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Sunday, December 15

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Arturo's Tacos
Ah, the taqueria, Mexico's gift to urban eating. It's the Mexican equivalent of a hotdog stand -- fast food that's also hand made when you order it. There are probably hundreds of taquerias in the city, each offering up dishes familiar to anyone who's been to a Taco Bell, but so much better: tacos and burritos and gorditas, oh my. GB Staffers Jes Davis, Naz Hamid, Andrew Huff and Ken Meier got together at Arturo's Taqueria, at Western and Armitage, for dinner recently to see just how good a taqueria could be.

Now, most people end up in Arturo's after they go out drinking, not before, but in order to give you, dear reader, an objective review of the food, we went before heading to our real destination for the evening, the Map Room. And we stuck to the smaller plates, rather than indulging in the full entrées, which range from steak to whole fried snapper to enchiladas suizo.

We started off with the complimentary chips and salsas -- hot salsa verde and zesty pico de gallo -- and an order of guacamole. The guac was a bit disappointing. It was nice and fresh, but it needed a touch more salt, and for some reason -- perhaps as filler? -- there was shredded lettuce mixed into the mashed avocado. Certainly not the worst we'd had, but definitely not the best, either.

While we waited for our main course to arrive, we chatted a bit about the inevitable crush of work, Andrew's ongoing kitchen renovation and Naz's new bike. The topic turned to cold sores, which prompted Naz to verify that cold sores are caused by herpes and then ask, "So is herpes a caucasian thing?" After the laughter died down, we assured him that no, all races and ethnicities were susceptible to the herpes simplex virus. He explained that he couldn't recall ever seeing someone with a cold sore back home in Malaysia, and wondered if maybe Asians didn't get them. We pointed out that cold weather is often a trigger, along with stress, so maybe they just weren't as common there because of the warmer climate.

Arturo's has a reputation for excellent tacos al pastor -- marinated pork that's roasted on a spit like gyros -- but it offers a wide variety of meats, including chicken, carne asada, lengua (beef tongue), chorizo and even seso (cow's brain). For vegetarians, there's avocado, of which they give you a ton, and chile relleno which, obviously, isn't vegan friendly. Surprisingly, despite a good size seafood section on the menu, they don't offer fish tacos, an oversight Jes hopes they someday remedy.

Andrew got three tacos: one al pastor, one carne asada and one carnitas, which was pan-fried pork. Each contained the meat and a mixture of diced onions and cilantro on top of two small soft tortillas, garnished with slices of lime. The carnitas taco was OK, a little fatty, and the carne asada was just fine, but the taco al pastor was the standout -- spicy and flavorful with plenty of grease (the good kind, in this case), it was clearly worth its reputation. Andrew wolfed down his tacos and ended up finished before anyone else.

In addition to a taco al pastor of his own, Ken sampled the torta de aguacate (avocado sandwich) which was cheap and delicious. Their thick, crusty bread is stuffed with fresh lettuce, avocado, tomatoes and sour cream -- with a dash of salsa verde it's a meal on its own.

As a "fish-etarian," Jes ordered three avocado items, still bummed that they didn't have fish tacos. She got a taco, a gordita and a sope, which is sort of like a really thick tortilla. She said it seemed more deep-fried and thinner but wider than she's used to, but it was still good. Although she waited till the Map Room to have a drink -- we all opted for a round of horchata (sweet rice water) -- Jes recommends Arturo's margaritas. "Of all the places in that area, they have the best margaritas: they're cheaper, taste less like margarita mix, and are served in awesome heavy goblets."

Naz got a cheese gordita and an avocado taco. Unlike some of the more greasier offerings that tacquerias tend to offer, both the items left a clean taste in the mouth. The difference between the two was mainly in the shells -- warm, double-layered corn tortillas for the taco versus a grilled, thicker tortilla split open and stuffed for the gordita. Both came with lettuce, tomatoes and a side of lime. Naz felt both items were a bit bland as-is, but the salsa verde added some oomph and flavor.

While we waited for our check -- the restaurant had gotten pretty busy, and ultimately Ken had to get up and find our server -- Andrew showed the group that salt can temper the acidity of lime juice. Next time you've got a slice of lime handy, shake some salt on it and take a bite. After Andrew demonstrated, Jes tried it out and though she said it was too salty, she confirmed that the sourness was gone.

As we made our way to the door, Jes summed it up: Arturo's is good, but it's a lot better when you're drunk and it's 5am. And with that, we headed for Map Room.

Map Room
Dubbed "A Traveler's Tavern," this essential Bucktown watering hole is every beer aficionado's best friend, featuring hundreds of brews from around the globe, dozens of which are available on tap. Specializing in American and Belgian beers, the Map Room is the Near West side equivalent (in selection, clientele and atmosphere) to Andersonville's Hopleaf, sans the food and plus coffee.

Map Room is a relatively mellow joint. You could mistake for just another neighbourhood bar, and it has a lot of that flavor, but most neighborhood taps don't have the amazing selection or the stylish decor. Lots of dark wood, bookshelves between tall windows and maps on the walls, of course. There's a pool table in the back that's in near-constant use. The vibe is decidedly "very Bucktown," as Jes stated, referring to the young urban professionals filling the neighborhood and the barstools, but that's not entirely a bad thing. On a Thursday night, it's just people getting together and having drinks and a good time.

After securing a table, we sidled up to the bar and took in the beer list. The options on tap change regularly, necessitating the chalkboard menu from which Andrew and Ken both picked Bell's Double Cream Stout, which was the current "cask conditioned" selection. Naz went with Strongbow cider and Jes got her usual Duchesse de Bourgogne. One of the specialty brews now in stock is Three Floyd's legendary Dreadnaught, a 22 oz. IPA that is potentially one of the best beers you'll ever have. A steep $15 a bottle, this is fruity, floral, and complex with an incredible finish -- Ken insists it's worth every penny.

We started off talking about various websites and projects we had in mind, but as Ken and Naz got more and more techie, Andrew and Jes started a side conversation about yoga and new apartments. Jes quickly downed her Duchesse, which she described as similar in flavor to balsamic vinegar (although not nearly as sour). "It's the only beer I really like," she said. The Double Cream Stout was excellent -- thick like a Guinness, but sweet and, of course, creamy instead of iron-y.

We munched the free pretzel sticks (what better to go with snobby beer?) and continued to drink and chat, and as the night wore on, the bar got more crowded and the music got louder. We eventually found ourselves a bit cramped together and shouting in each other's ears. Why is it that bars turn up the music when it gets crowded? Everybody just gets louder to try to talk over the music, and the bartenders turn it up even louder, and it ends up a race to the top until closing time. If the bartenders want to be able to hear the music over the patrons, they should put speakers behind the bar.

Although you often have to put up with less-than-desirable music, packed crowds, and the typical gaggle of Bud-drinking neighborhood types, the knowledgable staff and quickly rotating menu more than make up for it.

Map Room is open until 2am on weeknights, 3am on Saturday. Miraculously, they're also open at 6:30am weekdays and 7:30am on Saturdays (presumably with different staffers than in the evenings) to serve as a local coffee shop. Jes, who used to live a couple blocks away, says the barista pulls a good shot of espresso, "perfect temperature, lots of crema."

Arturo's is located at 2001 N. Western Ave. Open 24 hours, seven days a week. Map Room is at the corner of Armitage and Hoyne (1949 N. Hoyne); more information is available at maproom.com.

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