Best of the South Side 2009: Southwest Side

The story of Chicago’s Southwest Side is a classically American one. Immigrants–Poles, Lithuanians, Italians, Germans, Czechs–flocked to the area in the early 20th century after the extension of streetcar lines made it an easy commute. Railroads and stockyards–including the famous Union Stock Yard portrayed in Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle”–brought an abundance of jobs to neighborhoods such as Brighton Park and New City. For the next half-century, the primarily residential area thrived, until the industry it relied on began to disappear. In the latter part of the 20th century, the Southwest Side experienced a decline in population and prosperity that coincided with increasingly tense race relations in neighborhoods like Gage and Marquette Parks, where school desegregation met fierce opposition from white residents who feared plummeting property values. Residents in some neighborhoods formed community associations to help cope with the conflict–often successfully, as in the case of diverse, middle-class Gage Park. Today, a growing number of Southwest Side residents are Hispanic–approximately 80 percent in Gage Park and in Little Village, where nearly half that number is foreign-born. The area appears to be on the upswing, thanks in part the construction of the Orange Line connecting Midway Airport to downtown, which has been a boon for property values and the local economy.

best mexican brunch
La Haciendita
With as brisk a business on Saturday mornings as any trendy North Side brunch spot, minus the long wait and high prices, La Haciendita is a favorite of Gage Park locals. Pretend you’re one of them and seat yourself; order in Spanish if you can. The menu is a litany of well-executed Mexican standards, with standouts like spicy gorditas, al pastor and carnitas tacos, and several preparations of huevos (accompanied by the usual rice and beans, plus potatoes). Thirsty? Order an horchata or other agua and you’ll get 64 ounces for less than $3. 5151 S. Kedzie Ave. Monday-Saturday, 10am-midnight. (773)434-3864 (Robin Peterson)

best exotic ice cream
Paletería Flamingo
Ever wanted to try tuna-flavored ice cream? Probably not–but maybe you’ll want to try cactus pear-flavored, which is what this ice with the startling label means in Spanish. If that doesn’t interest you either, one of the several dozen other flavors of house-made ice, ice cream, and yogurt probably will–tamarind, horchata, flan, Parmesan, chile, and fruits from the familiar (lime, cherry) to the foreign (guanábana). Can’t decide? Try a sample, which the servers are quick to offer, or order a scoop each of two different flavors for about $2. Portions are relatively small, but the flavors are intense. Paletería Flamingo also serves ice cream shop staples like sundaes and shakes, plus Mexican favorites like paletas–all of them made with fresh fruit. Cash only. 2635 W. 51st St. 2pm-10pm, daily but subject to weather. Closed during winter. (773)434-3917 (Robin Peterson)

best thrift store
Village Discount Outlet
With its laissez-faire attitude toward organization, the Brighton Park Village Discount Outlet emphasizes the treasure-hunt aspect of thrift store shopping. Be prepared to dodge piles of discarded clothing and small children in the cramped aisles, and don’t count on privacy when trying on clothes–the closest thing to a fitting room here is the few mirrors scattered throughout the store, which serve well enough for judging whether that “Mahoney Family Reunion” T-shirt is tight enough. If you manage to navigate the store’s controlled chaos, you can leave with several outfits for less than $10. The housewares are also a potential site for steals among the clutter. Visit this weekend, September 26 and 27, for a fall clearance sale where everything in the store is half price. 2514 W. 47th St. Monday-Friday, 9am-9pm; Saturday, 9am-8pm; Sunday, 10am-6pm. (708)388-4772. (Robin Peterson)

best street food
La Veintiseis
The commercial heart of Little Village, La Veintiseis refers to the stretch of 26th Street between Kostner and Western Avenues. It’s a booming area–next to Michigan Avenue, it generates the highest sales tax revenue in the city of Chicago. Head west under the “Bienvenidos”-proclaiming pink arch at Albany Avenue, and the colorful storefronts and abundant street vendors evoke a city south of the border–not so far from the truth, as the neighborhood is home to the highest concentration of Mexicans in the Midwest. Vendors share the sidewalks outside businesses, as is the tradition in Mexico, selling street food like tamales, chicharrones (pork rinds), paletas, and–sometimes, if you’re lucky–$1 tacos. Vendors sell from 5am-10pm daily. (Robin Peterson)

best caribbean
Garifuna Flava
The menu at Garifuna Flava reflects the cooking of the Garifuna people in Belize and elsewhere in Central America, a fusion derived from African, Latin American, and indigenous cuisines. Fish, rice, corn, and bananas play prominent roles, and offerings range from familiar Latin standards with a Caribbean twist (guacamole served with plantain chips) to homey, comforting dishes offered few places else (cow foot soup, cassava cake.) The panades, finger-long corn patties filled with a mixture of fish and refried beans, are a standout, each crisp patty bursting with fresh corn flavor. The restaurant turns one year old in May, and they hope to bring in more live bands and Belizean entertainment in the well-appointed banquet hall next door. Lively Caribbean music, yellow-checked tablecloths, and sepia photographs of Belizean villages make the fluorescent-lit storefront a pleasant enough place to take advantage of their Wi-Fi and full bar, but the engaging staff, and endless amounts of fresh, hot plates coming from the kitchen make it extraordinary. 2516-18 W. 63rd St. Tuesday-Thursday, 11am-8pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-2am; Sunday, 11am-8pm. (773)776-7440 (Helenmary Sheridan)

best mango sorbet
Los Mangos Express
Plastic mango trees and optical illusion art fill the bright orange space of the promising Archer Heights taquería Los Mangos Express. The restaurant proudly serves specialties from the Mexican state of Guerrero like picaditas–red or green salsa, smoky meat, queso fresco, and a dollop of sour cream constructed on a fried masa base, a bit like sopes. These masa cakes are much thinner, however, which gives them a superb texture, exactly halfway between chewy and crunchy. The standard taquería fare, prepared on a griddle nearly as wide as the restaurant, is outstanding as well. Good luck finding anything on the menu more than $5–Los Mangos is ridiculously cheap. Leaving room for dessert is mandatory, otherwise you’d miss out on the nieve de mango, the chili-spiked mango sorbet. Gooey and just a bit piquant, it seemed to consist of more mango than ice. The nieve de mango could really be their ticket to city-wide recognition. Word seems to be spreading–a couple seated nearby skipped dinner and made straight for the sorbet. 4888 S. Archer Ave. Monday, Thursday, Sunday, 8am-10pm; Tuesday-Wednesday, 8am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 8am-12am. (773)247-6070 (Ellis Calvin)