El Faro

Chicago, Illinois


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Wow. El Faro has to be one of only 15 or so Mexican restaurants nation-wide that serves mockmeats and also unusual vegan dishes. We're not talking a tofu burrito or anything like that; the food here is far more sophisticated, and authentic, than that.

You wouldn't guess it from the outside. El Faro is in the middle of nowhere, far from the city center; it's a predominantly Hispanic area with auto repair shops, warehouses and then, suddenly, one Mexican grocery store, bakery, and El Faro itself.

El Faro is a diner (think Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks"), so there's a ton of counter space and friendly service. The clientele was almost entirely Hispanic, and most families with young children, at that.

The first two pages of the menu are entirely vegetarian and vegan with helpful descriptions of each dish. They even have tofu scramble with soy chorizo!

I had one "carne asada" taco ($1.75), one "pollo con nopales" ($2.25), and one nopales platter ($7) which comes with rice, black beans and tortillas. "Nopales" are dried cactus leaves, which is something I have never encountered at any other Mexican restaurant in the US. El Faro is extremely smart and clever to market nopales as a vegan item; they have crunch and the texture of bell peppers, with a slightly tart taste.

The tacos were both wonderful and cheap. The carne asada was served exactly the way you'd find it at a street vendor in Mexico: open-faced, with just the soy beef, cilantro and onions. No cheese, no cream, no beans. They give you some green salsa on the side. This was an extremely rare treat for me; there is no other Mexican restaurant in Chicago where you can get something like this. The soy beef was high-grade and had great texture and flavor.

The pollo taco was also excellent and the soy chicken looked and tasted completely different from the soy beef (which is nice, as at many restaurants, they blend together). The nopales added a nice tart crunch to the tender soy chicken.

The nopales platter was good on a whole, but I got bored of making taco after taco with the tortillas they provide. I got extra avocado with it ($0.95) which added a fatty, mild element to counteract the acidity of the nopales.

El Faro is a gem. It's also an in-the-know place which can make you feel like a smart local. While it's a long trek from the center of Chicago or the hip North Side of the city, it's worth the trip, and you'll be hard-pressed to find anything else like it in the US.

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