Best of the South Side: Pilsen

Empanadas. Theater. Futbol. Experimental art. Once a Czech enclave and now the largest barrio in a state not named “California,” Pilsen is also one of the perennially up-and-coming neighborhoods in Chicago. The mix of Latino culture of West Pilsen and high-end culture in East Pilsen make for a charming neighborhood, though the divide between east and west may better be described as a battle line. As the forces dedicated to preserving the neighborhood’s ethnic and working-class character stave off gentrification by Halsted Street’s league of artists and real estate companies, there remains the still, quiet space in the eye of the storm where the coolest offerings in the city can still be found.

Best for Intimate Drama
EP Theater
I don’t mean that kind of intimate drama–get your mind out of the boudoir. Storefront theatre can be a hard gig, but the guys behind Pilsen’s EP Theater put their all into it. The small theater adopted the slogan “Enter at Back”, because you have to go around the back of the building to get in. The building’s been recently renovated and the space looks great, but more importantly, EP continues to offer quality work in their intimate space. They’ve started a Tuesday night reading series for new work (more importantly: it’s free), and the current production is a series of short plays inspired by art. EP isn’t the most glamorous place, but their work certainly makes a big impression. 1820 S. Halsted St. Show runs and times vary. (312)850-4299. (Rose Schapiro)

Best for Something A Little Different
Extension Gallery for Architecture
Pilsen’s lauded “Chicago Art District” can be fun, sure, but some of the galleries don’t take the risks that you see elsewhere in the city. Extension was developed to be a gallery for examining new frontiers in architecture. Though its space can feel a little cramped when there are truly giant projects, it does bring architecture to you–no more stretching your neck to see what you just can’t. And while Extension works to stretch your expectations, there is no question that what they show is challenging, interesting, and both architecture and art. 1835 S. Halsted St. Thursday-Friday, 12pm-5pm. (773) 742-0983. (Rose Schapiro)

Best Mid-Sized Splurge
Mundial Cocina Mestiza
Mundial is a fantastic BYOB in Pilsen, if you’re interesting in dropping a bit more for your food. It does Mexican-inspired cuisine (with a Mediterranean twist) incredibly well. Think homemade tamales and tortillas as well as dishes like grilled salmon with caramelized mango. The food is completely fantastic, but it’s definitely more than you might be used to paying (about $10-20 for entrees). However, the trip is completely worth it, as Mundial is a foodie haven because of their great fusion of flavors and styles. The menu changes seasonally, and the chef is, needless to say, quite talented. Notably, they’re open for brunch on Saturday and Sunday, which makes for a fun treat. 1640 W. 18th St. Monday-Sunday, 11am-10:30pm. (312)491-9908. (Rose Schapiro)

Best Place to Rock
South Union Arts
Where can we start about the sorry state of rock music on the South Side? Luckily (for now) there’s South Union Arts, a former church (though it actually still has services on Sundays) where local company MP Shows books rock concerts. SUA is kind of a lovable underdog–shows are cheap and have obscure line-ups, and the bands will play when there are two people in the audience or a few hundred. The concerts take place in the main church area, so you’re treated to a neon Jesus on a crucifix behind the stage, which bathes the entire room in an eerie glow. Go to SUA even if you don’t recognize the names on the bill, because it’s a completely unique concert experience. Also, be advised that unfortunately, the pews make truly dancing to your fullest a bit of a hazardous experience. 1352 S. Union St. (Rose Schapiro)

Best for Not Actually Buying Things
New Maxwell Street Market
The Maxwell Street Market is a Chicago institution. Unless you’re in construction, you probably won’t want what these vendors are selling. But aside from that equipment (some of which appears to have been gathered through slightly sketchy means), there are tube socks, toys, horrendous sunglasses, and cookware of varying degrees of quality. And you can find some things that you truly might want. But the best parts of the market (which recently relocated to Roosevelt Road) are really the people-watching and the food stands, which mostly sell incredibly spicy varieties of tortillas and sandwiches, as well as Coca-Cola in classy glass bottles. The throngs are an eclectic bunch, and definitely worth paying attention to. 500 W. Roosevelt Rd. Canal St. and Roosevelt Rd. Sunday, 7am-3pm. (312)922-3100. (Rose Schapiro)

Best Place to Get a New Wardrobe–Sort Of
Unique Thrift
The Unique Thrift stores are wonderful places to shop. They are like your conventional thrift store, but because they’re a popular chain, they offer a huge variety of products. This Unique has everything from furniture to shoes to leotards. Mondays are half-off on everything in the store, but incredibly busy. This particular location is one of the largest, and resembles a fluorescent museum devoted to bad eighties dresses (think lots of nylon blends all arranged in color-coordinated order on one side of the store) and high-waisted jeans. But if you look through everything that you don’t want to wear, you’ll find plenty that you do covet. And aside from being a cheap way to spruce up your look, you’ll have fun searching. The one downside is that Unique’s don’t have any dressing rooms, so you’ll find yourself looking a little more ridiculous than usual when you try to decide what to take home. 5040 S. Kedzie Ave. Monday-Sunday, 10am-9pm. (773)434-4886. (Rose Schapiro)

