Everybody, great news: It's okay to open a taqueria now! Years after Pinche Taqueria and its Mexican gourmet ilk caused a headspinning frenzy for anything on a corn tortilla, the zeitgeist has turned its attention to other things. 1968 had the summer of love; 2011 boasted the summer of carnitas. Now that the craze has died down a bit, there's room for straightforward, unpretentious places like the young Grey Cactus Cocina Bar, which opened last December with a mandate to serve affordable and accessible taqueria food. The happy hour, served seven days a week from 4 to 6 p.m., takes it a step further.
Owner Dane Huguley closed the well-liked Cafe|Bar to make way for Grey Cactus in this West Washington Park space, maintaining chef Chris Scott but sending the kitchen on a nouvelle-Mexican journey. From craft cocktails to shared appetizers, nothing is over $10 — even outside of happy hour. The interior is just as spartan as the menu, enlivened only by the beautiful murals inside and out. Although there's not much on the menu I haven't seen done elsewhere, fried hominy ($1 at happy hour) is a new concept to me. Like high-class Corn Nuts, these are crispy little nuggets dusted with chili-lime seasoning. Are you putting MSG on these things, Grey Cactus? Once I popped one, I couldn't stop.
Of course, the tacos ($3 each) will be making up most of your meal here, and they look and taste exactly how tacos should. The cochinitas taco, with shredded pork and pickled red onion, was silky and savory, dripping with neon orange juice. The standard of any Mexican place is the strength of its pork, and Grey Cactus gets high marks. Then there's the chorizo taco, topped with a dash of Oaxaca cheese. These little tendrils of sausage were griddled to within an inch of their lives, but their crispiness was a boon against the briny cheese. But cilantro haters beware, both tacos were topped with enough of the green stuff to almost overwhelm the filling.
The only thing I sampled that made me question the purity of Grey Cactus' concept was the pozole stew ($5 a cup, $1 off at happy hour) which boasted a ton of tasty ingredients — pork, chicken, tomatillos, guajillo and ancho peppers — that were stuck at the bottom of a cup of clear, flavorless broth. It felt like a fluke in the kitchen, rather than a statement of belief that this is what true pozole tastes like.
Dishes come out with ruthless efficiency, all stuffed into paper cups or cardboard baskets. Everything about Grey Cactus is simple and humble; sometimes that's what a happy hour evening needs.
Perfect for: These aren't the cheapest happy hour tacos in town (That distinction might belong to Adelitas on taco Tuesday), but that means you can enjoy the classic tequila-soaked taqueria evening out without fighting chaos in the dining room.
Don't Miss: If you try one of Grey Cactus' Mexican or South American lagers, like Sol or Toña, fried hominy is the ideal accompaniment. There are some tasty non-alcoholic beverages as well, like horchata, or even a house-made green tea soda.