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Sampling Little Village, Chicagoist-Style

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Jun 4, 2007 3:20PM


One of the reasons we feel fortunate living on the south side is when we want to visit a nearby neighborhood, we can do so with relative ease via bicycle. We're a couple minutes away from Pilsen. Bronzeville is a few pedals from the house. Hyde Park is a quick ten minutes via the lakefront bike path. We've even found great West Indian cooking in Englewood en route to Beverly via Damen Avenue and the Dan Ryan Woods. This is how we found ourselves in Little Village (La Villita) on an overcast Thursday afternoon, taking notes and pictures, asking questions of shop owners, and sampling some food and drink

While Little Village, like Pilsen, is noted today for its Mexican-American population (the largest in the Midwest), it began as a neighborhood to where central Europeans immigrated. It was informally known as "Czech California" due to its substantial Bohemian population. Polish, Italian, Slavic, Lithuanian, Croat, and Irish immigrant groups also called the neighborhood home. Long part of the South Lawndale community, Little Village was not known as such until the early '70's, after a realtor (who else) allegedly coined the term in order to sell homes "capture the Bohemian character of the community." The Little Village Chamber of Commerce claims that the popular commercial area, centered at 31st and Kedzie, generated around $900 million in revenue in 2001, which would place La Villta second to the Mag Mile in business revenue (that doesn't include the money made from fake ID production).

It's easy to see why Little Village businesses generate that amount of revenue. The commercial strip along 26th Street is comprised largely of restaurants, groceries, and specialty stores catering to its Mexican-American population. Indeed, the search for "authentic" Mexican food is what largely drives visitors to the neighborhood, but they can stay for the sightseeing and architecture. Indeed, buildings in Little Village are constantly being rehabbed to fit a small business, a bakery, a disco, or multiple living units. It doesn't necessarily follow the "form follows function" aesthetic of Horatio Greenough and Louis Sullivan, but the buildings are at least in use.

2007_06_lavillita_lajusticia.jpgDining in Little Village is plentiful, from tiny storefronts like Blanco y Negro Mexican restaurant (4043 W. 26th, 773-522-2176) that offer plentiful vegetarian options for on-the-go walking tourists, to behemoth restaurants like Mi Tierra (2528 S. Kedzie, 773-254-7722), which offers dinner and a show - usually mariachi or Tejano music - on the weekends. One of our favorites is La Justicia (pictured, left, 3901 W. 26th, 773-522-0041), which specializes in both authentic Mexican and Tex-Mex, and hosts live rock music on Fridays. El Tecolote Ostioneria y Restaurant (3519 W. 26th, 773-277-1490) specializes in seafood dishes. If it's fresh-cut poultry you're looking for, Chicago Live Poultry House (2601 S. Ridgeway, 773-542-9451) receives shipments of live poultry and rabbit three times a week, for fresh grilling or to use as a sacrifice to Jobu so you can hit the curveballs.

2007_06_lavillita_auros.jpgFor those of you with a sweet tooth, options abound. The rapidly expanding Bombon empire of Luis Perea and Laura Cid-Perea have an amazing bakery space located at 3748 W. 26th Street (phone number 773-277-8777). We stopped there for a "Mexican eggnog" personal sized tres leches cake. Owner Abraham Dueñas cultivates European-style coffeehouse leisure with his popular Catedral Cafe (2500 S. Christiana, 773-277-2233). Mauro Cafeteria y Neveria (pictured, right, 3633 W. 26th, 773-542-9703) is an old-fashioned neighborhood ice cream parlor and fast-food joint. They also brew a mean cappucino.

Little Village after midnight doesn't have to be boring. Apollo's 2000 (2875 W. Cermak Road, 773-247-0200) is a concert hall located in the old Marshall Square Theatre. Club-goers can find something interesting in the three levels of Volkan (2501 S. Kedzie, 773-247-2400), which spins everything from cumbia to reggaeton, samba to hip-hop.