Best of the South Side 2010

Bienvenidos a Little Village–the pink gate over 26th Street welcomes its inhabitants and visitors. It’s hard to believe that fifty years ago this area, nicknamed the “Mexico of the Midwest,” was home to mostly Czech immigrants. A few remnants of those days remain in the neighborhood, like the unlit “Ciznek Men’s Wear” sign overhead Mariano’s Western Wear on 26th and Spaulding.

A walk down 26th paints a variation on the typical portrait of an American urban neighborhood: mothers talking to strangers who have stopped to pet their handbag-sized dogs, old ladies with their ice cream carts waiting patiently for the end of the school day, a group of middle-aged men smoking cigarettes on their neighboring front stoops as they gossip en español, and the vibrant Virgen de Guadalupe decorating otherwise unremarkable sides of buildings.

As incoming families continue to fill La Villita so do non-profits and community centers that try to keep up with the rising population of 18-and-unders. Their hope is to offer opportunities that will keep the young people out of the area’s infamous gangs, and depending on where you look, it seems like they’re doing a pretty good job.

Turn down Kedzie and you’ll spot a line of balloons and frilly dresses in celebration of someone’s quinceañera, and realize that your trip for tres leches has brought you to the center of more than just a hub of Latino businesses. When you travel to the Little Village, you step into a place with the kind of roots that are hard to come by in the Loop. Everyone has family down the street, a Villita feeling that transcends city blocks, national borders, y si tienes suerte, even languages. (Kelsey Gee)

best community arts organization
VILLARTE

In recent years, Little Village has produced numerous venues for artistic showcase, providing some serious competition for galleries in other South Side neighborhoods more widely known for art. The budding arts scene is gaining visibility largely because of VILLARTE, an all-volunteer group based in Little Village behind events like the

Little Village Film Festival and the Little Village Arts Fest (LVAF). This year’s LVAF (October 1-3) will include an opening night celebration, followed by live performances and the opening of 20 public gallery spaces, from tattoo parlors to school buildings to empty apartments. As a collaboration between local artists, businesses, community members, and students, the festival will also include workshops, discussions, and films. Screenings will be geared towards visitors of all ages and artistic interests, each with a focus on traditional and modern Mexican art. The festival is completely free and open to the public. villartechicago.blogspot.com/ (Kelsey Gee)

best mexican 101
Mi Tierra

With its three-story pink stucco tower and turquoise trim, Mi Tierra is hard to miss. Inside, long walls are painted with murals of Mexican cantantes, and brilliant, jewel-toned banners hang from the ceiling. The restaurant often hosts parties and local events, complete with frequent center-stage mariachi bands, but even without a special occasion the energy inside is always high. People flock to the down-home taste of the flautas and tostadas, the loud mariachi music, and, of course, the giant pitchers of deep red sangria. The menu stays true to the cuisine of Mexico, but take note: with dishes that cost up to $20, the restaurant tends to attract more out-of-towners than locals. With some Spanish and a bit of patience, Anglophone diners can find a diamond-in-the-rough that serves similar dishes for half the price. But making classic Mexican fare easily accessible to English-speakers is a worthy cause, and as a favorite among locals for special occasions, Mi Tierra is a good first stop. 2528 S. Kedzie Ave. Monday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday, 11am-2am; Saturday, 11am-3am; Sunday, 11am-1am. (773)254-7722. mitierrarestaurant.com/ (Lizzie Liebling)

best on-the-go snacking
Street Vendors

It’s not easy to review businesses without names, definitive hours, or fixed locations, but ignoring street vendors would mean missing one of the jewels of Little Village. On nearly every street, and certainly by every school, eloteros greet locals and visitors with their fresh fare and pungent aromas. The carts don’t look out of place, but they are a rarity in the city of Chicago, in part due to strict licensing regulations on street vendors. Some carts also have freezers full of ice creams and Icees, dangling bags of chicharrones (pork rinds), corn chips, and cotton candy, racks of prepared tortas, and coolers full of Jarritos. The carts also include some healthy goodies, like fresh fruit cups and mango, which the vendors peel into a flower shape and then dress with lime, salt, and spices to balance the sweetness of the fruit. The dish reminded me of the neighborhood I was eating it in, with its easy charm, vibrant colors, and vastly different flavors blending beautifully. Vendors are easy to spot along 26th, especially by the schools. Some of the best often travel down Kedzie. Sales are generally between 5 am-10 pm daily.  3331 W. 26th St. (773)762-1100 (Eliza Brown)

best place to have your quinceañera
El Fandango

The front doors of El Fandango open from 26th onto a cozy corner restaurant with the usual Villita décor: exposed brick, wooden tables, and margaritas brewing on the counter. Climbing to the second floor reveals a spacious and bright party space, with large windows along every wall, bright orange accent walls, modern lighting, and a long private bar. Lining one corner are buffet tables, ready to be covered with delicious chips and salsa, warm flautas, and refreshing horchata prepared downstairs. The large area of wood flooring at the front is ideal for rows of tables and easy socializing, or a dance floor during a quinceañera. Even with food, tables, chairs, and guests, there is still a long section of space near the back that’s perfect for quieter conversations or games with younger kids. The second floor of El Fandango feels like a festive getaway, with all the conveniences of its location above a delicious restaurant. Parties and family get-togethers are easy and comfortable in this hidden space above El Fandango, ready to be utilized by local Little Village residents and Chicagolanders alike. 3331 W. 26th St. (773)762-1100 (Rachel Marro)

best sugar rush
La Baguette Bakery

From six-tiered wedding cakes to large chocolate chip-studded cookies to delicious cream-filled pastries, La Baguette bakery can satisfy even the meanest sweet tooth. With eleven locations in the Chicago area, it’s hard to place the origin of this cozy bakery that boasts multiple languages in its two-word moniker, and serves pineapple tres leches alongside tiramisu. But make no mistake: La Baguette is a true-to-life Chicago entrepreneurial story. Its Mexican-American founders got their start by baking traditional “bread of the dead” to celebrate Día de los Muertos. Today, La Baguette’s menu has expanded to include over 50 different varieties of sweet bread, cake, and pastries, ranging from recognizable staples like churros, flan, and conchas to colorful variations on sweet classics like lychee tres leches and artful tarts decorated with white chocolate rose petals. Also of notable repute are their elephant ears, and a personal favorite: traditional Mexican cinammon buns. 3117 W. 26th St. Open daily, 5am-10pm. (773)254-0006. labaguettechicago.com (Katie Tu)