Best of the South Side 2009: Pilsen

The neighborhood is named for the Czech city from which many of the area’s late-19th-century residents hailed, but in recent years it has received attention for the effects gentrification has had on this primarily Mexican-American community. Spanish names of taquerías, panaderías, and botánicas still dominate the shop signs, but the demographics have slowly shifted as Mexicans move to Little Village to the west and college kids from both the north and south move in. One consequence of the low rents and hipster influx was the enormous growth of the Chicago Arts District along Halsted Street, which for several years was thronged with visitors on the open gallery nights every second Friday of the month. In the past two years, however, the loose-knit organization of artists and galleries has slipped, with studios and galleries unexpectedly shuttering their windows one after the other. Many have vague plans to reopen elsewhere, while some are heading directly to Bridgeport; other artists, such as Annie Novotny of Workshop (below), see potential for growth in whatever comes next.

best boutique

Annie Novotny, the owner of Workshop and artist of Frei Designs, produces and sells clothing made from organic and ethically sourced materials in this small but airy studio-cum-boutique. Novotny is happy to explain her design philosophy, conversing with customers in the front display space or from behind the counter near her ironing board. Her creations revel in the patterns and textures of her fabrics, incorporating ruffles and folds in flowing dresses and loose blouses; her fall/winter collection for 2009 specifically references the ornate and mannered costumes of Victorian mourning clothes. Novotny’s work is carried in shops on the North Side, nationally, and even in South Korea, but her high-end locally-made pieces and those of other Chicago designers sold at Workshop are rare and special on the South Side. 818 W. 18th St. Friday-Saturday, 11am-6pm; Monday-Thursday, by appointment. (312)226-9000 (Helenmary Sheridan)

best cultural coffeehouse
Cafe Mestizo
When looking for a cup of joe and a bite to eat in Pilsen, make sure to put Cafe Mestizo at the top of your list. Coffee shop, restaurant, art gallery and boutique, Cafe Mestizo does it all and does it well. On the top of their extensive drink menu is Café Azteca, a combination of Mexican hot chocolate, espresso, cinnamon and whipped cream. Pair it with tamales wrapped in banana leaves, served with sour cream and fruit, and you have a perfect meal. A self-proclaimed “Cultural Urban Coffee House,” Cafe Mestizo’s laid-back ambiance is complemented by its eclectic décor: mismatched easy chairs, couches and unique tables are surrounded by walls covered with colorful art made by local, Mexican, and Ecuadorian artists. In the rear of the café is a selection of clothing, jewelry, CDs, records and bric-a-brac for sale. Its Intelligentsia coffee is cheap and good, served in mismatched mugs, and its inexpensive food prices makes Cafe Mestizo an ideal stop for discerning diners on a budget. Boasting free Wi-Fi and a wide variety of board games and magazines for use by patrons, Cafe Mestizo is always a good choice for art, for lunch, or just for a coffee break. 1646 W. 18th St. Monday-Friday, 7am-10pm; Saturday-Sunday, 10am-10pm. (312)421-5920 (Leah Reisman)

best art collective
No Coast
Don’t be fooled by the awning outside left over from a sandwich store; inside, instead of pop, candy, and ice cream, you’ll find poster art from local venues like the Hideout, zines, apparel, screenprints, fiber arts, records, and more. In the basement is a printing studio for use by the collective and other local artists. “We really want to be a resource,” says No Coast member Alex Valentine. In keeping with that mission, No Coast hosts a variety of events, including periodic “screenprinting lock-ins,” where guests can use the facilities from 6pm one day to 6pm the next. More regularly, they have barbecues, book readings, and frequent concerts by local and national bands. 1500 W. 17th St. Wednesday-Thursday, 1-7pm; Saturday, noon-7pm; Sunday, noon-6pm. (312)850-2338 (Sam Feldman)

best bakery with the worst hours
Kristoffer’s Cafe and Bakery
Kristoffer’s is rumored to have the best tres leches cake in Chicago or anywhere else, and it’s pretty good–a little too sweet, but with four daily varieties plus specials like eggnog and Kahlua, it’s worth increasing your sugar tolerance to sample every kind. Too bad you’ll never find out, because they’ll throw you out at 4pm on weekends. 1733 S. Halsted Ave. Monday-Friday, 7:30am-7pm; Saturday-Sunday, 8am-a very firm 4pm. (312)829-4172 (Helenmary Sheridan)

