8 Must-Eat Mexican Sandwiches in Chicago

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Xoco's exquisite cochinita pibil. [Photographs: Layne Dixon]

The average outsider may never peg Chicago as one of the country's great Mexican food cities, but it doesn't take much rooting around to realize that's the case. Yes, Chicago is home to favorites like Rick Bayless's restaurant empire and the ever popular Big Star, but I'm also talking about a Mexican-American population close to 800,000, making Cook County the country's third largest Mexican enclave after California's LA County and Harris County, Texas. There's no shortage of excellent restaurants to serve that community, run by second- and third-generation immigrants, both near the city center and spread across the county's southern and western suburbs.

Perhaps it's not as iconic as deep dish pizza or hot dogs, but Mexican cooking makes up a vital part of Chicago cuisine, and one of the most common menu items you'll find at the city's great restaurants and taquerias is sandwiches. I'm talking overstuffed cemitas, salsa-slathered pambazos, and some of the best beef you'll get between buns in the city. Here are eight sandwiches worth scarfing down.

Cochinita Pibil at Xoco

Mexican food in Chicago owes a lot of its popularity to Rick Bayless, and his sandwich shop Xoco doesn't disappoint. While pretty much all the sandwiches here are worth a look, pay special attention to the cochinita pibil. The Yucatan specialty of citrus- and chili-marinated pork is positively silky on this sandwich—juicy, lipsmacking like suckling pig should be, and stained a brilliant orange by achiote.

The bread is some of the city's best, a French-style loaf baked by La Fournette that's crackly-crusted and tender-but-sturdy inside, enough to soak up all those pork juices and bring some character of its own. The addition of locally grown black beans and pickled red onions popping with acidity round out the package well.

Carne Asada Torta at Taqueria El Asadero

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El Asadero isn't the under the radar place it used to be, but this particular sandwich is still something of a dark horse. Simply put, if you love carne asada, this is the place to go; El Asadero's steak blows the competition out of the water.

They use the same top-shelf grilled skirt steak that goes into the tacos and burritos—juicy, well salted, and deeply browned on the edges, with beefy brawn shining through underneath. The real trick is volume: They go through a lot of steak here, so the meat on your sandwich has always been freshly grilled and sliced, not cut up and left to overcook and spill out juices in a steam table. All those steak juices stay right where they're supposed to be—inside the meat and dripping into the bottom bun, almost reminiscent of a gravy-soaked Italian beef. Toppings like lettuce, tomato, and sour cream add crunch and creaminess, but make no mistake—this sandwich is all about the meat.

Torta Cubana at Rocky's Tacos

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The name of this Rogers Park mom and pop shop is a bit misleading. Rocky's is a sandwich shop, first and foremost, and a sign inside reads, "La Casa de Las Super Tortas Futboleras." Each super-sized sandwich is named after a Mexican soccer (I mean futbol) idol, like the Chicharito (chicken cutlet, pineapple, ham, and cheese), though a few international superstars make the cut as well. (The Messi: breaded beef, chicken, pork, and cheese; the Beckham: chicken fajitas.) With over 30 sandwich options, the menu can be intimidating for first-timers, but in truth most of them will satisfy you.

My go-to starting point is the tortas cubanas section—meaty monsters layered with the likes of chorizo, hot dogs, pork chops, breaded chicken and beef cutlets, fried eggs, avocado, ham, you name it—all piled on massive teleras delivered fresh each morning. For the brave, I suggest the La Seleccion Mayor, which features a whopping six meats (breaded steak, sausage, grilled pork, chicken breast, bacon, and ham) plus chipotle, cabbage, and squeaky white cheese. It's too much, of course, but each meat is browned well, and they all build on each other for the ultimate Mexican combo.

Pambazo at The Green House

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The Maxwell Street Market, held Sundays at Roosevelt and Des Plaines, is a weekly festival of Mexican street food, and for much of the city's Mexican population, it's the place to go when you want not just a taste of home, but the sights, smells, and sounds as well.

Fresh, pliant bread gets dipped in a chili sauce bath that'd be nice on enchiladas: guajillo chilies, onion, garlic, and chicken bouillon blended until smooth. Then it hits the griddle to crisp up its crust again. It's then split down the middle and stuffed with crumbled, well browned chorizo and firm, chorizo-fat-stained potatoes, plus cool lettuce for crunch and a splash of crema for creamy tang. You're in for a mess, and you'll be eating this in open air, but it's one you'll want to clean up.

Torta Ahogada at Las Picosas

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If you thought the pambazo was a messy sandwich, it has nothing on the salsa-drowned torta ahogada, a specialty of Jalisco popular with the late night party crowd the morning after. You don't have to work too hard to guess that it's the go-to of Las Picosas, a Southside restaurant—it's listed prominently on the awning outside.

At Las Picosas they drown the sandwich with a mild tomato and chili sauce tarted up with lime juice, then hand you a bottle of incendiary hot sauce to add on as you please. Inside is a layer of thoroughly crisped juicy carnitas topped with sliced red onions for extra crunch. It's a simple sandwich—sauce, meat, bread—but an undeniably satisfying one. And you get a crunchy potato-filled taco dorado on the side for free. Stop in on a Tuesday or Wednesday and the sandwich is a mere $4.

Cemita Atomica at Cemitas Puebla

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Tony Anteliz and his family have taken a special commitment to quality at their Humboldt Park cemita restaurant. It would have been easy for them to settle on pre-breaded milanesa cutlets or use chipotle chilies straight from the can, but that's not how Cemitas Puebla became one of Chicago's favorite sandwich shops. No, this is the restaurant where they take frequent trips to Oaxaca to buy Mexican-made string cheese and fresh, citrus-tinged papalo, because the quality's just better back home.

The famous Cemita Atomica stands four inches in height, thanks in large part to its fluffy and magnificently crackly bun, one of the city's best. Inside are three meats—guajillo-rubbed pork loin for spice, breaded pork milanese for crisp, and Krakus ham for salt—along with smoky chipotles, avocado, and a generous handful of Oaxacan string cheese, which helps cool the sandwich down. All in all, it's a surprisingly balanced cemita, not just a big one.

La Bomba Torta at Doña Torta Mexican Restaurant

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Since 1990, Little Village's Doña Torta has been making massive, two-hands-necessary tortas packed with filling combinations you've never considered, over 30 offerings on crisp, lightly toasted bolillo rolls.

Try the Bomba, which comes with breaded steak, thinly sliced lean pork, and salty ham—the same crisp-meaty-salty concept we've explored above. The meats are then topped with melted mozzarella-like cheese, pineapple for fresh sweetness, and, because why not, some bacon. Lettuce, tomato, mayo, and a spread of refried beans lighten it up for a mix of meaty, crisp, crunchy, juicy, and gooey.

Pibil Torta at Kokopelli

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This modern Wicker Park taqueria got its start as a roadside stand in Tijuana. It specializes in Baja Mexican food, which means there are some interesting taco options, but it's the torta that speaks to me: a pair of fish sandwiches, a rare thing in Chicago's torta landscape.

Filets of swordfish come marinated in earthy, spicy adobo, then grilled over hot coals where they absorb plenty of smoke. Sturdy toasted buns keep the fish in place, avocado adds creaminess, and cabbage brings some crunch to contrast with the tender swordfish. Fish tacos are all well and good, but this is a fish option with staying power.