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Jan 28, 2013 08:27 PM

Tierra Caliente - Did I go to the same place everyone else did?

Hi Chicago CHers! I visited your fine city last week and being a Californian (currently living in DC) who loves tacos and mexican food, I made a point to find your best tacos. My quick research led me to Tierra Caliente (we were planning on going to the Maxwell Market to Rubi's, but it was freezing rain on Sun). We went on a Wed afternoon (maybe 2pm?) and had high expectations, but they quickly dropped when we saw the meat on the spit was raw (with no pineapple or onion on top) and the meat was being cooked on the griddle. We ordered a few tacos each (al pastor, their tierra caliente ? - basically carne asade, and gf also tried the chile relleno taco). The al pastor was not good. Bland, fatty meat with no grilled onions or pineapple. The asada was better, but still subpar. The chile relleno taco was "the worst thing (my gf) has tasted in a long time". The only redeeming qualities of this place were that the salsa roja was pretty good, and they gave you a lot of meat (too much), but it doesn't really matter when it's nearly inedible.

I understand how places can have off days, but our experience was just so far off from everything we read about it, that I am just bewildered. Is there a trick to what day/time to go? Location (we went to the Ashland one)?

Future tips on great tacos is greatly appreciated, as I will be back frequently and hopefully moving to Chicago.

PS - we went to El Patron on Diversey I believe, and were very impressed with their tacos (and their "gringa"). The asada was great and the chorizo was excellent. We mostly stumbled upon it, while out shopping one day, and it was WAY better than Tierra Caliente.

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  1. The trick to this place is to arrive about 11:20, before the lunch crowd hits. At that point the trompa is at its well-browned and crispy peak. If you started from raw, your timing was unfortunate.
    Not many places in Chicago do a good chile relleno taco. At TC, lengua, birria, or asada is the best alternative to pastor.

    Since you had a bad experience, next time try La Chaparrita, southwest of the Loop.

    6 Replies
    1. re: camusman

      +1000 to what camusman says. Stinks you got the short end of the stick with this one on your visit, but it seems like you got there just after a new trompo was assembled. The asada is best to order when the place is very busy and the steak is flying off the grill fresh to fill orders. Tierra Caliente is an absolute GEM, imo - with the caveat that it's a total dive, but if you know what/when to order, it's absolutely fantastic. For taquerias in Chicago, I've found that only a few do many things great - most others are one trick ponies.Seems like you went in well informed about their asada and al pastor, but the timing was off. Yes, it sucks that consistency has a lot to do with timing here, but keep in mind that it is a DIVE slinging out tacos in the back of a little corner store at dirt cheap prices. On any other day, I'd say mid afternoon would be a good time for al pastor here, since the trompo would be nice and crisp after the lunch rush, but perhaps they had a bigger crowd than expected that day, and had to make a new trompo just before you got there? As for the chile relleno - never had one, and the asada, campechano, al pastor and lengua are so good there, I wouldn't even be thinking about chile relleno, but yeah, if it's offered, you'd want it to be good. If you get back to the city, La Chaparrita is a good bet ANY time of day. Some of their offerings might not be as good as Tierra Caliente's (when Tierra C is ON POINT,) but La Chaparrita's tripas and longaniza tacos, can stand up to anything by Tierra C on their own, and La Chapariita's salsas and taco construction are second to none. Cesar, the taquero at Chaparrita serves every taco piping hot, well grilled tortillas and clean onion/cilantro. I could seriously stay at La Chaparrita all day and just eat tacos. He makes each one with care. Next time you're in town - post something, and I'm sure someone will chime in with a place you should check out. Especially if you want to try a few specific things. I have two or three places for carne asada - where the carne asada is INSANELY good, but everything else is totally not even worth getting. Same for pastor, same for tripas.

      1. re: gordeaux

        Thanks for the reply, and I thought maybe we just caught them on an off day/time (I re-read the threads on TC). Guess we'll have to give them another shot around 11-11:30am (maybe a weekend?). I had also heard about La Chaparrita on here and it is on my list, as well as Las Asadas and El Asadero (which I believe you may be referring to). We're definitely looking forward to Rubi's (this is the best, right?) in Maxwell's Market.

