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November 11, 2005

North Ashland Avenue holds a trove of taquerías: La Pasadita times three

Stand in the doorway of La Pasadita at 1140 North Ashland Avenue, and you will see across the street at 1141 North Ashland a restaurant called La Pasadita. Turn your head to the right, and a few doors down you will see at 1132 North Ashland Avenue a restaurant called La Pasadita.

Yes, near the intersection of Division and Ashland, the same restaurant appears three times on a single block. Attribute this to the simple fact that this diminutive dynasty serves the best tacos in the city of Chicago (and by simple deduction, the world). Some claim that the 1140 branch serves the best tacos, but an equally passionate camp insists that they are all basically the same. Not to pick sides, but I will focus only on the tacos at 1140 in this piece.

Two corn tortillas filled with meat, cilantro, and onions go for only $1.85. Try the Carne Asada with a smoky, rich punch. Or the stewed Barbacoa, moist to the point of deconstruction. If you find yourself in a delicate mood, gobble up the tongue taco. That cow cannot speak anymore, but you can delight in the subtleties of the pinkish meat.

La Pasadita’s Horchata, a sweetened rice drink, demands special mention. It avoids the saccharine blowout of other (not to be named) Horchatas in this city, offering a charming bouquet of cinnamon, vanilla, and milk. If your appetite is voracious, try the burritos. They lack the precision of the tacos but will slaughter your hunger.

These restaurants offer an equally delicious example of Chicagoan sociogeography. Positioned on the gentrification frontier of Wicker Park (less than a mile northwest), they are a relic of a time past, when the neighborhood was—to use the latest euphemism—underdeveloped. Yet by remaining, they introduce a measure of heterogeneity into what will soon be a chain of Starbucks and vintage clothing stores. Indeed, the owners of La Pasadita have started several other restaurants for their original clientele, pushed west by the waves of gentrification.

I, too, could be accused of helping those waves progress. By offering a sign of delicious, inexpensive food, I run the risk of attracting the unsavory element that could transform La Pasadita into another hipster hotspot. But I write this review with the hope that the restaurant itself will transform anyone who goes there. This reeks of journalistic hyperbole, but I believe that just as a small rabbithole allowed Alice entry into Wonderland, La Pasadita offers entrance into an alternate Chicago, beyond Belmont or the Magnificent Mile.

You can see this alternate Chicago inside Saint Stephen’s Church or at Ukranian Village at three in the morning. You can see it by driving down 63rd Street and counting the churches, or wandering out of a Korean restaurant in Lincoln Square onto an abandoned street. This is a city that resists, in every strange way, the smooth lines of gentrification or prettification: a dangerous, dreamy, delirious sort of place. And yes, sometimes a taco from one of three identical restaurants on the same block is the best way to get there.