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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.