There are probably as many taquerias in Chicagoland as hot dog stands, and no wonder -- both offer distinctive street food that's big on flavor at low cost. Food fans have their favorites, and quality of ingredients is usually the deciding factor. Save yourself a lot of expectation, experimentation and disappointment by pointing yourself in the direction of Elgin and Las Gorditas de Don Angel.
Open since late January, this is the fourth Las Gorditas de Don Angel. The other eateries -- in Cicero, Joliet and Melrose Park -- are owned and operated by the family of Jazmin Chacon, who heads up the Elgin outpost. The family's roots are in the Mexican state of Durango, and you'll see it right on the sign outside: "Estilo Santiago Papasquiaro Durango," which means the recipes are granny's, who was also a restaurateur back in Mexico.
Las Gorditas de Don Angel #4165 E. Highland Ave., Elgin, (847) 468-0330, facebook.com/gorditaselgin/
Cuisine: Mexican street food
Setting: Bright taqueria
Prices: Gorditas: $1.90-$2.25; tacos: $1.40; $20 for a gallon of menudo (serves four)
Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday
Parking: On the street (free for two hours) and in a small lot at the back of the restaurant
There are plenty of tables, so dining in should never be an issue. A Spanish radio station provides lively musica -- more modern than mariachi. Large windows drench the space in sunshine, and the turquoise seats, light wooden chairs and red walls lend a vibrant feeling. The cow decor is a reference to Chacon's granddad (that would be Don Angel) and his herd in Mexico. The weekday afternoon we stopped in, Las Gorditas hosted a few tables of hungry friends and a small family.
The young woman who waited on us spoke perfect English (and Spanish to the other patrons) and menu items are clearly described in both languages. Order a soft drink: canned soda is a buck (a glass wasn't offered, so we sipped out of the can). Plus, there's Mexican bottled soda like Coke and Sidral, and Jarritos in an array of fruity flavors. Or submit to an authentic experience and choose one of the fresh aguas frescos like tamarind, guava, pineapple or the classic horchata (sugary rice water flavored with cinnamon).
Since you're coming to downtown Elgin for gorditas that are handmade to order, be a little patient. It'll take a few minutes for these warm pockets of Mexican goodness to come together. Gorditas are similar to South American arepas or Salvadoran pupusas. The envelope or pastry is made with masa (sort of like soap or tamale dough but much lighter here), and the disks are stuffed with cheese, meat, peppers, eggs, cactus, potatoes and sauces. There are 21 varieties of this classic Mexican street food, which are priced at $1.90 each.
Some filling options include potatoes with chorizo; steak with poblano peppers; eggs in red sauce or homemade salsa; ricotta cheese with beans; ground pork in sauce; and beef barbacoa (available weekends only). There's one with a surcharge -- dried hot peppers with cheese -- for $2.25 because it features imported Mexican peppers. Surprisingly, chicken does not grace the menu.
Rolls of paper towels on each table serve as napkins, and considering some of the super saucy gorditas, that makes sense.
Among the five gorditas we ordered, our favorites included poblano peppers with fresh cheese; beans with cheese; cactus with eggs in red sauce; ground beef with potatoes in a piquant green sauce; and steak in red sauce. Do the math and that's all of 'em. My lunch partner loved that he could go all vegetarian and still encounter a ton of flavor lurking in the tasty little packages. A squirt of green sauce (spicy) or a pinkish red sauce (advertised as "very spicy" but honestly not that incendiary) adds nice sparkle, particularly to the egg- and potato-based gorditas. I opted to try the steak taco, a menu item I use as a taqueria barometer. The steak was minutely chopped, crisped and covered with onions and cilantro all piled into a double stack of soft corn tortillas.
The spotless Elgin eatery lists that one taco for $1.40 (going elsewhere for $2 to $3, at least). There's also a taco pirata on the menu, but that's actually a steak quesadilla made with a flour tortilla.
Weekends you can get a brisket taco (barbacoa, which is slow-cooked tender beef). If you want more of the barbacoa to take home, it goes for $7 a pound. Don't forget about the menudo, the ancient antidote to hangovers. Available Sunday only, get a plate ($7) of the tripe stew or take it home by the half gallon ($12) or gallon ($20).
When you have a taste for Mexican food that veers deeper into the culture's menu and for just a couple of pesos, Las Gorditas de Don Angel does not disappoint.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.