We get it. Pilsen is quickly mutating into an “It Barrio,” a hipster mecca, a new Midwestern Brooklyn; a graveyard for local culture, a breeding ground for the sanitized, the standardized and the gentrified. Change is afoot.
So, like we said: we get it. We understand why yesterday, The New York Times published an itinerary of cool shit to do in Pilsen (“A Chicago neighborhood follows a Latin Beat”; let’s not even address that annoying turn of phrase), and where you can go to get food that isn’t tacos. And we know New Yorkers take pride in their reputation as know-it-alls, but sorry NYT—once again, when it comes to the Second City, you got it wrong.
The NYT’s list doesn’t include a single neighborhood spot, glossing over the decades of Latino history and art culture that define the neighborhood, and opting instead to call out new “hotspots” marketed for folks Über-tripping down from Lakeview, anonymous spots that could be in any neighborhood, in any city. (Alternate headline: “Places you can go in Pilsen to avoid Mexicans and other undesirables.”) And there’s a niche for that kind of tourism, sure; affluent Westerns tend to want to experience “authentic,” colorful brown-people culture, as long as they don’t have to interact with any of said people or culture. We at Gozamos even patronize some of the places the NYT suggests, but there’s no denying these spots are very un-Pilsen in deliberate, let’s-make-gentrifiers-comfortable kinds of ways.
But why brave the Pink Line if what you really want is to pretend that you’re not in Pilsen at all? Which is why we at Gozamos have decided to share with you our fave Pilsen haunts. Because the article doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the unique vibe, art, people and culture we love about Pilsen, a neighborhood where an long-standing traditionally Mexican-American, Latino community can—and does—interact with young artists, students and other folks from all walks of life.
So whether you’re a globetrotter or an intra-city sightseer, visit the neighborhood responsibly. Gentrification from the ground up and all that. Eat, drink and shop at local spots. Stroll the historic streets. Take in the street art. Talk to the lifers. And for the love of all things holy, don’t skip the place we know as the Real Pilsen, tacos and all.
Or would you prefer to skip the sushi and go all the way to Tokyo for a Happy Meal?
Instead of Nightwood or Honky Tonk BBQ, try Pl-zen gastro pub, the Salvadoran Pupuseria El Excelente, Carnitas Uruapan, 24-hour Coyotes or…
1927 S. Blue Island Avenue
El Milagro is my go-to spot when I want to give my out-of-town* visitors a lesson in Chicago Mexican food. Born and raised in Chicago(land), I grew up eating El Milagro corn tortillas. While I was living in NYC and a friend went to Chicago for a weekend, I begged them buy me a dozen packs to hold me over until my next trip home. So when I moved to Pilsen a couple of years ago, I was excited to live within walking distance of the Pilsen carbon copy of the 26th Street original. Fresh tortillas, still warm and fluffy in their paper bags. Chicharrón and ensalada de nopales by the pound. An awesome fish & cheese-focused Easter menu that even a godless heathen like me can enjoy. Hell. Yes. In fact, the day I moved into the neighborhood, the first food I ate was a couple of their tamales. And their gigantic triple-steak, rice-and-beans-included, double-tortilla tacos and agua de jamaica have gotten me through more than a couple bad cases of cruda.
*includes people who never travel south of I-290, the Eisenhower Expressway
1439 W. 18th Street
Pilsen is a neighborhood built on the backs of its most beloved institutions, and Jumping Bean is one of the barrio’s most cherished hangouts. Coffee, tea or food, this local cafe is my personal Pilsen haven and has inspired journals-full of poetry with its prime people watching and comfy environment. But this warm, inviting (and tiny) space is more than a café. Jumping Bean was far ahead of the Pilsen-art-boom-curve, and has for years allowed many local artists to display their work on the café’s walls. And, there’s nothing better on a cold day than their wonderful blend of Mexican hot chocolate or their Golden Bean—a sweet, caramel caffeine buzz that gets me going every time. Jumping Bean’s food is fresh, delicious and affordable.
Skip Lagunita’s brews (we’re still hella mad at them for donating money to Mayor Rahm), look for Moody Tongue or Latino-owned 5 Rabbits Cervecería beers at bars around the city. Instead of Dusek’s, grab a nitecap at Simone’s or:
1345 W. 18th Street
Harbee’s is one of those glorious gems, a spot where old and new Pilsen collide, though sometimes not with the most appealing of results. No irony here. The bar is usually cramped, too loud and a bit obnoxious, but it has been part of the neighborhood scenery for over 100 years. Though Harbee’s is popular with the New Pilsen crowd, it’s a neighborhood standard, too. More importantly, the bar’s vibe is far from precious, making its narrow boozing hall, bumping with cumbia rhythms, prime territory for folks on both sides of The Great Divide to mingle and learn just how the other half lives. Chat up a new-schooler if you’re an old-schooler, or vice verse. Skip the cocktails and go for a cheap-as-PBR Tecate or choose a your social lubricant from the well-stocked list of craft beer bottles. And whichever night of the week you happen to stumble in, stick around to jam to quality Latin-inspired grooves from local DJs like The Ponderers, Itzi Nallah or Soulphonetics.
Instead of Revival A-Go-Go, check out Pilsen Outpost, the shop at the National Museum of Mexican Art, or…
1800 S. Morgan Street
Forget retro; go barrio. No Manches, a Latino-owned, Latino-inspired local clothing company has got you covered. With swanky designs that incorporate icons of tu cultura (think Subcomandante Marcos, Selena and nopales) with modern Chicago sensibilities and a splash of social consciousness, No Manches’ collections are totally unique. So why not commemorate your Southside excursion with a locally-designed, locally-produced, just-plain-bomb tee? Stop by their latest location off of 18th Street, and be sure to grab a coffee from neighboring La Catrina Café while you peruse.
BONUS! Get your art on, folks; Pilsen ain’t Pilsen without it. Take a self-guided mural walk along 19th Street or grab a snack while you check out the latest on display at La Catrina Café, classes and exhibits at Taller Mestizarte, or:
1900 S. Carpenter Street
So, you want to take in real “local culture”? Pilsen’s newest gallery and performance space, Cultura in Pilsen, is home to some of the most badass organizations in town. Bueno, we are a little biased. It’s Gozamos’ home base and home to partner Contratiempo, as well as several organizations-in-residence, including the Chicago Latino Writers Initiative, Latino Techies , FMEL, and the Chicago Community and Workers’ Rights.
With exhibits, literary readings, community town halls and exclusive concerts by international artists, Cultura in Pilsen is bolstering the neighborhood’s historic Latino culture. Check out some of Cultura in Pilsen’s upcoming events:
2/7: The morning after the cabaret, La Fountain will conduct an exclusive workshop on writing for performances in English, Spanish, Spanglish, and other tongues of the Latina/o experience.
2/21: Latino Hackathon for Open Data Day. The hackathon will kick off new organziation Latino Techies’ programming at Cultura in Pilsen.
Event rentals are now available for 2015. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or complete our online inquiry form.
Claudio Alberto Cortés and M Cecilia Wong also contributed to this article.