To walk around Pilsen is to walk around a vibrant neighborhood–dictated not by a sense of delineated borders, but by the sense of a multitude of people sharing a space in common. On any given afternoon, you’ll see mothers walking to get their schoolchildren, hipsters sauntering out of cheap Mexican diners, street vendors with carts full of fruit, and a gamut of small business hawking everything from car insurance to prom dresses. On weekends, you won’t come across the typical bar-going crowds, but will find artists dining at Decolores or young couples shopping at the local grocery store. In short, for all the talk of gentrification and the decline of the arts in Pilsen, it’s important to remember that it is, above all things, a neighborhood–people actually live here.
Pilsen, like any other Chicago neighborhood, has changed over time. Czech immigrants named this neighborhood on the Lower West Side after the Czech city, and settled there together with small communities of Croats, Slovenes, and Austrians in the late-19th century. The Mexican cultural dominance that is seen today is a product of the 1960s and ’70s, when Hispanic immigrants moved in, shifting demographics so that the Slavs were in the minority. Since then, cheap rents and ample space have allowed one of the most prominent arts districts to grow along Halsted, on the eastern edge of the neighborhood. Every second Friday of the month, art galleries are open to all, and throngs of people can be seen gallery hopping, taking advantage of free snacks and beer. Today, though, the Mexican population of Pilsen is dwarfed by that of Little Village, and there is a concern that the rising cost of living and threat of gentrification are driving families and artists out from the area.
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Let’s face it–sometimes a museum can be a little too stuffy, the artists a little too formal, and what you really want is to turn a corner, munching on some chile powder—dusted mango you just bought from a street vendor, and be dazzled as you bump into a wall of color. At 42nd and Ashland, a game of loterÃa (think Mexican bingo) is painted across the side of an entire building. Moody depictions of Emiliano Zapata sprawl along a side street. Look along 16th Street and see if you can spot the influence of Slavic immigrants in depictions of bucolic farm scenes and Lipizzaner horses. Pilsen’s murals constitute some of the best public art in the city, not only for their earthy beauty, but because they so perfectly reflect their dynamic neighborhood. (Ruben Montiel)
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BirrerÃa Reyes de Ocotlan
To quote Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” one of the most violent novels written in the 21st century: “Yes lady, that is what I said. Goat.” BirrerÃa Reyes’s specialty is tender, dreamy, moist goat meat. Naturally, it comes to your table in good company, with warm corn tortillas, onions, and cilantro, and what Rick Bayless (who loves the joint) terms a consommÃ©–the broth in which the goat was cooked and into which you can dip your lovingly constructed taco. You’ll need, of course, to get past any gastronomic inhibitions, and if the goat meat doesn’t do that, then you can try tacos of lengua (rich, fatty beef tongue) or cabeza (the meat of the head–cheek, eye, and ear). Think it sounds gross? Think again; if it’s good enough for Bayless, it’s good enough for you. 1322 W. 18th St. (312)733-2613 (Ruben Montiel)
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TaquerÃa El Milagro
This cafeteria-style restaurant has the basics: big burritos (which, should you desire, you can get slathered in sauce and cheese) and a solid tamale. But what you’re here for are the tacos, hilariously big and overstuffed with your choice of filling. The carne asada is piled deep with strips of grilled steak, garnished with lettuce and cheese, and served with some good red and green salsas–not necessarily a completely authentic presentation, but delicious anyway. But it was the chile relleno and chicken mole tacos that floored me. The former comes with an entire cheese-stuffed, egg batter-coated chile; to be expected, I suppose. But I was amazed when the latter came with an entire thigh of chicken, bone in, coated in rich mole negro, sitting upon two utterly helpless corn tortillas. It violates all the fundamental taco rules–it isn’t a handy, convenient mouth-stuffable package–but does so admirably, and so I was content to rip bits of tortilla and pinch meat from the chicken thigh. This leads me to my last bit of advice–you’ll want to get three tacos. The prices are low, and the food is good. Get two instead, and live to see another day. 1923 S. Blue Island Ave. Daily, 8am-9pm. (312)433-7620 (Ruben Montiel)
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La Casa del Pueblo
Don’t shrug this one off as your typical, mild-mannered grocery store. An independently-owned neighborhood institution, La Casa del Pueblo is cheerful and bright, the aisles pleasantly crowded, the produce fresh, the prices low. You can get all the specialty Mexican ingredients here–tropical fruit like papaya and tamarind, Maggi bouillon cubes, Jarrito’s sodas and glass-bottle Coke with real sugar–as well as the staples. And even more importantly, it’s affordable (about a week of produce for one costs around $10). Compare this with ever more popular “gourmet” grocery stores where a small block of simple, imported Chihuahua cheese can run upwards of $4 (looking at you, Treasure Island). What’s more, before you go shopping, you can grab some of the home-style Mexican fare served at the adjacent diner. They do say that it’s a bad idea to shop for groceries on an empty stomach. 1810 S. Blue Island Ave. Daily, 7am – 9pm. (312)421-4640 (Ruben Montiel)
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Nuevo Leon Bakery
Not to be confused with the very popular restaurant a little farther down the street, Nuevo Leon Bakery is as authentic a Mexican bakery you can find in Pilsen. It’s also charmingly no frills (i.e. no free wifi or $4 cappuccinos here). Walk in, get a metal tray and some tongs, and browse the aisles and cabinets. You can find bolillos, horn-shaped white bread with crunchy crust and chewy inside–consider buying a few, splitting them in half at home, and stuffing with ham, cheese, avocado, and mayo for a DIY torta. Likewise you can find any and all kinds of Mexican sweet bread made the right way, the sweetness faint and nowhere near cloying. Try the buÃ±uelos, yeast dough deep-fried to a crunch and covered in sugar and cinnamon, and the conchas, rich, dense sweet rolls powdered with brightly colored sugars. Like any bakery worth its salt, it also offers a variety of cookies and tres leches cakes. 1634 W. 18th St. Monday-Friday 5:30am-9pm; Saturday-Sunday, 6am-9pm. (312)243-5977 (Ruben Montiel)