McHenry and Lake Counties have an embarrassment of taqueria riches, many of which are little hole-in-the-wall spots offering inexpensive tacos. Enter the 21st-century taco transmogrification with Lake in the Hill's El Cochino.
Owners Peter Rim, Jeffrey Dunham and Jino Kim, who are also the big enchiladas at next door's Bistro Wasabi, figured everybody likes tacos as much as sushi and thus opened El Cochino in February 2017. Billing itself as "an American taco, tempura and tequila bar," El Cochino ("the pig" in Spanish) brings the upscale taco trend to the far northwestern suburbs. This is not Mexican regional cooking from Puebla or Jalisco but rather ethnic fusion tacos that are all the rage from Brooklyn to Chicago to Los Angeles. In the city, you can order naan tacos crammed with chicken tikka masala, pricey filet mignon tacos at steakhouses and even sushi-taco mashups featuring raw sushigrade yellowtail. El Cochino's seven taco options aren't as muddled but do dip into Korean and Jamaican jerk flavors that use soft corn tortillas as their vehicles into modern Mexican.
El Cochino4580 W. Algonquin Road, Lake in the Hills, (224) 858-7000, facebook.com/elcochinolakeinthehills
Cuisine: Ethnic fusion tacos
Setting: Upscale taco, tempura and tequila bar
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner: 5 p.m. to close Tuesday through Saturday and 4:30 p.m. to close Sunday; brunch: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Prices: Tacos: $3.50; tempura: $7-$10; chips and dips: $5-$7; margaritas: about $9-$10
The bright space is as compact as the menu: There's an open kitchen, a few tables and six spacious booths each comfortably seating six. The rustic yet modern bar seats about 20. Walls showcase understated Hispanic-themed art (bullfighter, mother and child, Flamenco guitarist, for example). And the unisex bathroom features a plethora of iconic Mexican crosses and whimsical images. Contemporary Latino music plays at a level perfect for conversation. El Cochino attracts a varied clientele from young families with infants and children to couples and friends.
We arrived on a Sunday thinking brunch might involve chilaquiles, huevos rancheros, maybe some chorizo hash or a breakfast burrito. The brunch menu listed only four items: El Muffin Sandwich (sausage, egg, grilled onions, Jack cheese on an English muffin for $9); a skillet for $13 that was tilted in the right direction with chorizo, eggs, various veggies, plus guacamole and sour cream; steak and eggs with home fries for $16; and breakfast tacos -- three sausage and eggy numbers for $9. My brunch buddy and I were glad that the eatery was offering its regular menu, too.
Neither the brunch menu nor the drink menu listed prices, which puzzled us. Could the owners not decide how much to charge? Were they hoping customers would just order without asking? Doesn't it take waitstaff valuable time to answer about the price for a shot of this tequila versus that one; a grilled pineapple margarita as opposed to a sake cucumber number; or how much for a Pacifico or a mimosa (it's $7, by the way)? Maria Kim, wife of Chinuk Kim, told me later that the prices aren't listed because they're still tweaking the menu to see what's working and what's not (although the Taco, Tempura and Chips and Dips menu does list prices).
My buddy had a Corona and I ordered a Bloody Mary (instead of a listed Bloody Maria made with tequila). I could not have guessed it would be a pedestrian, weak drink that set me back $9 or I would have just ordered a beer or a soft drink. I did get the 411 on the liquor: Tequila shots range from $7 to $23 (most are in the $7-$14 range); margaritas cost $9-$10; beer is $4 and up to $13 for a 22-ounce number. There are no beers on tap.
We looked to the Tempura section for starters and chose panko-coated avocado, which was fried and served with a zippy jalapeņo cilantro sauce. Although I probably wouldn't order it again, I liked the avocado because it was presented in a fashion I had yet to ingest -- fried and warm. My dining companion said it was the only time he didn't like avocado, again proving there's no accounting for taste.
We also went with the Best Cheese Curds Ever, a culinary challenge if I ever heard one. The cheese curds arrived exactly as described -- made-to-order insuring consistency, the panko provided a light even crunch and the cheese was gooey. I thought it odd they were served with marinara sauce in a taco place. But they were so good, we didn't mind the rather steep $8 price tag. Other options in the tempura category include pickles served with spicy mayo ($7) and Pedro's wings for $10 with a subtext of "Peter's world famous wings." I would return to try them based on the boasting and besting of the curds.
You won't get chips and salsa presented to the table upon arrival -- you have to pay for it. Salsas are freshly made every day and include mango salsa ($6), pico de gallo ($5) and guacamole ($7).
We shared four tacos: pastor (seasoned Mexican pork and pineapple); a Korean barbecue pork; panko-breaded shrimp, which was one long breaded crustacean topped with fruity salsa, avocado and spicy mayo; and Peter Smith's jerk chicken that uses a secret family recipe. Tacos consisted of two small corn tortillas stacked, filled and topped with cilantro and onions. They were tasty (all meat and seafood is cooked/fried in 100 percent lard) and beautifully presented. Our tastes demanded more flavor and heat, though, so we squirted various bites with the coral-colored mango habanero, light green avocado jalapeņo and red salsas on each table. I was told that one can order quesadillas even though they are not on the menu.
Maria Kim says that in early summer, El Cochino will add some unique fusion items, such as lunch bowls with rice, veggies and a choice of protein and fusion dishes like tuna poke bowls.
Overall, prices, when you can find them, are a tad steep, but the quality and ambience is right on the money.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.