Today, Tasty Tuesday is Taco Tuesday and the challengers in this showdown are culinary heavyweights. If you like having your options limited to chicken or beef and flour or corn tortillas then move along–there’s no spectacle here for you. But if ingredients like guajillo chiles, japanese citrus, grilled pineapple, and slow-roasted pork belly set your mouth to watering, then pull up a ring-side seat to the “Little Lake County Battle of the Gourmet Taco!”
Both taqueria adversaries are the casual sidekicks to noteworthy fine-dining counterparts. The Otherdoor is located next to its fancier big brother, Inovasi in Lake Bluff, and both locations are the scions of local celebrity chef extraordinaire, John des Rosiers. Milwalky Taco, in bustling downtown Libertyville sits next door to Milwalky Trace, the home base of celebrated Chef Lee Kuebler.
Both Milwalky Taco and The Otherdoor allow you to experience chef-crafted flavor in a casual setting. Wear your jeans, bring the kids, and talk too loud–it’s all gravy baby. At these prices, you don’t have to wait for your anniversary to dine at either restaurant, both Milwalky Taco and The Otherdoor are affordable enough for a weeknight out with the family on a regular basis.
The vibe at both restaurants is decidedly more XRT than KISS FM. Which doesn’t bother me in the least, as I’ve said before, hipsters know how to cook!
Both competitors feature housemade salsas of a dizzying variety and different intensities. While both lay claim to authenticity, the fillings are a huge departure from your typical Mexican restaurant. At Milwalky Taco, you can stretch your boundaries with braised cactus paddles, grilled beef tongue or wood-grilled crimini mushrooms, or play it safe with spit-roasted pork, wood-grilled skirt steak and chicken. At The Otherdoor, you’ll find your typical chicken, beef and pork, but it will be free-range, grass-fed and heritage breed. Expand your horizons and fill your taco with “The Potato Forgot to Duck” which features braised potatoes, slow-cooked duck leg, rosemary, hominy and onion.
Both restaurants are casual, at least compared to their Contemporary American older siblings, but The Otherdoor is fast casual service. Step up to the counter and place your order where you watch your creation assembled before your eyes. And it’s not just tacos you can choose from, but burritos, bowls and soft or hard-shell tacos. Think of it as the artisanal version of a popular fast-casual burrito joint. It’s a few dollars more, but feel pride knowing your money is supporting local farmers and local business instead of a multinational corporation.
Milwalky Taco is still casual, but less so than The Otherdoor. There is wait service, a full service bar with cocktails, televisions for watching the big game, and more seating overall. While The Otherdoor has a rustic appeal with reclaimed doors decorating the wall; Milwalky Taco has something of an urban swank to it, despite its suburban location. My kids loved the mural in the back room featuring a playful Day of the Dead skull with tacos on its mind. The environment makes it equally appealing to meet friends after work for happy hour, take a date, or bring the family for an early dinner.
Because The Otherdoor is fast casual, it’s not a place I would recommend for date night or a celebration. It’s a place where you can get good food fast. If you’re looking for an alternative to a chain restaurant with higher quality but the same convenience, this is the place to go.
Milwalky Taco on the other hand, while still being casual, is nice enough for a special occasion. They even have a private party room available. However, pricing is per taco and for big appetites that can add up quickly. Some of the selections I made for my children ended up being too spicy for them, and I had to order more so I was a bit shocked when the bill came. Note for the future, they will make a plain quesadilla for your child upon request.
Because Milwalky Taco also has a full-service bar, families will be more comfortable in the back room away from the bar and closer to the parking lot. They also are only open evenings after 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, so lunch is currently not an option.
Where they win:
With kids, being able to customize the heat and level of spice can be important and since you can pick all your own fillings and toppings at The Otherdoor, there’s less danger of your child rejecting it. Also the fast casual service will feel familiar and comfortable to kids who don’t do well at sit-down establishments. They are also open everyday for lunch and dinner so you have a wider window to get your taco fix.
As I mentioned above, if ambiance is important to you, Milwalky Taco wins. There I can pretend I’m 25 again and living in Wicker Park, even as my 5-year old asks me to bring her to the bathroom. And when you’re a tired parent, sometimes I just want to sit back and have someone bring the food to me, instead of carrying trays from a counter. It’s really all about what mood you’re in and the kind of service you prefer.
In terms of flavor, they both win. Fresh, high quality ingredients. Inventive and surprising combinations. Well-balanced flavors. You sense the craftsmanship in each bite.
The Menu Standouts and Kid Picks:
At Milwalky Taco, your kids can’t go wrong by ordering the Pescado Taco with a side of frijoles charros (beans served with tortillas.) The beer battered pollock is perfectly crisp and the chipotle mayo is mild enough for young palates. My kids were intrigued by the novelty of the Walking Taco, basically a taco served in a bag of Fritos (Get it? You can walk with it!) but it wasn’t our favorite in terms of flavor. Depending on your children’s accepted level of adventure, remember you can always special order a quesadilla as there is no kids menu.
If you want a treat, prepare to have your mind blown by their Mexican Hot Chocolate, which I unreservedly declare as the BEST HOT CHOCOLATE I HAVE EVER HAD. Seriously, we need to rewrite our Best Hot Chocolate in Lake County post and give Milwalky Taco’s incarnation top billing. There’s a reason it’s on the dessert portion of the menu and not listed with beverages. Simply put, it’s the richest, most intensely chocolate hot chocolate I have had and the way the toasted marshmallow melts into this nectar of the gods….I can’t even. You have to save it for dessert, because if you have it first you really can’t eat much else.
At The Otherdoor, because you pick your own fillings and toppings, the combinations are literally endless. It will take you multiple visits to decipher your favorite combination and definitely don’t limit yourself to one salsa choice. I tried #7 La Pamplonada which consists of smoked chile, chocolate and hazelnuts. A woman at the counter told me her favorite salsa combo was #9 WTF! combined with #1 Limoncitos to cool it down (salsas are numbered according to their heat.) I’m working my way up to try #10 La Malinche which has roasted habañero, smokey cumin and japanese citrus.
Portion sizes are generous and there is also no kids menu so go for the Crispy Tacos for when ordering for kids (they get 2 per order.) You can also hedge your bets with a chicken or cheese quesadilla.
Despite the fast casual service, grown-ups can still get wine, beer or even a margarita.
So who wins?
In perfect diplomatic fashion, YOU dear reader are the judge! I judge both The Otherdoor and Milwalky Taco to be delicious. It really depends on what kind of service and atmosphere you are in the mood for.
Will you take our Tasty Tuesday Challenge? Which taco reigns supreme in Lake County? Tell us in the comments.