        1. re: mdpilam

          I've never done Rubi's can't comment on their stuff. Las Asadas, imo, is a fine choice for carne asada - best time to go would be peak lunch or dinner rush times. The barbacoa there is decent too, but after that, if you order anything else, you're on your own.

          La Chaparrita, imo, is great for tripas and longaniza. The lengua and cabeza are very fine options as well. All of their tacos are gonna be good, but those are the standouts, imo. And unlike some other places in town, you can go any time of day and expect nothing but the finest. And honestly, I think their aguas fresca de alfalfa might be the best non-alcoholic drink in the city.

          You might also be intersted in Birerria Zaragoza. I have a feeling you'd be very interested indeed. But, just know that they don't serve much of anything else besides birria. I think the only thing other than some form of birria is a simple cheese quesadilla, but it'll be made with handmade tortillas and comes with their signature warm salsa de molcajete - and with that, no joke, my mouth just started watering.

          1. re: gordeaux

            Yeah, my gf found that Birerria Zaragoza while searching for a taqueria. Definitely on my list. I love goat!

      2. re: camusman

        Gave TC another shot today for lunch, and made a point of getting there at 11:20. There were a couple people already there eating and the spit was up (although it appeared the only browned part of the trompo was at the top - I later found out why). I ordered an al pastor and carne asada taco and a sidral. The al pastor was scooped from a pot (ok, it wasn't a pot, but a steam table insert (?), but was on the griddle not a steam table), and was piled on top of two corn tortillas. It was better than our first visit, but only slightly above average. I discovered that they slice off big hunks of meat and griddle it and then put it in the "pot" to serve later. Al pastor is meant to be cooked on the trompo, not on the griddle (it can be "crisped" on the griddle if you like it a little extra crispy, but it should be cooked on the spit). The asada arrived next and was similar (slightly above average). There was good grilled beefy flavor to the meat, but it was somewhat tough and inconsistent throughout the taco. The best part about the meal was the grilled jalapenos.

        Maybe I just have different tastes than most Chicagoans, but I think Tierra Caliente is very mediocre. I don't think they utilize the trompo properly (true al pastor should be cooked on the trompo and sliced directly onto the tortilla); it basically defeats the purpose of the trompo. Also, some may like this, but I think they put too much meat in their tacos. It throws off the meat to tortilla ratio. Again, I would (much) prefer L' Patron to TC and Los Barrilitos blows it out of the water (in my very limited experience).

        1. re: mdpilam

          I think they've gotten lazy about pastor at TC. They have more business than they used to, and it seems as if they are now cutting the trompo in advance of the lunch rush. Didn't used to be that way. Sort of a victim of Internet acclaim, I guess. Can't believe they didn't at least griddle the pastor meat. Sorry you missed them when they were at their best a couple of years ago. Thanks for taking another one for the team.

      3. >> I visited your fine city last week and being a Californian (currently living in DC) who loves tacos and mexican food, I made a point to find your best tacos.

        Next time, I recommend trying one of our creative contemporary Mexican restaurants, such as Topolobampo/Frontera Grill, Mexique, Mundial Cocina Mestiza, or Mixteco Grill. You can find tacos in any city in the country, but that's not true of contemporary Mexican cuisine, which you just don't find almost anywhere else this side of the Mexican border. Such fare has blossomed here, pioneered by longtime restauranteur Rick Bayless, who opened Topolobampo and Frontera Grill in the 1980s. Check out the menus on their websites to get a better understanding of the cuisine offered by these places:

        1 Reply
        1. re: nsxtasy

          Yeah, we'll hit them eventually, but TBH we're not as big of fans of "contemporary Mexican" as we are of street food Mexican. LA and now DC has a pretty good contemporary Mexican. Not to mention we used to watch Bayless on PBS and we saw how much salt he puts in everything (he confuses a Tbsp for a tsp)!