Even before the food arrives, El Picante Mexican Grill transports diners south of the border with its bright yellow walls, multicolored tablecloths, and colorful murals depicting Mexican life. Then, guests dig into homestyle eats, such as enchiladas with three different sauces, housemade guacamole, and poblano peppers stuffed with seafood and doused in mole sauce. Even the mezcal is authentic—it's made in Mexico and comes with an agave worm, instead of a piece of spaghetti.
Tamale Hut's owner, Jaime Flores, has been schooled in the delicate art of tamale construction by his uncle Tony and aunt Emma, ensuring an authentic experience for cornmeal connoisseurs. With each use of their punch cards, customers may choose one tamale from the menu, whose creations are bedecked with tasty fillings such as a hearty bean stuffing made with pintos and fresh green salsa, and a piquant crab-meat stuffing with jalapeño and red salsa. Sugar-seekers can also opt for a cordial dessert of pineapple or blueberry via Tamale Hut Café's sweet tamales, which are served without a drop of salsa or hint of sarcasm. Punch card feasts pair each maize-laden morsel with a side of chips, a can of pop or bottle of water, and a choice of side item: corn, rice, chili, or tinga—shredded chicken draped with chipotle sauce, topped with sour cream and cotija cheese, and served upon a crispy continental shelf of tortilla chips.
Beginning in Chicago more than four decades ago, Pepe's Mexican Restaurant now offers up a full menu of classic Mexican flavors throughout Chicago and Northwest Indiana. Tortilla-wrapped entrees such as the chorizo quesadilla ($7.50) or the stuffed-taco dinner ($2.65–$3.45) wrap their floury shells around a choice of meat, veggies, and spicy sauces to create dishes flavorful enough to make the mouths of Mount Rushmore water. Broiled steak serves as the centerpiece for fajitas ($13.75), which arrive to tables on a sizzling platter surrounded by sautéed spanish onions, tomatoes, and a colorful assortment of bell peppers. Velvety moles coat tender boneless chicken breast for the spicy chicken en mole ($10.50). Meals conclude with bites of creamy, caramelized flan ($3.50), which sate cravings for a decadent meal-ending treat without coating the check in chocolate.
Though there may be more than one way to skin a cat, there’s only one way to roast a goat—learn from a master. According the Chicago Reader, once John Zaragoza became interested in making birria, he sought out Miguel Segura, a renowned birriero in La Barca, Jalisco, Mexico who roasts his meat in backyard brick ovens. Two weeks studying with Segura taught him the varying cuts of birria and how to cultivate trust at the counter by chopping the meat in full view instead of pinkie swearing to each customer that the knives are clean.
Today, John and his family have their own recipe down pat. Kosher salt seasons the goat, which they seal in a steamer for up to six hours before covering it in an ancho-based mole sauce and transferring it to the oven. The cuts also yield a clean consommé broth that doubles as a garnish, which can be sprinkled on top alongside onions, cilantro, lime, and peppers. Handmade corn tortillas add the finishing touch to a birria meal at both Birrieria Zaragoza locations.
The goat can be ordered bone in or out, on a plate or in a taco—Every Day with Rachael Ray magazine ranks the restaurant No. 2 in the Midwest on a list of The 64 Best Tacos in the Country. For a spicy side, John's son Jonathan brews a signature fire-roasted salsa from scratch. Imported Mexican sodas wash down savory bites, whose popularity causes the Zaragozas to go through as many as 22 goats in a single weekend—more than the average caged T-Rex eats in a month.