I discovered my taco joint in 1998, when I was still new to Chicagoland and few of friends (alas). It could have been a corner bar, I suppose, but I don't drink alone, or the nearest coffee shop, but I don't hang with the hipsters or wannabes or teenagers or soccer moms or security moms or mortgage moms or whatever the hell we're supposed to be calling them these days.
I could reach my taco joint on foot and that seemed important, somehow: fighting my natural tendency to draw inward when I'm feeling out of my element (don't be fooled; there is always a shy girl somewhere, tugging at my elbow, kicking her toe in the sand, glancing down). I lived in a cheap, buggy basement apartment in a small, quiet suburb and wanted to be anywhere else, and anywhere else meant walking three easy blocks to the right side of the tracks (I'm not sure there was a wrong side) and ordering two steak tacos, corn tortilla, with a bottle of water to stay. There was no conversation beyond the particulars of my order, although smiles were offered, but it didn't matter — sometimes when you're alone — even if you can't quite call it lonely — random voices in foreign languages is all the sound you need to feel a part of a larger whole again.
It's this that drew me in and kept me coming, through job after job, long after I'd left that buggy basement apartment, long after I left that suburb. That the food is quick and cheap and fine is simply one lucky part of the equation; atmosphere is surely another. If it were a super-sized or trendy chain, I doubt I would have returned, and I certainly wouldn't have eaten in. Chains, to my mind, don't promote solo lingering: they're crowded and loud, and they tend for all their efforts to be hollow stripmall souls pushing plastic figurines and branded merchandise—it's tough to relax with a fresh copy of US magazine when there's another world of selling going on outside your head. (You can't just pump in Norah Jones and earthtones and call it charm, that's all I'm saying.)
Not that my taco joint dresses to impress, mind you — if you were passing on the sidewalk you likely wouldn't even turn your head, unless the salty air hooked you by the nose (go with the steak tacos, and if it's an especially hard day, chips and guacamole on the side). But it's right there on the corner, and, as with all neighborhood joints, the appeal lies in its nondescript everydayness, its predictability, its carefree concern and looseness of spirit: that sort of "we're glad to have you, but we're not begging" attitude that is the essence of neighborhood joint charm.
I have lunch there now with friends a couple of times a month; I was reluctant to introduce them at first, for fear they might find it wanting, but of course they understood immediately, which of course is why we're friends. We like to shake things up once in a while and go for pizza or Chinese instead, but there is no other restaurant we frequent as often. And there is no other restaurant that I frequent as gladly, where the familiar faces behind the counter can announce my order before I do. They don't know my name, but they know when I've gotten a haircut, and ask where have I been? when I've been away.
But also: there is no other restaurant that reminds me of where I've been — who I was and where I came from all those long years ago, through countless hairstyles and two cars and five cities and seven apartments, and everything in between that took me from there to here. All I have to do is walk in the door and I remember: everything and nothing changes. And that's not a restaurant, honey; that's a joint.
But where is it? you're wondering. That's a secret; you'll have to go out and find your own.