Oh sure, we’re going to kill this challenge during the summer – the weather is better and bonus of all bonuses, I work downtown for the summer. Working downtown for the summer has been a tremendous asset for our fun time, and a tremendous hindrance to our pocketbook. Because my lovely summertime employer is so flexible, I usually drop of the Sweetheart at his job, drive to mine, and then pick him up on the way back. This is detrimental to our bank balances because one of us will say, “Traffic is pretty bad, maybe we should stop for a drink.”
In the words of my darling mother, “Nobody has one drink. Did you ever eat on potato chip?” She’s a smart lady.
And then it becomes a thing, a ritual, something that we try not to do, “We need to go straight home tonight. I am tired.” Or “No matter how bad traffic is, let’s just go home.” Never happens. Let’s just file that under the “I’m going home early” lies/jinxes we tell ourselves.
On one such evening, I picked up the darling Sweetheart from work, and we started to make our way home. “Are you hungry,” I asked. “Not really. Lunch wasn’t too bad today.”
We are lucky enough to get free lunch at work – but sometimes that comes with a cost. Free lunch means we eat what they serve us. Free lunch means that sometimes the quality or taste isn’t all that great, but you’re too tired or too broke to order out, so you just make do with a PB&J. Free lunch can sometimes result in some serious heartburn. No complaints, though, we both realize we are really lucky.
So on a good lunch day, we might not be all that hungry. His was good. Mine was not. Free lunch at my place means I eat a lot of salads, but sometimes the lettuce isn’t all that fresh. Today was one of those days. I ate 10 olives for lunch.
“I’m kinda hungry. Our lunch was pretty bad. The lettuce was brown.” (See what I did there? I was laying the groundwork for a taco.)
Here comes the ridiculous part. If I just said I wanted a taco, the car would have stopped at the closest place. Tom is an amazing husband who does a fantastic job of following the adage “Happy Wife, Happy Life.” It really is his personal motto.
Because we switched drivers, I got on the list (which is really just an open page on my phone) and looked for the closest place: Taqueria El Milagro.
We hadn’t gotten that far, so a fast exit on Ashland brought us to our place in Pilsen. We love Pilsen. We’ve been loving Pilsen since that first day when we went to Dusek’s. We’ve loved Pilsen even when Tom urinated in a men’s bathroom next to a pool of blood. We’ve loved Simone’s after the stabbing, we love the Barrel (which finally got a sign), we love the taco challenge, because so many of the places are in Pilsen. Every visit to Pilsen yields a new surprise, a new adventure.
Rockstar parking, in Pilsen? Untouched by the hands of Rahm?? I hesitate to mention that there is unmetered parking anywhere in the 606. Rahm will install the meters in the blink of an eye. I believe they are, much like Rahm, self-inflating. Either way, this is a good sign. So is the address.
Having lived in Spain twice, I always love the address tiles. I think it adds something special. My hungover eyes sparkle with anticipation.
The setup is cafeteria-style, and even at just a few minutes past 5pm, the place is packed. People stand in front of the offerings/menu area debating, because the portions are enormous. TOC refers to the tacos as mini-burritos and they didn’t lie. The taco on order is the grilled steak, but what is Tom getting as his second choice. I’m a girl, I eat lighter. (So untrue.)
The couple in front of us decide to to help. The friendly guy at the register also provides some suggestions. We narrow the second choice to a few: either the chile relleno tacos, the tamales, or a chicken in mole concoction.
With the help of our friendly co-patrons and the nice guy at the register, Tom opts for the chile relleno tacos. It’s amazing how cheap a dinner bill is without booze. $11 for two plates of tacos. For the first time in a long time, this is going to be a booze-free dinner. I mean, we have them at home, but very rarely outside the home. Dinner almost always involves drinks.
We get our number a find a table. One of the interesting things about dining in Pilsen, or a few other neighborhoods (Bridgeport, Beverly, anywhere south of Madison) is that Southsiders know when you don’t belong. The not-belonging in Pilsen is a bit more obvious than the lack of membership in Bridgeport, and I definitely belong in Beverly. Because this place has already started the dinner rotation and is busy, we receive a lot of not-so-hidden stares. Are they really staring, or is it our own awkwardness that makes us feel this way? A quick glance around tells me that everything is as it should be, people are not looking at us, they are completely engrossed in their food and company. Maybe we got the cursory glance, but most tables returned to the food and conversation.
Aaaah tacos. The food arrives, preceded by it’s own aroma, which grabs me by the nose like an episode of Tom and Jerry. These are big tacos. I get a free-mini facial from the taco steam and Tom arranges the plates for his camera. More stares. Because we do this, I am immune to the stares of being the people that take pics of their food. I hate it, but it’s a necessary evil.
Tom is a man of legendary patience. Sadly, his wife is not. I annoyingly drum my hand while I wait for the process to be over. He pronounces us ready to eat and I divvy up the food. We always start with the taco on the list. And then compare it to the other tacos on the list, and re-order the list as needed.
Yum. Yum Yum Yum Yum Yum. It’s good. The flavor has that nice little kick, the beef is tender, yet there are some crispy pieces, too (think burnt ends). Clearly the fresh, homemade tortillas add a lot – this is a tortilla factory after all. Filling, comforting, yummy. Beef juice dribbles down my chin, but we aren’t the people that care. He finishes his before me and hunkers down to a chile relleno taco. “Babe, I know you don’t like peppers but I think you should try this.”
My derring-do in food adventures results from alcohol and we have none. Jellyfish in Chinatown? Eaten after a libatious-filled Sox game. Multiple attempts to like calamari? Multiple corresponding glasses of wine. I think you get the idea.
I like what peppers can do, especially chile peppers. I like the flavor and heat of the different peppers, so much so that I even grow them myself. I hate the texture. I really hate the texture of cooked peppers. The skin reminds me of chewy seaweed paper. Don’t like it. Won’t eat. Call me a three year old, I don’t care.
However, if you are confronted with food you don’t like, and it’s covered in glorious gobs of cheese, you should eat it and I did. It was amazing. They almost got me to like peppers – a milagro in and of itself. Think of the best jalapeño popper you have ever consumed, multiply it by 100 and that’s what in the taco.
We leave, sated, full, and honest.
We didn’t drink that night. We didn’t lie.