Wednesday, January 11, 2012

La Casa del Pueblo

After expertly-crafted but not soul-satisfying recent meals at Blackbird and El, I felt the need for something more elementally fulfilling. Facing such situations I usually go for a burger at Owen & Engine, a bowl of Sul Lung Tang at Han Bat, or a Peruvian roast chicken at D' Candela. This time, though, I found myself in Pilsen without time to travel to any of those standbys. So I found what will become a new one.

La Casa del Pueblo calls itself a taqueria, but it's a cafeteria-style place with a huge menu where tacos seem a relatively minor component. I stood back for a few minutes to see how the locals approached the place, then I followed their lead by going up to the hot line where a smiling woman explained what each steaming pan contained, and I ordered a plate with barbacoa de res and a chile relleno de carne (they also had chiles stuffed with queso). Then I took my seat as instructed, and waited a few minutes for the same woman to bring me my food.

For me barbacoa is pretty much a can't-miss: slow cooked, juicy meat that seasoned mildly so as to let the meat's meatiness shine. That said, though I like just about all versions, they are not all created equal. Kitchens can choose to use various cuts: shoulder, shank, foot and more. When it comes to cow barbacoa, my favorites by a wide margin are those that use the head. Cow head has an unmistakable rich flavor and soft texture that separates it from other parts. I didn't ask any questions, but I would be surprised if the beef barbacoa at La Casa del Pueblo did not come from a cow's head. Some salt and maybe a bit of laurel in the seasoning was all I could detect. This was pure beef, as unctuous as it gets.

I also love chiles rellenos, but unlike with barbacoa, most of the chiles rellenos around town are dreadful: greasy specimens stuffed with cheap, gloppy cheese or unseasoned meat, then drowned in some sauce that attempts to hide just how bad they are. I order a chile relleno at Frontera whenever I'm there and it's available - not necessarily because I love it, but because - until now - it seemed the only place that served something halfway decent. The meat-filled chile at La Casa del Pueblo was wonderful: no sauce at all until I dabbed just a bit of pico de gallo onto each forkful, a light batter coating and wonderfully aromatic filling with plump raisins, braised carrots and potatoes, and coarsely chopped meat. Just fantastic.

This says nothing about Blackbird or El, which are fine restaurants, but memories of dishes there will have long faded while the aroma of La Casa del Pueblo's chile relleno and the unctuousness of its barbacoa continue to haunt me in the most pleasant way.

La Casa del Pueblo
1834 S Blue Island Ave
(between Loomis St & 19th St)
Chicago, IL 60608