Mexican cuisine enjoyed a surge in Boston a few years ago, with a dozen upscale, decidedly Yanqui-fied places suddenly appearing in our fanciest neighborhoods. You know the type: eight dozen tequilas behind the bar, chichi atmosphere, tacos clocking in at nine bucks a throw. They have their uses: Tourists and conventioneers seem to love them, and they’re popular date-night spots. But for lovers of more traditional Mexican fare, any venue swank enough to host a bachelorette party feels a bit ersatz. Spend enough time in the modest Mexican-owned taquerias of Eastie and Waltham, and you develop an itch that no $14 Naughty Pineapple Margarita can scratch. For those afflicted with that yearning, merciful relief has arrived in the form of Chilacates, a pocket-sized joint in Jamaica Plain that delivers the real Mexican deal at easy everyday prices.
Tacos ($2.99 each) are the essential starting point here, tacos al pastor a useful benchmark. The “shepherd’s taco” emerged from the kitchens of Lebanese-Mexicans adapting their homeland’s shawarma to local ingredients, subbing pork for lamb, corn tortilla for pita. In Boston it is rare to see a trompo, the canonical stack of pork loin cuts and pineapple slices on a spit, rotating against the heat of a vertical rotisserie, but that’s how Chilacates makes its taco al pastor. Tiny slices of tender, crisp-edged pork and grilled pineapple are piled atop another local rarity: a palm-sized housemade tortilla with real corn flavor. Garnished with fresh cilantro, diced raw white onions and shredded radishes, it can be dolloped with fabulous housemade fresh salsas of tomatillo and roasted red chili.
Other filling options are similarly vivid and satisfying. They include the garlicky sliced steak of carne asada, the complexly spiced stew of shredded chicken breast and smoky chipotles in chicken tinga, tiny diced potatoes and crumbled pork sausage in papas con chorizo, slow-braised marinated pork shoulder in carnitas, diced braised beef tongue in lengua, grilled chicken and a seasonal veggie option, featuring zucchini, poblano peppers and corn on one visit. If you want to get fancy for an extra 99 cents, there are Baja-influenced tacos of crisp grilled cod and nicely browned grilled shrimp ($3.98 each). With all the evident hand-crafted care packed into them, these might be the tastiest tacos in the city at any price, full stop.
Those 10 filling options are also available in the quesadilla ($8.50-$9.50), featuring lots of melty jack cheese and served with sides of fresh pico de gallo and guacamole; the torta ($8.50), a sandwich dressed with avocado, jack cheese and jalapeño mayo that benefits mightily from a terrific, slightly oily, toasted telera roll from a Chelsea bakery; and the substantial burrito ($5.99-$7.50), whose big flour tortillas—another rare ingredient not made in-house—are bulked up with rice, black beans, cheese and pico de gallo.
Chilacates does an excellent version of the street-food staple that is elotes ($2.99). At that gentle price, you get a full ear of corn, grilled soft to nearly blackened sweetness, coated with mayo and fresh lime juice, sprinkled generously with the dry aged cow cheese cotija and dusted with a little dried ground chili. Other side options ($2.99 each) include rice and simply stewed black beans, as well as excellent fresh guacamole (95 cents). Housemade tamales ($2.99 each) with scant fillings of cheese with roasted chilies, green-chili chicken or red-chili pork, are mild, crumbly and filling, best when arriving fresh from the steamer.
Beverage options from the cooler include bottles of candy-colored Jarritos sodas ($2.25). Housemade, cinnamon-heavy horchata and sweet/tart agua fresca de jamaica (hibiscus flower) and tamarind (all $1.99) are big and refreshing. Desserts include flan ($4), a generous hunk of firm egg custard with a thin caramel sauce. The sunny counter-service space is brightly decorated (hola, Frida Kahlo) and given additional warmth by the irrepressible good humor and hospitality of omnipresent owner and longtime JP resident Socrates Abreu. But with a mere 10 stools lining a perimeter countertop, dining-in quarters can be tight; many customers do takeout. This tiny, humble neighborhood spot may ultimately not rank as destination dining for most folks from outside JP. But for any Bostonian with warm memories of wandering off the beaten path in the Yucatan, or standing over the hood of a car eating $2 truck tacos in Los Angeles, Chilacates feels like a godsend.
-Carne asada torta
-Grilled shrimp quesadilla
-Grilled chicken burrito
-Tacos: al pastor, chicken tinga, papas con chorizo, carnitas
Hours: Daily, 8 am-10 pm
Parking: Street spaces
Chilacates 224 Amory St., Boston (617-522-6000)