Best of the South Side 2008: Pilsen

In the late 1800s, a restaurant opened up in this formerly German and Irish neighborhood called “At the City of Plzen,” in honor of the second largest city in West Bohemia (the modern-day Czech Republic). But with World War I came vast labor shortages, which attracted a variety of immigrant groups, most notably the Mexican population that so dominates and defines the neighborhood today. But while it may be known primarily as Chicago’s Mexican neighborhood, Pilsen has also recently built up a reputation as a veritable hotspot of up-and-coming artists who have only added to the area’s prosperity and points of interest. The second Friday of each month (appropriately titled Second Fridays) boasts new offerings from many of the galleries that dot Halsted around 18th Street, which are worth checking out for much more than just the free wine. Add in exciting contemporary artwork and cheap, authentic Mexican eats, and you’ll understand why Pilsen is perennially pegged as “up and coming.”

Best Taquería
Taquería Los Comales
Nuevo León is often touted as the best place to chow down before heading out to Second Fridays, a monthly open house of Pilsen’s many art galleries. But do not be tricked. Instead, head across the street to Los Comales which, while it does not have the same charming décor as Nuevo León, is cheaper and consistently tastier. One reviewer on Yelp.com proclaimed Los Comales the most authentic Mexican restaurant in Chicago (and he’s Mexican, so he’s got cred), and I’m not one to argue. You can sample some of the more exotic Mexican meat options, like tripa (tripe), sesos (brain), and lengua (cow tongue). The tacos are served a la Mexicana, with cilantro, onions, and freshly-made salsa, and the meat is impeccably spiced. The gorditas are different combinations of beans, cheese, and pork rinds, and taste as delicious as they sound. And possibly the best part? They’re open till 4am on Fridays and Saturdays. 1544 W. 18th St. Monday-Thursday 8am-midnight; Friday-Saturday 8am-4am; Sunday 8am-1am. (312) 666-2251. www.loscomales.com (Katie Buitrago)

Best Goat Tacos
Birriería La Barca Jalisco
Note: This restaurant is technically in Pilsen’s sister neighborhood, Little Village.
I speak Spanish, so I’m not usually too concerned about going deep into the non-English-speaking reaches of Chicago’s Latino cuisine. But I had no idea what was on the menu at Birriería La Barca Jalisco: Guilotas? Guevera? Azada? Machito? Tejuino?* Even my dad, the native Spanish speaker, who I called in a fit of desperation, couldn’t offer any help. “It sounds made-up,” he said. Great. Well, whatever it is, they do it right. I stuck with the words I knew–al pastor (pork) and birria (goat) tacos–and was treated to some of the best tacos I’ve ever had. They’re served on exquisite, thick homemade tortillas. And it’s one of the few restaurants in the city that serves the Jalisco specialty of birria tatemada, goat made in consommé and seasoned with mole before browning in the oven and refrying on the grill. Don’t be deterred if you’re less than linguistically gifted: the waitstaff-cum-cooks speak enough English to take your order. Just pick something at random and you’ll be in for a treat. 4304 W. 26th St. (773)522-1450 (Katie Buitrago)
*Machito, I’ve discovered, is coiled tripe and gut, guevera is catfish roe, and tejuino is a drink made from cornmeal and lime juice. I’m still in the dark about the others. Contact the Weekly if you can shed some light (cwedit@gmail.com).

Most Intimate Theater
EP Theater
EP Theater is proof that Chicago, most commonly known as a city with superior improvisational theater, also has a serious side. Located in Pilsen, the EP Theater is a small, independent theater company that could be easily missed when walking down Halsted between 18th and 19th Streets, especially because the entrance is located in back. Upon entering the building, its doors outlined by white Christmas lights, you feel like you’re stepping inside the home of an old friend. The dimly lit yet lively lobby area showcases artwork by local artists and features a bar with beer and spirits. The theater itself, a simple black box theater, seats around fifty people with no elevated stage. Ultimately, the lack of a raised stage works in EP Theater’s favor, as the audience is drawn into the play immediately. There is a level of intimacy between the actors and the audience that does not exist at bigger theater companies. Whether you live for theater or barely know who Shakespeare is, EP Theater has a little bit of something for everyone. And if you’re an aspiring playwright, act fast; last week the theater announced an open call for submissions of all sorts. 1820 S. Halsted St. (312)850-4299. eptheater.com (Tiffany Kwak)

Best Art Gallery Under a Highway
Rooms
Off the beaten path of the Pilsen prime gallery drag, if you’re in the neighborhood, Rooms is worth a gander. Despite its location under the Dan Ryan Expressway, Rooms is unaccountably serene–a tranquil two-story flat-to-gallery converted space. Owners Todd and Marrakesh Frugia frequently co-create original productions that vary from proper theater such as January’s “Bird Dog Sedition” to video installations such as November’s “12-Speak.” They occasionally lease the space to other artists, putting up new shows about once a month. Every third Thursday Frugia opens the gallery for “Salon,” an outlet for aspiring artists to perform or display their art. 645 W. 18th St. Friday, 7-10pm, or by appointment. www.roomsgallery.com (Rachel Reed)