Once the home of Irish, German, and Czech immigrants, today's Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago can sometimes feel like present-day Mexico City. Colorful murals, busy shoppers, and taquerias at every turn signal that you are in the heart of Chicago’s Mexican-American community. This working class neighborhood evolved with generations of immigrants and is fringed by a new arts district that blurs the lines between old and new. One thing that has not changed? The wide array of spots to chow down on some pretty tasty tacos, tamales…and, of course, cabrito, or goat.
This year, Nuevo Leon celebrates fifty years in Chicago. It’s no surprise that this family-owned, home-style Mexican spot has persevered, as this affordable, popular Pilsen staple seems to be on everyone’s list as one of the best spots in town. Classics like the carne asada (broiled skirt steak served up with salad, rice, and beans) and the pollo en mole (chicken drenched in a rich mole sauce with refried beans) follow tasty appetizers such as the quesadilla Raul (five generous tortillas filled with Chihuahua cheese and covered with red chile ancho (dried poblano) meat sauce), and the queso panela, (grilled panela cheese topped with a mix of grilled tomatoes, onions, and jalapeños). The savory, crunchy edges on the refried beans were the standout, and if the flavorful food isn’t enough to bring you back, the prices will. Most entrees are in the $6-8 range, while the most expensive dish on the entire menu was the skirt steak at $14.50
Nuevo Leon Restaurant. 1515 W. 18th Street, Chicago. 312-421-1517.
At Birrieria Reyes de Ocotlan, it’s all about the goat. This no frills, counter-service joint has been serving up cabrito to the masses since 1978. Come on in, belly up to the counter, choose your favorite dish -- goat stew, goat tacos, or a full goat platter -- and then prepare for one meaty meal.
The most popular dish is a big bowl of steaming goat stew. The broth is flavored with onions, bay leaves, and ginger and, like every dish, is served with freshly chopped cilantro and onions. The soothing flavorful broth is the perfect respite to an icy Chicago winter’s day and the perfect accompaniment to wash it all down is a glass of ice-cold horchata (rice milk with cinnamon).
Birrieria Reyes de Ocotlan. 1322 W 18th Street, Chicago. 312-733-2613
Time for a coffee break! Right in the center of Pilsen is the original artists’ hang out: Café Jumping Bean. This colorful place – from the walls to the tattoos -- was hip before hip was cool. Grab a seat under the stained glass front window or against the wall of beautiful Day of the Dead masks (all for sale). Make sure to come early as the tiny spot fills up fast. Café Jumping Bean serves up some tasty gourmet coffee drinks, real Mexican hot chocolate, and black bean burgers to neighborhood folks, artists, students, and writers, most of whom spend afternoons tucked inside wearing requisite Converse sneakers and staring blindly into their laptops.
Café Jumping Bean. 1439 W. 18th St, Chicago. 312-455-0019
The polished and friendly Del Toro was recently opened by the Garcia brothers whose family runs the liquor store next door -- so you can rest assured they are fully stocked! An urban tequila bar meets small plates kind of joint, the ceviche – a generous portion of fresh chunks of whitefish, cilantro, and onion -- rocked our palates, but it was the fish taco, which showcased a grilled piece of tilapia rather than a fried one, that really kept our waistlines pleased. Besides the lengthy tequila list, there is a nice selection of craft brews and some Latin cocktails for your drinking pleasure. La Horchata (recipe below), a creamy adult treat derived from Rumchata (a rice, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, sweet cream and Caribbean rum liqueur), simple syrup, and pineapple juice, in a glass rimmed with cinnamon-sugar, had us at hello.
- 3 oz of Rumchata
- ½ oz of Spiced Rum
- ¼ (splash) of pineapple juice
- ¼ (splash) of simple syrup
- Pinch of cinnamon
- cinnamon-sugar (for glass rim)
Del Toro. 2133 S. Halsted St., Chicago. 312-733-7144
Across the street from a large power plant, and tucked under a massive billboard, May Street Café is a Mediterranean oasis on an industrial stretch of road. But like it's location, this contemporary Latin-American restaurant is full of surprises. From the gorgeous outdoor patio with potted palms that feels more South Beach than Chicago, to the art-adorned walls, it’s all about meticulous details here. Chef and owner, Mario Santiago, has been treating Chicagoans to his contemporary mix of Puerto Rican, Cuban and Mexican food for more than a decade, and it is here that we discovered a new favorite dish: La Piña de la Playa de Puerto Rico – shrimp and scallops sautéed with Spanish coconut rice served inside a half pineapple. And as you can see, it was just as beautiful to look at as it was to eat!
May Street Café. 1146 West Cermak Road, Chicago. 312-421-4442
After all that food crawling, there’s only one thing to do – head to BomBon for some delicious pastries and cakes. Owned by husband and wife team Luis Perea and Laura Cid-Perea, this Pilsen shop offers up edible works of art for a quick grab and go delight, or that special cake for a wedding or quinceñera. Can’t decide whether to sink your teeth into a tres leches cake, a vanilla cake with mango filling and white chocolate, or the bombazo cake -- a rich chocolate cake covered with Belgium chocolate, layers of chocolate mousse, fresh bananas and cream, toasted walnuts and caramel -- we understand. Just grab a few mini cakes for $5.50 each and have your own cake sampling fiesta.
BomBon. 1508 W 18th St, Chicago. 312-733-7788