew I was already a regular and big fan and quite honestly this was the bar I set for the others to beat or be judged by. I'll also mention that I've pretty much explored most of the menu here, and have found it to be pretty solid as well, my kids swear that this is the best Spanish rice anywhere! But honestly, I don't think that the seafood is one of their big strengths, its good but there is better in that category.

            But back to the taco, El Rey serves it Mexicano unless requested otherwise, they always cook up the meats on demand AFTER you order so nothing is sitting there waiting for a customer for who knows how long, this particular point really means allot to me. The spicing is good, as in I can taste it, and it gives the meat a really good flavor, granted it's not charbroiled, but it is tasty.

            On this occasion I ordered the al pastor & carne asada (both are pictured) and as always, El Rey delivered up the same fresh, delicious food I've become accustomed to getting when I eat here. I highly recommend this place.

            Tacos El Rey De Oro
            1605 Washington St, Waukegan, IL 60085