Chicago: A Mexican Food Tour through Pilsen

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This is a modified version of an article that first appeared on TheLatinKitchen.com.

One of my favorite things about Chicago is the diverse neighborhoods. The other is the food. Put them together and you have cool enclaves all over the city chock full of great neighborhood joints serving up tasty, authentic eats.

Back in my television days, I used to produce “The Ñ Beat”, a program all about Chicago’s Latino community on ABC7.  I learned a lot…and ate a lot.

Once home to Irish, German, and Czech immigrants, today’s Pilsen neighborhood will more likely remind you of parts of present-day Mexico City.

El Nuevo Salsa

Salsa at Nuevo Leon

This working class neighborhood has evolved with each new generation of immigrants, and today, colorful murals, busy shoppers, and taquerias on every corner signal that you are in the heart of Chicago’s Mexican-American community. Pilsen is fringed by a new arts district that blurs the lines between old and new, but one thing isn’t changing: the wide array of spots to chow down on some pretty tasty tacos, tamales…and some cabrito, or goat.

Nuevo Leon

Nuevo Leon recently celebrated fifty years in Chicago and seems to be on everyone’s list as one of the best spots in town. Try the classic carne asada (broiled skirt steak served up with salad, rice, and beans) after a tasty appetizer such as the quesadilla Raul (five generous tortillas filled with Chihuahua cheese and covered with red chile ancho meat sauce) or my new favorite, the queso panela, (grilled panela cheese topped with a mix of grilled tomatoes, onions, and jalapeños). All that was good, but I have to admit, I was a bit blown away by the refried beans. They’ve never been my fave, but these have some great crunchy edges that I just couldn’t get enough of.

Carne Asada

Carne Asada

Quesadilla Raul

Quesadilla Raul

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.

Birrieria Reyes de Ocotlan

Caveat:  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.

Goat tacos

Goat Tacos

Goat Stew

Goat Stew

Come on in, belly up to the counter, choose your favorite dish: goat stew, goat tacos, goat platter and 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 on the menu, is served with freshly chopped cilantro and onions. It’s 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). Yum!

Café Jumping Bean

Right in the center of Pilsen is the original artists’ hang out: Café Jumping Bean. Grab a seat under the stained glass front window or against the wall of beautiful Day of the Dead masks (all for sale).

Café Jumping Bean

Café Jumping Bean

This colorful place – from the walls to the tattoos — was hip before hip was cool, but make sure to come early as the tiny spot fills up fast.  They serve up some tasty gourmet coffee drinks, real Mexican hot chocolate, and light food like the black bean burger to neighborhood folks, artists, students, and writers who hang out all day in their Converse staring into their laptops.

Café Jumping Bean

Café Jumping Bean

Hot Chocolate

Mexican Hot Chocolate

Del Toro

You can be sure that polished and friendly Del Toro has a fully stocked bar because the owners also run the liquor store next door. An urban tequila bar meets small plates kind of joint, the kicky ceviche – a generous portion of fresh chunks of whitefish, cilantro, and onion — was fresh and delicious, but it was the fish taco, which showcased a grilled piece of tilapia rather than a fried one, that impressed me the most.



The drinks certainly don’t take second billing here. Besides the lengthy tequila list, there is a nice selection of craft brews and some Latin cocktails like their signature La Horchata, a creamy treat of Rumchata (liqueur made from rice, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, sweet dairy cream and Caribbean rum) , simple syrup, pineapple juice, in a glass rimmed with  cinnamon-sugar, which had me at hello.


La Horchata

May Street Café

Oddly perched just across the street from a large power plant and sitting under a huge road billboard, May Street Café looks like a Mediterranean oasis on an industrial stretch of road.  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 in the 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. It is here that I’ve discovered what is possibly my new favorite dish — La Piña de la Playa de Puerto Rico – shrimp and scallops sautéed with Spanish coconut rice served inside a half pineapple.

La Piña de la Playa de Puerto Rico

La Piña de la Playa de Puerto Rico

It was just as beautiful to look at as it was to eat!


After all that eating, there’s only one thing to do – head to BomBon for some delicious pastries and cakes. If you 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 — its understandable. Just grab a few mini cakes for $5.50 each and have your own cake sampling fiesta.




Mini Cakes


  1. says

    I really enjoyed reading this! I have family in Chicago that I’ll be visiting sometime next year so Nuevo Leon and Del Toro are definitely on my list now. That horchata looks aaaamazing. I shouldn’t have read this before lunch. Time to eat!

    Happy travels :)

  2. says

    I want one of everything! Does that sound do-able? I might have to work backwards and start with that divine mini-cake, followed by a cinnamon-y Rumchata and Del Toro’s divine ceviche. This could take days! Delicious and beautifully photographed! Yum!

  3. says

    Grew up in Chicago, far south side and the other day, someone from Seattle asked me what to eat. I said Mexican food and they laughed at me. But it’s so good. I miss the ice cream and the corn on the cob with the paprika and the low cost. I’m going to write these down and start planning my next taste adventure there. Haven’t spent enough time in Pilsen! Thanks for writing.

    • says

      Hi Amanda! I think many don’t realize how Mexicans are our largest minority now. Many came in the early 20th century to help build the railroads. So generations later, families are still coming.

  4. says

    Love me some Pilsen, great art scene there as well as food.

    Next time you’re in Chicago, you should check out Little Village on 26th & Kedzie. Hit up El Milagro, a local tortilleria(tortilla factory) & restaurant, they have great food but their tacos are what I love the most. Tacos de Carne Asada (grilled steak tacos) to be exact, they do them a bit differently than anywhere else – the tortillas are topped with a bed of arroz con frijoles (rice & beans) then the carne asada (grilled steak) to be finished off with chopped cabbage – a real treat you won’t find in any other taqueria in Chicago.

    • says

      I agree with El Milagro being a great spot for Tacos. Check out their platillos de carne asada, pollo asado, milanesa, or gisado de puerco en salsa verde. The best part is that El Milagro has a location in Pilsen. Check out yelp for reviews and the address. While you are at it, hit up Esperanza that has home made tortillas and cafe de la olla con canela (it is less than a block away from El Milagro in Pilsen. http://www.yelp.com/biz/taqueria-el-milagro-chicago

      • says

        Hola Adrian! Thanks for writing. I actually used to produce the “ñ beat” on ABC7 and we’d done a story on El Milagro a long time ago. :)
        It’s one of the reasons I like Pilsen so much…I’d been there often working! Thanks for reading! :)

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