Pilsen & Little Village

Maggie Sivit

Pilsen and Little Village are cousins–not only because families often extend across the neighborhood boundaries, nor simply because they are both port-of-entry regions for recent Mexican immigrants. These two are a pair, now more than ever, because of a growing exchange between the two.

Pilsen is a neighborhood of cultural juxtaposition. Dimly lit Café Mestizo, filled with studious patrons eating pasta salad, is just across the street from the abuelas watching lurid novellas inside of Gloria’s Tacos. When asked about some of the best places in Pilsen, one woman who works in the neighborhood snapped, “Do you mean real Pilsen or gentrified Pilsen?”

While the gentrification story is accurate, it’s too simple. Yes, affluent twenty-somethings are moving into the neighborhood, driving up rents and pushing rooted Latino families out. And the number of foreign-born residents in Pilsen has decreased dramatically in the last 20 years, but the young, educated children of the American Dream remain steadfastly committed to the barrio. Places like Working Bikes, which treats bicycles not as an ironic symbol but an important vehicle for working men and women, and Simone’s Bar, which has begun to host weekly karaoke nights where Latinos and non-Latinos alike gather to sing classic Mexican pop hits, are bridging a gap between the cohabiting communities.

In contrast, walking across Ogden into Little Village, also known as La Villita, or, half-jokingly, “the Mexico of the Midwest,” can feel like crossing a real border. Quinceañeras dresses fill storefront windows. On the sidewalk, old men push brightly colored plastic carts filled with paletería, while bored teenage boys occasionally sneer at passing “white hipsters.” Though signs in Little Village’s commercial district are almost always in Spanish, many neighborhood restaurants have begun warming up to visitors by offering menus translated into English, following Pilsen’s lead.

Those who worry that the neighborhoods will renounce their titles as the twin centers of the city’s Mexican-American community seem to ignore the fact that many of the area’s transplants are pulled by the ethnic sounds, sights, and smells. And arguably, both neighborhoods are benefiting from the new (bilingual) conversations about what it means to thrive as a community.

Best Fabric Selection 
Textile Discount Outlet
The Textile Discount Outlet is a 75,000-square-foot warehouse filled with shiny fabrics, glittery tulle, and thick polar fleece. No other place in Pilsen, or perhaps the entire city, can offer what this place does all under one roof–materials to make your daughter’s quinceañera dress, to reupholster your couch, or to colorfully decorate a birdcage. The store’s clientele is mixed: young women speak Spanish as they swap gauzy fabric swatches, middle aged men systematically gather stack after stack of seemingly unrelated fabric, and bossy old ladies snap at the the staff to cut just here and there. The stock caters to this wide range of personages and their projects–paper flowers and buttons in varying degrees of ostentation, dozens of tiebacks, and materials for belly-dancing costumes.  The fabric starts at around $3 per yard, and the staff is ready to direct customers to anything they need. 2121 W. 21st St. Monday, 9:30am-7pm. Tuesday- Wednesday, 9:30am-5pm; Thursday, 9:30am-7pm; Friday, 9:30am-2pm. Sunday, 10am-4pm (773)847.0572. megafabrics.com (Cecilia Donnelly)

Best Food from a Factory
Tortilleria Sabinas
When the school bell tolls, children overtake Tortillería Sabinas, the 50-year-old tortilla factory at 18th and Wood, and one of a host of tortillerías that supply the culinary staple of Pilsen and Little Village. The disordered rainbow of backpacks blocks the view, but once inside the big glass windows reveal how to make a perfectly circular corn tortilla. Unfortunately, there are no tours, since their insurance no longer covers the possibility of photo-snapping visitors getting sucked into one of the huge machines and flattened into perfect round circles appropriate for wrapping tacos. Nonetheless, with or without a chance to watch the tortilleros in action, make sure to bite into a hot, soft, almost sweet corn tortilla next time you visit. If you’re in a hurry, definitely pick up a bag of tortilla chips, and if you want a larger meal, the steaming tortillas at Sabinas are said to supply Nuevo Leon right next door. 1509 W. 18th St. (312)738.2412 (Cecilia Donnelly)

