Chicagoist's Neighborhood Guide To Pilsen
By Danette Chavez in Arts & Entertainment on May 28, 2015 8:00PM
Don't let the buzz around Pilsen fool you—the neighborhood isn't merely trending, it's booming. Its vibrant nightlife and unrivaled arts scene have existed for years, and they have been boosted with new arrivals to the area. There's also a great sense of community, which is reflected in the way patrons and businesses support one another.
Once a Bohemian paradise for Czech immigrants, Pilsen is now one of the city's largest Mexican and Mexican-American neighborhoods. This demographic shift was prompted in part by the expansion of the University of Illinois at Chicago in the early '70s, which pushed Mexicans and Mexican-Americans into the nearby Czech neighborhood. And the recent addition of the University Village housing complex and UIC's plans for further expansion have tweaked the look of Pilsen once again. There will always be many reasons to go to Pilsen, and here we share some of our favorites. Please note that, despite our best efforts, this is not an exhaustive list—we'd love to hear from you about your favorite Pilsen spots.
National Museum of Mexican Art
1852 W. 19th St., 312-738-1503
In 1982, Carlos Tortolero rounded up $900 and some friends and colleagues from the Chicago Public Schools to start the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. Initially, the group's museum had no home base; instead, the art exhibitions and cultural events traveled the city. Five years later, they set down roots in Harrison Park, where they now welcome over 160,000 visitors annually. The museum is one of the "premier repositories for Mexican art in the nation" and its permanent collection of over 7,000 objects is one of the largest in the country.
For more than 30 years, the museum has provided a prominent platform for Mexican artists and community activists. In addition to hosting a permanent collection of works by Mexican artists and artifacts from Mexican history, the NMMA seeks out up-and-coming artists and partners with local organizations on educational programs and neighborhood events. The museum celebrated its 20th anniversary and accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums in 2006, and the name was changed to the National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA).
Casa de la Cultura Carlos Cortez Mestizarte
1440 W. 18th St.
The APO Building on 18th Street once served as a community center and refuge for free-thinking Czechs in Pilsen; it is now a hub for local artists and performers. One of the most prominent galleries and studios housed within is Casa de la Cultura Carlos Cortez-Mestizarte, whose mission is to "preserve, promote and educate the general public about the Mexican fine arts, culture and heritage." The spotlight is on prints by Mexican artists, and Taller Mestizarte (the workshop) offers classes on printmaking, painting and multimedia work.
Rudy Lozano Library
1805 S. Loomis St., 312-746-4329
Rudy Lozano was a Texas transplant who became one of Pilsen's most respected activists. Lozano ran for alderman in 1982 in an attempt to become the first Mexican-American to sit on the City Council, but he and his campaign manager, Jesús "Chuy" García, lost. Undaunted, he focused his efforts on steering the Latino vote in support of Harold Washington, who became the first African-American mayor of Chicago. Lozano was fatally shot just a year later, but his legacy lives on in this branch of the Chicago Public Library, which was named after him in 1989. The mosaics and murals that adorn the exterior were contributed by local artists, along with the permanent exhibition in honor of Lozano.
Pilsen Community and Farmers Market
The indoor market is held at Honky Tonk BBQ, 1800 S. Racine Ave., through April. The outdoor market kicks off in May at the corner of 18th and Halsted streets
The Pilsen Community and Farmers Market runs throughout the year and adapts to Chicago's weather by heading inside the Honky Tonk BBQ when the clocks fall back, and back outside when the last coat is packed. Since 2008, it's been part market for handmade goods, part farmers market and almost wholly local. You'll find meats, veggies, and tamales, as well as freshly baked breads and pastries for sale year-round. If you're an early bird shopper, you can score free coffee from Café Jumping Bean. There's often live entertainment and free yoga classes.
1441 W. 18th St., 773-916-7610
"Art with a conscience"—Reciclarte Studio, tucked away on a high stoop on one of Pilsen's main arteries, is an eco-clinic where items are salvaged and reused to create art. Diamonds in the rough (or garbage) are reclaimed and reshaped as handcrafts and installations, so you really never know what you'll find. The shop also sells bilingual books and handmade bookmarks, as well as pan de muerto and other treats by Leticia Rodarte.