best pork taco
La Casa del Pueblo
With at least one taquería on every block, choosing the best taco in Pilsen is an impossible task. The tortillas must be fresh and fluffy, of course, and the meat should be juicy but not so greasy that it floods the plate, but practically everything else is up for debate. Does putting shredded lettuce on top, Tex-Mex style, automatically disqualify that taco as a contender? A purist might argue so, but if La Casa del Pueblo does it, that’s authentic enough for me. The cafeteria-style taquería, noisy on a recent afternoon with chatting families and live Beatles covers by a tone-deaf street guitarist, serves the best taco I have ever had: one hefty asada de puerco for $2, stuffed with large chunks of meltingly tender pork stewed in ancho chili sauce. Their carne asada taco, sprinkled with the aforementioned lettuce, was not such a revelation; while decent, it tasted like it came from the grocery store of the same name (which owns the restaurant) next door. But enough tempting items remain in the extensive menu (which includes a mainly-vegetarian Lent-only section) to warrant repeat visits. Or go for just the pork. 1834 S. Blue Island Ave. Daily, 6am-8pm. (312)421-4664 (Helenmary Sheridan)

best textile selection
Textile Discount Outlet
Textile Discount Outlet on 21st Street in Pilsen is a true haven for aspiring and experienced seamstresses, designers, and fabric aficionados. With a mind-boggling array of fabrics spanning three warehouse-sized floors, the store provides endless opportunity for textile-inspired discovery. Owned by Sol Lieberman, Textile Discount Outlet maintains a delicate balance of organized chaos–you may have to dig through some unruly piles of fabric to find what you are looking for, but chances are you’ll find it and the price will be right. Despite the overwhelming size of the building, customer service is quick and comprehensive. Need advice about your project? Talk to one of the women at the cutting counter–always helpful, cheerful and talkative, they will help you to find and purchase everything you need for your job. 2121 W. 21st St. Monday and Thursday, 9:30am-7pm; Tuesday-Wednesday and Friday, 9:30am-5pm; Sunday, 10am-4pm. (773)847-0572 (Leah Reisman)

Here is a sampling of Pilsen’s many taquerías. Some are great, some are good, and some are just cheap, but they’re all worth a look and a taste. (Helenmary Sheridan)

Gloria’s Tacos
Sampled: 1 steak taco, $2
Gloria and her partner cook for you in what appears to be their home kitchen and living room, serving up delicious meat with pungent onion in regrettably stale tortillas. Mac ‘n cheese and cheeseburgers are also on the menu, but stick to the tacos: the smells of grilling meat and fresh tomatillos made me salivate as I picked through Gloria’s in-shop yard sale.
1755 W. 18th St. Daily, 8am-9pm.

Taquería Cardona

Sampled: 3 tacos: al pastor, bistec, and pollo, $1.45 each
Cardona’s taco meat is juicy and salty, but otherwise bland. However, they’re open 24 hours, feature several temporary tattoo vending machines, and four tacos are less than the cost of the beer best drunk immediately before coming here. The quality of the food is not the point.
1451 W. 18th St. Daily, 24 hours.

Taquería Los Comales
Sampled: 1 beef tongue taco, $1.45
With 18 locations in Illinois and Indiana, Los Comales isn’t the most homegrown authentic offering the neighborhood has to offer. But it’s still damn good. My tongue taco, sprinkled with cilantro, onions, and hot sauce, was small but satisfyingly meaty, followed up with a simple and sweet Mexican flan.
1544 W. 18th St. Monday-Thursday, 8am-midnight; Friday-Saturday, 8am-4am; Sunday, 8am-1am. (312)666-2251

Taquería El Milagro
Sampled: 1 plate-sized carne asada taco, $2.75
Quantity over quality is the rule at El Milagro. The meat in my carne asada taco wasn’t especially flavorful, but it would have filled two or three tacos at most other taquerías. The restaurant’s interior is large and attractive and the sweet tamales (coconut and pineapple) sound intriguing, so it’s a good place to get fed.
1923 S. Blue Island Ave. Daily, 8am-9pm. (312)433-7620