Restaurant review: Laguna Mexican Street Food & Ice Cream

G.A. Benton
Three Tacos: Pastor, Chorizo And Steak

Laguna is a fun new eatery with a suitable subtitle: “Mexican Street Food & Ice Cream.” To be specific, the operation, open since late March on Hard Road (a previous incarnation was tucked into a West Side laundromat), offers inexpensive, taco truck-style fare, Mexican soft drinks, “crazy” snacks, plus plenty of terrific chilled confections starring Laguna's house-made ice creams and snow cones.

Laguna also offers an inviting, spotless and often-bustling little space with incredibly friendly counter service, a couple TVs usually tuned to Univision or soccer games, and walls crisply painted sky blue and avocado green. If arguably more treat emporium than restaurant, Laguna's lunch and dinner items are nonetheless worth your time and money.

Especially the ready-in-a-minute, $2 tacos, which are made with warm, soft corn tortillas and flavorful meats dished up cafeteria-style and frequently crisped on a griddle. Standard garnishes of cilantro and sauteed onions (a boon for diners who eschew raw onions) can be accompanied by lettuce, cheese, guacamole and other fixings for a nominal cost.

My favorite meats are the lively marinated pork pastor and the spicy, addictive chorizo. I also enjoyed the lusty carnitas, lean steak and simple chicken, but they can be a tad dry on occasion.

Tacos made with griddled vegetables and griddled cactus are pleasant enough. The bready, peppery and pricier (still only $2.75) fried fish tacos are only so-so.

Any filling can be featured in customizable quesadillas ($6.95), gloriously messy tortas ($7.50), or burritos and enjoyable bowls with foundations of pinto or black beans and Mexican or brown rice ($7.25).

For a hearty side dish or snack, try the irresistible Esquites ($3.50), which you'll find under “Street Appetizers.” Served in a foam cup, it's a heaping helping of corn kernels immersed in a warm lime-juice broth tweaked with sharp cheeses and chili powder.

This sort of immodestly garnished, taste bud-overstimulating Mexican street-vendor fare is common at Laguna. Under the “Street Appetizers” category, you'll also find recent food crazes that rightfully use “loco” in their names, such as the Dorilocos ($5.75): Nacho Cheese Flavored Doritos topped with a loony pseudo-salad of lettuce, cheese, tomatoes, spiced peanuts, diced mango, hot sauce, sour cream, chili powder, gelatinous pickled pork rinds (an acquired texture) and more.

The Papas Locas ($6.25) are similarly crazy but assembled without the fruit and nuts. Because their base is crisp, house-made potato chips, I might give them the edge over the Dorilocos, but both wacky combos are amusing if you're in the mood for something messy and a bit unorthodox.

If you're looking for something cool and delicious, you're in the right place, too. Eighteen house-made “nieves de garrafa” — Mexican-style sorbets — are available ($5 for three pick-and-choose scoops). I liked all I tried, but was particularly enamored with the smooth churro, creamy coconut and intense mango.

The latter can take a crazy turn if you order the highly recommended Mango Lagunada ($6.15). Like all lagunadas here, it's fashioned with ice cream, fresh fruit (hefty mango strips in this case), the pickled-fruit condiment called chamoy, chili powder and tongue-tingling tamarind candy. This adds up to an outrageous and refreshing parfait that's tangy, piquant, salty and wonderful.

That same litany of adjectives applies to the even spicier Diablito Raspado ($5.05). Laguna offers about a dozen raspados, or Mexican-style snow cones, and the Diablito is a delightfully over-the-top example. House tamarind syrup and shaved ice — think tart, fruit-kissed iced tea — are accented with diced mango, chamoy, tamarind candy and loads of chili powder. Maybe you have to be a little crazy to like this as much as I do, but I'm clearly not alone on that count.

Laguna Mexican Street Food & Ice Cream

1980 Hard Rd., Northwest Side