Best Cowboy Boot Selection
Durango Western Wear and Almacenes Maria’s
For most of today’s urban fashion boutiques, the art of outfitting the modern cowboy has gone the way of the buffalo. The presence of aging men in oversized sombreros lingering along the commercial strip of 26th Street, though, signals that this place might be your best bet. Entering Durango Western Wear feels like walking into, well, rural Durango, tumbleweeds excluded. They’ve got wide-collared button-ups embroidered with ornate crosses and flowers, and belt buckles as big and heavy as a gold brick. Female mannequins sport Almaneces Maria’s off-the-shoulder mini-dresses, belted blouses, and stretchy leggings. Pairs of disembodied legs, dressed in Wrangers and Levis,  mount overstuffed clothing racks. But Durango Western Wear really stomps out the (admittedly limited) competition when it comes to boots. Colorful ostrich print short boots, soft suede skinny heeled boots, pink painted and heavily bejeweled boots, boots that look like alligator snouts, boots made of glossy eel skin. Buyers beware: the more lavish the adornment, the higher the price. And with some pairs marked upwards of $400, these boots are made for walking, not riding. 4136 W 26th St. Weekdays, 10 am — 8 pm, Sunday, 10 am — 6 pm. (773) 762.2610 MariasChicago.com (Kelsey Gee)

Best Soy Taco
El Faro
Forget the rice and beans, vegetarians. Instead, rejoice at the city’s best restaurant for authentic vegetarian Mexican food. While for some Little Village taquerías the “vegetarian” means a torta filled with turkey or other non-beef meats, at El Faro there are dozens of dishes made specifically for vegetarian and vegan customers. The soy chicken and soy pork tacos are textured and seasoned perfectly, serving as hearty replacements for–if not perfect imitations of–their animal-based counterparts. Not into fake meats? Faro’s nopalitos guisados (a spiced cactus entree) and any of their egg dishes are just as good. The menu extends far beyond vegetarian fare, however, so fear not for your meaty friends. The waitresses are helpful and speak more Spanish than English, and the restaurant is packed at all times of the day with customers from around the city. While you’re there, make sure to say hello to the neighborhood’s sweetest elotero, David, whose van of spicy dried mangoes, candies, and nuts is always parked out front. El Faro, which means “lighthouse,” is a gastronomic beacon indeed. 3936 W. 31st St. Monday-Friday, 5am-11pm; Saturday, 5am-12am; Sunday, 7am-11pm. (773)277.1155. elfarorestaurant.com (Kelsey Gee)

Best Iced Coffee
Café Jumping Bean
“Cream and sugar?” the friendly waiter asks, a question that calls to mind immediate dental rot in a Dunkin Donuts world. At Café Jumping Bean, however, the $2 iced coffee is milky, lightly sweetened, and brewed from high-quality beans. Add a sandwich of fresh veggies and peppery tuna beside a half-cup of warm lentil soup, and your afternoon pick-me-up can become a meal. The café serves up an eclectic mix of Mexican licuados, hot soups, filling pastas, and focaccia-bread sandwiches. The food is as delicious and affordable as the coffee–Jumping Bean is committed to sticking to the neighborhood’s working class roots by keeping all of their meals as cheap as possible. Decorated with the work of neighborhood artists, the room buzzes with life–a middle-aged man talks shop on his Bluetooth; a model-thin student reads for class over a bagel; a curly-haired couple whispers to each other in Spanish; all sit cozily surrounded by the work of neighborhood artists. Your search for a caffeine fix couldn’t take you further from corporate humdrum. 1439 W. 18th St. Monday-Friday, 6am-10pm; Saturday-Sunday, 7am-7pm. (312)455-0019. cafejumpingbean.org (Kelsey Gee)

Best Free Art Classes
Pros Arts Studio
Currently housed within a Park District complex in lush Dvorak Park, Pros Arts is a community art program that runs youth camps all summer and art classes during the school year. The Clay Studio class is free and open to the public on Friday nights–often  visitors get their hands a bit dirty before heading out on a Second Friday art crawl. Pros Arts prides themselves on keeping Pilsen’s Mexican cultural and artistic traditions alive – this season participants in the clay class will make soup bowls for a pozolada cook-off fundraiser this winter. Attendees will enjoy the pre-Columbian soup, even having the chance to take one of the bowls home. But if soup and clay are not your thing, Pros Arts also puts on a Día de los Muertos parade and festival. Though they don’t have a standing gallery, their events showcase the art of all participants and serve as community get-togethers. Dvorak Park. 1119 W. Cullerton. Youth Classes, ages 6-12, Friday, 4pm-6pm. Community Classes, all ages, 6pm-8pm. (312)226-7767. prosarts.org (Cecilia Donnelly)