Best Place to Shop if Goodwill’s Out of Your Price Range
The Rag Shop
Find a cheaper thrift store in this city and I’ll give you a dollar. With that, you’ll be well on your way to a pair of jeans, or all the way to a shirt at the Rag Shop. Rarely will a garment go for more than $5, and most stick to the $2-3 range. Still feeling overcharged? Clothes are half-off every day, and everything in the store is half-off on Saturday. The selection isn’t bad either; the Rag Shop stocks everything from shirts to shorts, handbags to sleeping bags. The shop runs mostly on donations, but the owners will occasionally drive hours across the state to pick up free clothing. These pick-ups often turn up strange finds, including noiseless ornamental bells and rooster-shaped plates for deviled eggs. A particularly large batch of Czech World War II posters was part of one such haul. “My mom picked them all up from Galena, Illinois,” said the owner’s son. “This guy was just giving away all these clothes and stuff for free.” Short version: this place is a must for clothes bargains, a maybe for dorm decoration. 1112 W. 18th St. (312)243-1724. (Supriya Sinhababu)

Best Place to Trick Out Your Bike
Irv’s Bike Shop
Irv’s Bike Shop is a bit of a misnomer. “My brother bought this place from Irv 27 years ago,” explains one employee. “Before then it was more of a toy store than a serious bike shop.” Now Irv’s is the happy medium, a kind of toy store for bike enthusiasts. Sure, there’s still a row of toy vending machines by the door, a pile of discount comics in the back, and a cage of canaries for sale outside. But don’t be fooled. The shop carries top brand bikes, like Schwinn and Diamond Back, as well as hard-to-find bike and skateboard parts. Used bikes normally go from $45-120. And if it’s a Lowrider you want, don’t even think about using any other bike shop. Irv’s also has the biggest selection of bike bling in the city. Cyclists with a taste for plush seats, decals, or chrome-plated parts, look no further. If bike-accessorizing sounds too gaudy, consider this: Irv’s is famous for carrying quality brands at unbeatable prices, and for staffing mechanics who won’t talk down to even the biggest bike noob. So go on, celebrate your triumph at finding a great bike shop with a brand-new, purple leopard-print seat. 1725 S. Racine Ave. Monday-Friday, 10am-7pm; Saturday 10am-6pm; Sunday 10am-3pm. 312-226-6330. (Supriya Sinhababu)

El Mejor Lugar para Encontrar Libros en Español
Libreria Girón
If you’re serious about learning Spanish, go to a Spanish-speaking country. If that’s out of your budget, the Libreria Girón might be the next best thing. Don Quixote and Sancho sculptures welcome customers into the small shop, which packs a surprisingly wide variety of Spanish-language print and audio books, magazines, and CDs. Wannabe Spanish-speakers can pick up latest edition Spanish-English dictionaries, bilingual songbooks, or fairy tales for kids. Those with reading abilities a bit beyond elementary school levels can find titles by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, or Federico Nietzsche. Don’t hesitate to ask the owner for recommendations. She seems to have a knack for understanding mangled Spanish. 1443 W. 18th St. Monday-Saturday, 9am-8pm; Sunday, 10am-7pm. (312)226-2086. (Supriya Sinhababu)

Best Restaurant to Visit in the Dead of Winter
Cuernavaca Restaurant
It can’t be helped. The time will come, mid-February or sooner, when you forget that the color green occurs in the natural world. This year, try beating the winter blues with the plentiful greenery of Cuernavaca Restaurant. With a potted plant in every corner, the eatery has leaves, vines, and branches climbing up walls, hugging pipes, and dangling from the light fixtures. The less verdant elements of the décor also contribute to Cuernavaca’s south of the border feel. Ceramic tiles top the tables, and the word “Mexico” is carved into every chair. A Mexican Revolution spoof poster features Pancho Villa pointing and saying “I want you, gringo!” while Mexican pop stars on one of four plasma televisions provide pre-meal entertainment. The food itself completes the experience. Two pots of salsa and an oven-fresh batch of tortilla chips arrive at the table as soon as a chair moves out from under it, and the tostadas, sopes, and tamales are among the most authentic and delicious in the city. At just $7-10 an entrée, Cuernavaca will send you back into the world with the full stomach and color vision you’ll need to make it to May. 1160 W. 18th St. Monday-Sunday, 10am-12am. (312)829-1147. (Supriya Sinhababu)