Taqueria Tayahua in the Heart of Chicago
Over the years Amata and I have made a number of exploratory expeditions along Western Avenue, including several trips to that subsection of the Heart of Chicago district known variously as Little Tuscany -- a reasonably apt name -- and Little Italy or, more recently, Heart of Italy. This small neighbourhood did and to a degree still does contain a core population of Italian families virtually all from Tuscany or points further north in Italy and is centred on Oakley Avenue between 23rd and 25th Streets. Within this little stretch of Oakley there are four or five Italian restaurants, with another outlier on nearby Western Avenue, but since a good friend of mine owns one of those eateries, and further, since I rarely eat in Italian restaurants, I can offer no comments on any of them at this time.
The name "Heart of Chicago" is increasingly falling out of use and perhaps in the end, it will come to be unknown to all but historians or else just an odd variant name for the little Northern Italian enclave. The reason for the demise of the old district name seems to me to be a result of the gradual intense 'Mexification' of the area, which has resulted in the eastern part of the neighbourhood to be generally viewed simply as the far western end of Pilsen, which historically speaking lay well to the east. Meanwhile, the westward and southward expansion of Mexican Pilsen has been matched by the northward and eastern expansion of the other great Mexican neighbourhood of central Chicago, La Villita. The two have met around Western, or at least so it seems to me, and the area surrounding the never very large Little Tuscany is now fairly solidly Mexican.
With regard to Mexican food offerings of the area, this meeting point of Greater Little Village and Greater Pilsen, specifically the zone around Western from 18th to 26th, is not especially rich but, even so, there a few Mexican eateries in the area which have caught my eye. Since we recently moved from the hustle and bustle of Printers' Row to our humble country estate here in bucolic Tri-Taylor and I now have easy access to the #49 Western Ave bus-line, I have taken to making the short (ca. 8 minute) ride or longish (45 minute) walk southward with a terrible resolve to visit some new restaurants and taquerias. This piece is then -- inshaa' allah -- the first of a short series of reports on places that have hitherto been little discussed on this site or the Leffian site. Perhaps their obscurity is deserved, perhaps not... I hope to find out.
Taqueria Tayahua stands proudly on the eastern side of Western Avenue just south of 24th Street beside some manner of automotive shop (no surprise on Chicago's longest road), with an empty area to its immediate north which has allowed for the owners to adorn their building with an impressive sign painted directly on the brick wall with some handsome illustrations in the Mexican muralist tradition.* The establishment's interior is arranged thus: in the front space, there is a griddle station to the left and to the right, a few plastic tables with benches of a style common to taquerias. Beyond the griddle station is the cash register and a full service bar (without, however, any bar seating), and further on toward the back there is a second small room which looks to have more of the feel of a restaurant than the dining area in the front. There is a fair amount of Mexican- and holiday-themed decoration festooning the bar area and back room, including in the far back a Christmas tree, which for some reason I suspect is there all year round.
The name the restaurant bears is that of a town in the state of Zacatecas, in a state which presumably is a transitional zone between the northern states and cultural and culinary zones of Coahuila and Durango and the core of the Bahio in the states of San Luis Potosi, Aguascalientes, etc. The menu has only one item which is advertised as having a direct connexion to the town or state, an entree called 'platillo Tayahua' with no further description; on my next visit I'll try to find out what exactly that is. A fairly usual set of taco, burrito, gordita and torta offerings is, however, complemented by a number of quesadillas and huaraches 'estilo D.F.'. Some of the more interesting specific items on the menu were the following. Quesadillas can be ordered with huitlacoche, flor de calabaza, nopalitos and hongos, as well as with more basic taqueria offerings. Also on the menu appears liver and onions, smoked pork chops, tongue, carne en su jugo, weekend specials of menudo and pozole, and a small number of seafood dishes, most but not all of which involve shrimp. Beverages offered include, as indicated above, hard liquor and mixed drinks, as well as beer and wine; of the beers on hand are Modello, Negra Modello, Dos Equis, Corona, Tecate (cans), Bohemia, Corona, Heineken and the products from the two American mega-breweries. Soft drinks include various Jarritos products and Mexican Coca Cola.
Since my visit to Tayahua was for lunch, I kept my order simple: Mexican coke, a quesadilla with huitlacoche, and a plate of tacos with cecina and beans. Complimentary chips were offered -- hot, greasy and fresh from the fryer -- and on the table were two salsas in squeeze bottles and a small bowl filled with dried Mexican oregano (presumably for those ordering menudo but, given it was Wednesday, likely some other dishes as well). The quesadilla with huitlacoche -- this time of year presumaby with canned smut -- was good, with the huitlacoche having a mild earthy flavour. About halfway through eating it, I decided it could use a little boost and so tried the green table salsa. This was a rather thick, garlicky and spicy sauce that I rather enjoyed. All in all, it was a tasty, if unspectacular quesadilla (insofar as corn smut can be unspectacular in the US).
My second course of tacos was really quite good. The three tacos came arranged thus: two corn tortillas dressed with a smear of refried beans, then generously topped with chopped cecina hot from the griddle, along with griddled onions, a good dose of cilantro, and chunks of fresh lime on the side. These were admittedly about as simple a thing as I could have ordered but to me a good test to see whether a place can at least get a very basic dish right. I would say they did. One complaint here is, however, that the red salsa seems to have been pico de gallo and, contained as it was in a squeeze bottle, one could really squeeze out only a little watery juice.
In all, my lunch cost a slightly surprising $11.15. But I was sufficiently pleased with what I had that I will return again in the near future with Amata and the taco-loving Lucantonius to sample some more offerings, including some substantial dishes. I ran a search on Tayahua in LTH and that turned up nought but I strongly suspect someone out there has been to this pleasant taqueria/restaurant. I hope some further opinions will appear below.
Here is the address and phone number:
2411 South Western Ave
Chicago, IL 60608
Hours are 8 a.m. to 12 midnight but on Fridays and Saturdays they're open 24 hours.
* A small picture of the illustrated sign painted on the bricks of the north wall can be found on this webpage; alas, clicking for the enlarged version doesn't seem to be working today (it did yesterday). There are, however, a number of other interesting signs from establishments on or near Western Avenue.
Post-site-move character problems fixed.