I’m admittedly a bit envious of chef Rick Ortiz.
The “taco nights” of my youth centered on a pound of sautéed ground beef, a package of seasoning mix and box of vacuum-packed tortilla shards. I was well until adulthood before I had the transcendent experience of eating an genuine soft and savory taco.
Ortiz, however, who is Mexican-American, was raised on the real deal.
“Growing up, that was our bread. We could put anything in a taco,” says Ortiz, whose fond childhood memories include his dad bringing home authentic carnitas from the Pilsen neighborhood.
Now all grown up and still taco loco, Ortiz recently opened his first restaurant with his wife, Ashley. And Antique Taco is the couple’s old-fashioned love poem to the beloved Mexican sandwich.
Yes, Ortiz offers a handful of well-executed starters, sides and main dishes. But tacos — prepared with fresh, locally sourced ingredients and house-made tortillas — are the heart of the Wicker Park eatery’s menu.
Even as a culinary student at Kendall College, Ortiz thought about opening a taquería. And he came back to that concept despite spending time in the fine-dining realm, including a tour in the kitchen at Courtright’s in suburban Willow Springs.
“But I knew I wasn’t going to do an ordinary taco restaurant,” says Ortiz, who got creative with the flavor profiles for his tortilla sandwiches. With notes of curry and honey yogurt, for example, his sweet-and-spicy chicken tacos read “Asian” rather than “Mexican.” And specials may include proteins such as goat or soft-shell crabs.
Still, the chef didn’t want to take diners too far afield.
“I wanted people to recognize the tacos instead of putting offal or other weird things on there. I didn’t want to scare anybody.”
Ortiz’s inviting offerings certainly didn’t scare me and my dining companions — my teenage daughter and her crew. In fact, The Girl and The Girls were super-excited as they scanned the menu board and negotiated their orders.
I suggested we open with a corn-off-the-cob salad ($7). Once again proving mother knows best, The Girls polished off the creamy, home-style Mexican “slaw” of fresh corn, black beans, red peppers, avocados and crunchy tortilla strips. “I wish I had the recipe,” say my notes of this picnic-perfect dish.
Then tacos — served in pairs on antique plates — began hitting the table. And the idle chatter (mostly about the British boy band One Direction) stopped, and the serious eating commenced.
The market mushroom ($7) surely supplied a day’s worth of fresh vegetables, as it was packed with garlic-tinged kale, sweet and meaty mixed ‘shrooms and tangy pickled cauliflower and red onions. Cilantro cream added yet another flavor pop to the all-veggie filling.
Just a wee bit hot from a spice rubdown, grilled ribeye ($8) also had pleasant hints of lime and cilantro. Topped with heirloom tomato salsa and a generous sprinkling of crumbly queso fresco, the tacos were chart toppers with The Girls and me.
The aforementioned Asian-infused chicken tacos ($7) were an unexpected and welcome change from the predictable grilled poultry that generally appears in this dish. And its toppings — pickled jalapenos, cucumbers and purple onions — gave the tacos bonus zip and zing.
Carnitas ($7) “play off a warm spinach-bacon salad,” Ortiz says. Slow-cooked and glazed with a mild-sweet tamarind sauce, the pork fares well topped with spinach salad fixings, avocado and queso fresco.
Sadly, nobody was in for the crispy fish tempura tacos and I was too full to go it alone. So that final menu staple will be sampled on a future visit.
The Girls washed down their tacos with a round of horchata milkshakes ($4), a bananas Foster-flavored blend of banana, cinnamon, almonds and vanilla. And although they brushed off the fish tacos, it didn’t take much convincing to get them to share an abuelita’s pop tart ($5). After all, what self-respecting teen (or weak-willed mother) could resist Ortiz’s equivalent of a Mexican s’more?
Had they waved off this warm pastry filled with melted chocolate and marshmallows, that would have been scary.
1360 North Milwaukee Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60622