I found myself with some time to kill near Lawrence and Damen this afternoon, so I decided to take a taco tour of taquerias on Lawrence between Ashland and Western. Ended up trying the following places, in this order:
El Taco Loco (1726 W. Lawrence)
Ericks Tacos (a.k.a. Taqueria Peravillo - the tiny place on the south side of Lawrence a couple of doors east of Damen)
Ericks Tacos (a.k.a. Taqueria Peravillo - the bigger place occupying the northwest corner of the Lawrence/Damen intersection, 4800 N. Damen)
Restaurante el Carmen (4811 N. Lincoln, close to the Walgreens on the northeast corner of the Lawrence/Lincoln/Western intersection)
At each place I ordered one steak/carne asada taco and one taco al pastor (of course I did not try to finish any of the tacos). In each case the meat had already been cooked and was sizzled up on a griddle before serving. All used store-bought corn tortillas, fresher at some places than others. In each case I did not specify how I preferred the tacos to be garnished; I wanted to see if they would give me tacos a la mexicana or a la americana without prompting either way.
El Taco Loco
This place probably served the best-quality meat, but both the steak and even the pork were dramatically underseasoned. I doubt the steak had even been salted in any stage of its preparation. But these, I think, were the hottest, freshest, cleanest-tasting of the meats I was served during the tour. The tortillas seemed particularly stale, however. The accompanying green sauce was agreeably thick and reasonable tasty, but not very spicy. The red sauce was red as mass-market ketchup and smelled a little like ketchup as well; I didnt try it. The waitress probably had the weakest command of English out of the four places I tried, but still understood me without a problem. Unbidden she asked if I wanted onions and cilantro on my tacos (to which I said yes).
Ericks Tacos The Smaller
This tiny, narrow spot actually turned out to be a bit bigger than it appears from the street, with a couple of hard plastic booths in addition to a counter with stools. This is the most barebones of the four places I tried, with no printed menu of any kind, just a big yellow hand-lettered sign on the wall behind the counter. The cozy feeling of the place was actually rather agreeable on this cold, rainy day.
Tacos were served with onions, cilantro and lime on the side without prompting. Both tacos were quite greasy, and the meat was not of high quality the steak had several hard, pebble-like bits that could not be chewed. The pastor meat is prominently displayed on a gyros spit and looks very enticing here, but I did not enjoy it on the plate as much as I had expected. Both the red and green sauces were nondescript. The tortillas, though store-bought, were the only ones I had on the tour that bore any flavor of corn.
Ericks Tacos The Greater
I guess this was the overall winner of the four. The meats were adequately seasoned, and the steak had a little bit of grilled onion in it, very nice. But the meats still werent freshly cooked nor particularly flavorful, and the tacos as a whole werent above average in any way. But they were OK, which gives them a leg up on the local competition. The taco al pastor was served with onions and cilantro, but the steak came topped with shredded iceberg lettuce and an extremely unappealing slice of corporate tomato. Also, this was the only place of the four that did not offer a bit of lime with the tacos.
Restaurant el Carmen
This place definitely had the nicest, friendliest service of the four, and even more definitely, the worst food. The gentleman at the counter smiled warmly at my entrance and seemed genuinely glad to have the chance to proffer his wares to a customer. (The young women at the other three places were perfectly pleasant, but still looked at me with an initial wariness, perhaps weighing the possibility that this Anglo might be coming in wanting to order a couple of enchiritos.) The guy at El Carmen brought out chips and salsa, gratis, while I waited. The chips were nice and warm, but the salsa was ketchupy. (Terrible, in other words.) An inauspicious beginning.
The tacos were very bad. First of all, the meats in both of them had the unbrowned, gray, gummy, rubbery quality of having been steamed rather than grilled or sauteed. I can only suppose that the meats had been initially cooked on the griddle in far too large a pile, producing a disagreeable steamed or stewed effect.
Far worse still was the greasiness of both of themgrease that furthermore struck me as slightly rancid. The steak grease, in which the steamed gray chunks of carne asada were copiously bathed, was especially off-putting: sickly sweet-sour in a way that beef on its own should never be, with a stale, sour aftertaste. The al pastor meat was not as greasy nor as foul, but it was still tough, chalky and powdery, with an odd, very pronounced overtone of citrus or pineapple flavor even though it contained no detectable fruit. Very strange, and very disagreeable.
Well, what have we learned today? Not much, I guess, other than not to eat tacos on this stretch of Lawrence if you can help it. I had no trouble not finishing a single one of these tacos.
To complete the picture, about a year ago I had a couple of tacos at Taqueria el Ranchito, which is on Damen just north of Lawrence, the third member of the Lawrence/Damen taco triumvirate. Im afraid I was unimpressed then as well.