The stretch of Broadway cutting through the Baker neighborhood is suddenly awash in tacos. The second location of restaurateur Johnny Ballen's Cochino Taco opens today at 3 p.m.
Ballen opened his first Cochino at 3495 South Downing Street in Englewood in 2016, and the restaurant, built from the bones of an old Phillips 66 gas station, has since become one of the most popular eateries in its neighborhood for cheeky takes on Mexican food (the Evil Cheetos and crispy pig ear tacos are standouts), frozen Kip Winger cocktails made with Zima, and stellar list of artisan mezcal. The new location brings more of the same (minus the Kip Winger; Ballen says his Zima source has dried up for now) to 176 South Broadway, the former home of Gary Lee's Motor Club & Grub.
The space has been revamped to show off the Cochino aesthetic: orange and blue wallpaper with the Cochino logo, porcine figurines on every wall and shelf, repurposed materials from the owner's obsession with flea markets and antique shops. There's even the light-up bingo board and Bevador cooler from Ballen's days as co-owner of the Squeaky Bean downtown (which closed two years ago). Folks who remember the bingo board will realize that its presence at Cochino can mean only one thing: weekend Bingo Brunch.
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The overhaul of Gary Lee's includes a refurbished patio with three fire pits, updated restrooms with 3-D images of Jesus in place of mirrors, and an updated kitchen for turning out a range of tacos from the traditional (barbacoa, carnitas and lengua) to the unique (squash ratatouille, buttermilk fried chicken). Other house specialties include a mean bowl of green chile, pig "schwangs" (pork shanks done wing-style) and a deliciously messy queso burger.
The bar itself, which Ballen says resembles an old battleship, hasn't changed, but behind it you'll notice three frozen-drink machines, two of which will be devoted to margaritas and palomas. The liquor license is a full cabaret license, which will allow for live music. The patio is big enough for a stage and the owner says participating in the annual Underground Music Showcase is a possibility.
Cochino joins Illegal Pete's and the new La Loteria as taco purveyors on the block. The new taqueria will be open from 3 p.m. daily for happy hour and dinner; Ballen will keep neighborhood demand in mind when setting permanent closing hours, and will also add lunch and brunch in the coming weeks. Visit the Cochino Taco website for more details.