Once upon a time I thought tacos only came in hard shells and that tortillas were chips. I used taco seasoning in a packet. I thought guacamole looked gross, and I had never heard of tamales or chile rellenos. I grew up in Baltimore, and Mexican food just wasn’t our thing. That was before I met my California-bred husband Scott, or more specifically his grandmother Thelma Hubbell, who is of Mexican descent.
The first time I tasted Grandma Hubbell’s rice and beans, warm tortillas and homemade tamales, I was obsessed. Grandma’s cooking is hands-down the best Mexican food I have ever tasted, but Mexican food anywhere in California beats anything I have tasted elsewhere.
Moving to Chicago, a foodie haven, from middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania, Scott and I were certain we would find good Mexican food. We made it our family mission. We have searched far and wide, eating our way through the city and suburbs. We focused on spacious, casual, fun and family-friendly restaurants with great food. Extra points were given for amazing guacamole, tortilla chips baked at the restaurant and excellent rice (out-of-the-box rice results in elimination).
This is our list in alphabetical order, but it’s not all-inclusive. There are other standouts in the city (any of the Rick Bayless restaurants) and the suburbs (Antonio’s in Spring Grove is surprisingly awesome) that deserve props.
With a prime location on State Street, Cantina Laredo was shockingly not crowded on a Saturday afternoon. Surely the Mexican restaurant books up during the dinner hour. But Scott, our kids Julie, 8, and Johnny, 4, and I enjoyed lunch in a pretty empty restaurant.
If you’re looking for authentic Mexican fare, this isn’t necessarily the place. It’s a bit trendier, but the food is great. We would return just for the table-side guacamole and grilled chicken nachos. The pomegranate margarita was also one of the best I’ve sipped. (And I’m pretty much a margarita expert.)
The restaurant is spacious and perfectly laid out for families large and small. The guacamole is fresh, but a tad bland for my liking. Scott, however, says that’s how guacamole is supposed to be prepared so that diners can add salt or spices to fit their palates.
The meals were delicious. I ordered the tilapia fish tacos topped with fresh avocado and tomatoes. Perfect. Scott opted for the Chicago Burrito—humongous and smothered with cheese and a delectable sauce, just the way he likes it. Julie gobbled a burrito made-to-order with rice, beans, meat, cheese and sour cream, and Johnny went boring with the chicken fingers. Can’t win them all.
Overall a great experience. My only regret? Not ordering a margarita. What was I thinking?
There isn’t a website for this goldmine of Mexican fare, but Google and you’ll find the menu and all the details.
Moe’s Cantina River North
This place obviously morphs into a hoppin’ bar after 8 p.m., but it’s perfect for a Saturday family lunch. The place is spacious, fun and the menu is full of delicious Mexican and Spanish tapas. As soon as we were seated, we were served an interesting array of salsas and chips. Of course we ordered the guacamole, which was tasty.
Parents of picky eaters beware: There is no kids’ menu. But most kids would probably be OK with a quesadilla or a taco. My pickiest kid (who really isn’t all that picky if you compare him to other kids) opted for the tilapia slider for $4. Perfect size for Johnny. Julie was in heaven with her make-your-own tacos plate. It was served with steak, lettuce, tomatoes, beans, cheese and sour cream. She loved putting together her own creations. Scott absolutely loved the paella. It was kind of fun to switch it up and go for a Spanish plate. I opted for the Al Pastor tacos, which were six mini soft tacos with delicious bites of pork I topped with cilantro, onions and tomatoes.
Portions were big, but we somehow still managed to gobble dessert. The churros with caramel sauce and ice cream were amazing, and we devoured the chimichanga dulce (a fried pastry filled with cream and topped with caramel and ice cream).
Though Moe’s is probably targeted to adults, the restaurant is still great for families for lunch or early dinner. Another unique offering on the menu is the skewer with meat and vegetables. When brought to the table, the skewers hang from a hook at the table. We didn’t realize this until we were finished eating, but that will be a must on our next trip to Moe’s.
It’s impossible to write a story about Mexican restaurants in Chicago and not include Nuevo Leon. This is the real deal. The authentic Mexican restaurant is an institution in the heart of Pilsen. Johnny and I visited the nearby National Mexican Museum of Art before devouring lunch at Nuevo Leon. Before our entrees, we noshed on the fresh salsa, guacamole and chips, and were treated to little plates of small meatballs and papas (potatoes). For lunch, I ordered chicken and bean tostadas topped with guacamole, lettuce and cheese and Johnny opted for the cheese quesadilla. Portions were big, but we couldn’t resist trying the flan, which was scrumptious.
Kristy MacKaben is a mom of two and frequent contributor at Chicago Parent.
See more of Kristy's stories here.
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