The best thing about Pilsen, one resident points out,Â is that it’s still “an honest to God neighborhood.” You’ll see a group of old men sitting on stoops and chatting in Spanish, children running in and out of the narrow alleys between houses, and whole families settling down in the park to watch their son hit a home-run. The striking murals that adorn Pilsen’s streets portray everyday life and illustrate the importance of family, while others tackle social and political themes–an aesthetically beautiful and in-your-face example of the pride residents feel for their heritage.
Yet Pilsen isn’t only a vibrant place for families. The neighborhood has become home to a slew of twenty-somethings, attracted by lower rents and fellow creative types. Public art dots nearly every street corner, galleries host rambunctious art-walks even in the death of winter, and theaters beckon their audiences with surrealist and interactive performances. Bars stay open until dawn, their kitchens serving sweet potato fries and their photobooths printing columns of tattooed art students and musicians.
As in many neighborhoods in Chicago, there are worries over gentrification. Some fear that as rents rise, Latino families will be forced out and Pilsen will become another homogenously trendy, hipster hang-out. Amongst this hotbed, though, runs Pilsen’s 18th Street–a bustling economic artery, filled with vintage stores, bars, galleries, and family restaurants. On this street, the old and new stand side-by-side. One can gorge on delicious tacos for little more than pocket change, pick up a vintage sweater, and learn about Chicago’s hottest installation artist–all within a few blocks.
Best Bohemian Vibes
One of the least-expected sights on 18th Street, one of Pilsen’s main thoroughfares, is an imposing castle. The castle is Thalia Hall, opened in 1892 and modeled after Prague’s Opera House. A throwback to the neighborhood’s Bohemian roots, in its long life Thalia has been a magnificent stage, a community meeting-place, and a political center. The Czechoslovakian constitution was even drafted here after World War I. After a recent renovation, Thalia is set to become the home of apartments, commercial space, and an Italian restaurant called Ristorante al Teatro. The restaurant is currently the only part of the building open to the public. Its menu includes crunchy brick-oven pizza and 24 varieties of fresh, homemade gelato.Â Thalia Hall’s lush interiors, beautifully restored to the building’s original time, are well worth a visit. Filled with old-world Bohemian charm, Thalia is becoming a neighborhood institution once again. 1227 W. 18th St. Tuesday-Thursday 4pm-11pm; Friday-Saturday 4pm-12pm; Sunday 4pm-10pm. (312)784-9100. alteatroristorante.com (Smita Mutt)
Best Place to Find Your Rhythm
Ratchet at Skylark
This is a great era for live music in Pilsen. You can take in the We R Hip Hop Festival one week, the Latin Electronic Music Festival the next, and your girlfriend’s roommate’s brother’s post-prog sludge metal ensemble any day of the year. But for whatever reason, the Venn Diagram of hipster rock and Latin music has not included much avant-garde jazz. The Ratchet Series on Monday nights at Skylark may be changing that. On the night I visited, Chicago percussionist Michael Zerang steered a rotating succession of musicians through a series of eerie, abyssal drones. Near my table, a man wearing a newsboy cap and carrying a sci-fi novella was locked in concentration, tapping along to a rhythm I couldn’t quite hear. I tried to match his devotion. Sure enough, after twenty minutes of tuba, drums, and bass, I could find the rhythm for myself. Not that the $2 PBR hurt. 2149 S. Halsted St., every Monday at 10pm. Skylark open Sunday-Friday 4pm-2am; Saturday, 4pm-3am. (312)948-5275. skylarkchicago.com (Nathan Worcester)
A good mole knows both love and loss. At Fogata Village, the mole needs no words, because the flavor says all that you need to know: a bitterness earned through a lifetime of disappointment, yet a faint sweetness borne of enduring faith. Even and thick, with stern spice, this mole has been witness to life, and has felt the capricious illogic that whisks life away. This mole has travelled beyond mountains, journeyed across seas, and slept beneath open skies to find its final resting place, anonymously slathered upon tender chicken and ungracefully shoveled down with a fork in a somber corner of the dimly-lit restaurant. Do not come simply to eat mole. Come to learn from its experience. 1820 S. Ashland Ave. Monday-Wednesday, 9am-9pm; Thursday, 9am-5pm; Friday, 9am-9pm; Saturday, 9am-10pm; Sunday, 9am-9pm. (312)850-1702. fogatachicago.com (Isaac Dalke)
Best Place to Eat a Goat’s Head
Birrieria Reyes de Ocotlan
While a birreria is a place that serves beer, add another “i” and the bar becomes a birrieria, a place that serves birria, goat stew. Yurianna Reyes is proud to say that her family’s restaurant has been “loyal to the goat” ever since her father opened it in 1978, using his own father’s time-honored recipe. This tender but underappreciated meat is especially delicious in taco form, seasoned with lime, onions, and cilantro and double-wrapped in hearty tortillas. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, try one filled with cabeza, a mix of meats from the goat’s head. Each taco is $2, an inexpensive opportunity to try something new and different. 1322 W. 18th St. Monday-Friday, 10am-10pm; Saturday, 10am-11pm; Sunday, 10am-10pm. (312)733-2618 (Tessa Huttenlocher)
Best-Organized Thrift Store
Pilsen Vintage and Thrift
Hop off the pink line at the 18th street station, and you’ll find a sea of vintage and thrift stores all within walking distance. It’s difficult for one to stick out from the rest, but Pilsen Vintage & Thrift does just that. (Maybe the giant yellow marquee has something to do with it). PV&T has mixed the best of two worlds: cool vintage pieces coupled with thrift store-esque bargains. Here you can pick up unique clothing, furniture, fabrics, and housewares without wreaking havoc on your wallet. In full disclosure, costs are about the same as at Unique or the Salvation Army, but items are of a much better quality, with no dirty or torn clothes to speak of. Plus, you also get to avoid the cluttered mess of items generally associated with most thrift stores: the clothing all hangs neatly on racks organized by color, and the shop is easy to navigate. 1430 W. 18th St. Monday-Thursday 11am-7pm; Friday-Saturday 11am-8pm; Sunday 12am-6pm. (312)243-5915. pilsen-vintage.com (Hannah Fullmer)