Smile Politely

Drive south of the border for the best tacos ever

It’s an unfortunate fact, but a very real one: we don’t have great Mexican food in this town. For those who are thinking to themselves — “Oh, but Dos Reales!” — please, just stop. Keep quiet. You sound like a lunatic. It’s not great. It’s not even good. It isn’t even close to good. In fact, it’s bad. Formidable spots to grab a decent Mexican meal can be counted on one hand: Taco Loco, Mas Amigos, and El Charro all fit the bill, but I never walk out thinking that I just had anything more than just a fair to OK meal. When it first opened, Taco Loco had something special — or so I thought. But over the course of the past couple years, I’ve been increasingly unimpressed.

These are tacos from El Taco Tako. And they are the best around. Hands down. No question.

Fiesta Cafe is just OK. It will do, anyhow, on a warm summer night when margaritas are on your mind, and if you really want excellent, and I mean excellent, chips and salsa, Chevy’s Fresh Mex is definitely the place for you. But ultimately, it’s just kind of fair once you dive into the menu.

Granted, I eat at these places. I really love Mexican food, or Tex-Mex, as it should more appropriately be called. But we’re missing a truly great spot for authentic Mexican street tacos. Nowhere in town can really and truly serve it up the way it should — with love. Homestyle. From the heart.

Drive south on 45 and you will run into The Taco Shack in Tolono. Keep driving. That joint can do it up just fine, once again, but these are self-ascribed Gringos, and they know they don’t really “have it.”

Just keep driving south. South of the border. Our border. The Champaign County border. Head into Douglas County and into Arcola, Illinois, where a whopping 20% of the population is of Latino descent. It’s there that you will find El Taco Tako, the best goddamned taco joint in Illinois, by my calculations.

This is a shack. And I mean it — it’s a shack. It can seat about ten people at a time, and I think that’s why it’s called El Taco Tako. As in: The Taco Takeout. But I have no idea what the name means really. The owners speak about as much English as I speak Spanish, which means that we can communicate enough for me to tell them how grateful I am for their food, and simultaneously, they can ring me up with a smile and let me know if they are out of something in particular.

Grab a Mexican Coke, and order dos platos de tacos. Each will cost you $6.50 plus tax. Don’t think twice. It’s worth it. Get uno pollo y uno pastor. That’s one chicken and one pork for you Tea Party bastards out there still holding out on what will eventually be our second National Language.

Each plate comes with five tacos. Each plate is also served with grilled onions on the side. Those are the lynchpin of the meal. They are unstoppable. There are also two salsas from which to choose. A verde and a roja. Both are delicious. Both are worthy of your attention. They sit in old Heinz ketchup bottles. It fits.

When they finally arrive — eat up. For a fella like me, one order, or five tacos, just isn’t enough. These are small corn tortillas, lightly fried, but not for long enough to create any sort of crunch. No — they’ve preserved it’s give and they are still toothsome enough to be able to tear it apart.

Every bite is perfect. It’s not worth it for me to write further, to try to describe the perfection here, lest I dive into hyperbolic dysentery. I can only suggest that you drive the 30 miles to get there so you can understand about what I am writing. These are the best tacos you will ever eat.

Arcola is a town just south of Champaign on I-57. Its claim to fame is in the form of a rag doll better know as Raggedy Ann and a troop of wackos called the Lawn Rangers, who march in formation every year at the Broom Corn Festival, according to Wikipedia. As you are driving in to town, the street poles are adorned with illustrations of high school football players, with names painted on their chests to designate the local gridiron heroes for the coming year. Lots of them have names like Rodriguez and Villanueva. It’s a town that is made up of a significant portion of Latinos. As such, I’d wager that 99 out of 100 people in Arcola wouldn’t prop up El Taco Tako as anything more than the local taco shack. A place to have a meal. Perhaps it’s the fact that the community is simply numb to the idea that they are sitting on culinary gold. Whatever the case may be, this joint is something to behold. Even at $4.00 a gallon, the drive is worth its weight and then some.

After all, who would’t want to eat from the hands of these folks?

Photos by Justine Bursoni

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