Saturday, November 7, 2009

Pilsen - My Kind Of Neighborhood!

I have spent so much time in Mexico I never felt the need to check out the Pilsen neighborhood until yesterday. My travel expenses for this day trip from the suburbs was a mere $4.50 and a 10 minute ride on the pink line from the downtown Clinton stop. Two stops later you are in the heart of Pilsen.

To be able to get to one of the many ethnic neighborhoods from downtown in a matter of minutes is one of the things I LOVE most about Chicago! Outstanding, inexpensive diversions are so easy to get to.

The second that I got off the El, I knew I was at home. The murals in the 18th Street station are amazing. Honestly, I could have been wandering around Tonola, Toluca or any other small town in Mexico. It is an old, inviting neighborhood - both innocent and insightful.

Everyone was so friendly and people actually smiled and greeted you when you looked at them. Yes, and just like Mexico, Mexican are some of the most friendly people in the world.

The Café Jumping Bean at 1439 W 18th St is a charming, corner coffee shop. The artwork is everywhere - from the toilet seat in the bathroom, to the tables, to all the walls. I love all of the multicolored, mismatched chairs. You get a real sense of the neighborhood here so this is a great place to start out with a quick cup of coffee or just to drink in the local flavor.

Wandering up and down 18th street, I found a number of fantastic places to eat (with a whole lot of coaching from my friends)

Carnitas Don Pedro

1113 W 18th St, Chicago

Can you believe that I was stuffing my face at 10:30 AM? Just like in Mexico, I remember how much I loved this food in the morning. My little place in Toluca was great but this place – I can hardly recall the last time I had a meal this good.

A huge plate of pork (honestly, it was enough to serve 3-4), homemade tortillas, a variety of condiments, and pickled spicy veggies. Pork is hard to cook and can be very dry. This pork was so succulent and incredibly delicious. I peeked in the back where enormous pots were animated with the snouts of pigs rising to the top. Trust me, I was in hog heaven!

You can order carnitas by the pound and choose if you want them mixed - maciza (leaner meat), boronas (bits and small chunks that are very well done), or cuerito (fatty pork with skin). I always order boronas because they're brimming with flavor.

You won't be spending much here - just $6.00 and you'll be full for days. No kidding, I am writing this post a day later and I still can’t think about eating.

Hardly anyone speaks English so I did use my Spanish but if you can smile and say Carnitas you will eat.

I’m told that there is always a long wait on weekends and they often run out so perhaps it is best to come here during the week. Actually, 10:30 AM was the ideal time to pig out.

Nuevo Leon

1515 W 18th St, Chicago

Nuevo Leon is easy to spot - just look for the most colorful building on the street. This place is well-known for its food and my Mexican friend at school told me this is her favorite place.

There was a huge mix of people here and they all looked like regulars from families, grandmothers, business men, yuppies, laborers - you name it, it seems that they all come here to eat.

Three huge carne asada (steak) tacos for $5.00? Can’t believe that I can get all of this good food for so cheap… or that I am actually eating again!

There is a wide variety of food on the menu and you will leave this place absolutely full to the brim. This was categorically my second and last meal of the day. All of the other restaurants I planned to visit were just wait-listed.

The highlight of my trip to Pilsen was the National Museum of Mexican Art located at 1852 W. 19th Street, just one block over from the commercial district and near a beautiful little park. In the years that I have lived, worked and gone to school in Mexico, I have learned to love all things Mexican but I was not prepared to be blown away by the surprising mix of media in the Museum’s permanent collection. I loved it so much I wanted to touch each and every piece. Somehow I sensed the guard knew that when he gave me this untrustworthy glare.

I was lucky to be there while two amazing exhibits were going on - The Day of The Dead (there was an entire white altar which totally set me back since white is my favorite color) and the brilliant Mujeres de Juarez exhibit which is a tribute to the more than 500 women who have been killed in Cuidad Juarez.

In my opinion, The National Museum of Mexican Art is one of the best in Chicago. It truly moved me and for anyone who is an artist or loves Mexico, the museum is required.

One tiny shop I found on my way back to the train station is Oxala Chicago at 1653 W. 18th Street. You’ll see some of the most original items in this shop. The charming owner (believe me ladies, he is stunning) is from Columbia and has been in Pilsen for over 5 years. He is the artist in residence and has a number of other artists at the shop and a beautiful selection of jewelry. Just going in to see him is worth the trip!

Pilsen – I have now tagged it at as my delicious refuge for good, cheap carnitas, tortas, enchiladas, tostadas, and tamales. There are so many outstanding cheap eats and grocery stores in this neighborhood you could spend years trying to cover them all. It was by far the best day trip I’ve taken to Chicago all year. Any time I need a quick dose of the “real” Mexico I’ll be on the pink line headed back to the next restaurant on my list.