1958 W. 21 St.
Part gallery, part artist co-op, Pilsen Outpost is the brainchild of Chicago artists Teresa Magaña, Pablo Ramirez and Diana Solis. The three artists, whose work stretches across generations and art media, are co-owners and co-curators; not only do they sell pieces by local artists, but they also host monthly openings and workshops. Pilsen Outpost has quickly become a destination for Pilsen residents and visitors alike and proves that there's a whole lot going on south of 18th Street.
Café Jumping Bean
1439 W. 18th St., 312-455-0019
Pilsen's first coffeehouse/gallery hybrid, Café Jumping Bean has been serving coffee and showcasing artists since 1994. Its slogan is "café para los muertos," probably because its coffee and delicious, healthy food have been giving life to Chicago residents for nearly 20 years. It's a family-run operation, with owner Eleazar Delgado overseeing 14 employees and his brother, Guillermo, painting table tops and designing custom T-shirts for the staff. The café is a bustling joint, so show up early for a spot if you're working remotely and have a Screaming Bean or a breve. Or hang out in the evening with a focaccia pizza, a mango licuado or molletes (a great veggie option).
La Catrina Café
1011 W. 18th Street, 312-473-0038
Diana Galicia and her husband Salvadore quit their jobs a few years ago to become their own bosses and run La Catrina Café, and they haven't looked back since—they just celebrated their second anniversary on busy 18th Street. Like their neighbor Café Jumping Bean, they offer a meeting place for Pilsen residents that they also stock with amazing coffee, tea drinks and locally-sourced dishes. Pair your Mexican hot chocolate drink or a yerba mate with some food from their rotating menu.
Kristoffer's Café & Bakery
1733 S. Halsted Street, 312-829-4150
There are plenty of places to get some tres leches cake in Pilsen, but the owners of Kristoffer's Café & Bakery play with the recipe to produce variations on a theme—caramel in the fall, coconut when the outdoors finally heats up. Carlos and Cristina Chavarria run the neighborhood hot spot. Cristina is also the baker, and she whips up flan with cheese along with breakfast sandwiches and tamales (Mayan and Mexican). Wi-Fi is free, but you'll have to pay for the Intelligentsia coffee that the Chavarrias serve.
Food & Drink/Nightlife
1640 W. 18th Street, 312-493-8258
Bistro 18º (say it with us: "dieciocho") is one of Pilsen's newer restaurants, and owners Rafael Bautista and Jessy Sanchez have brought the brunch with them. The husband-and-wife team launched the bistro in December 2013 with a blend of American and Mexican breakfast dishes. This means you can have waffles or eggs with a Latin twist such as a pipian pumpkin seed mole sauce. You can also enjoy a post-sunset meal; this spring's evening menu includes a fish burrito and a mango guacamole burger.
Don Pedro Carnitas
1113 W. 18th St., 312-829-4757
Be careful when declaring your favorite carnitas spot, because you might be inadvertently throwing down the gauntlet. Although a carnitas fight does sound rather delicious, there's no need to come to blows over which shop offers the best braised pork bites in the city. There are multiple spots on 18th Street alone, including Sabas Vega and Carnitas Uruapan Restaurant. But Don Pedro's edges out the competition. The carnitas at this no-frills eatery are some of the best we've had.
1820 S. Ashland Ave., 312-850-1702
Fogata Village's menu is a fusion of Mexican and Italian cuisine, prepared with organic ingredients that make it one of the most welcoming food spots in the area. Fogata serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, which means you could start the day with chilaquiles Fogata, enjoy some caldo de camarón midday or sit down in the evening with a Tampiqueña, which is grilled skirt steak served with an enchilada and mole.
May St. Café
1146 W. Cermak Rd., 312-421-4442
This eclectic little café sits rather unassumingly on Cermak Road, across from an all-night greasy spoon and a factory or two. But May St. Café has been hailed as one of the best steakhouses outside of the South Loop, and also boasts a menu of inventive Latin dishes. Dine on shrimp diabla pasta or nibble on yuca fries with your Allen Brothers steak. Their wine and liquor list is long enough to help you really make a night of it.
Harbee Liquors & Tavern
1345 W. 18th St., 312-733-0333
This dive bar has been around for over a hundred years, an anniversary that was recently celebrated with an expanded beer list. That means that the bar stools, if they were still around, would have seated Czech and Mexican immigrants after a hard day's work. Nowadays, though, you'll encounter a mix of folks as well as Harbee's many nights of music. The prices aren't 19th century prices, but they're damn close.
2149 S. Halsted St., 312-948-5275
We're venturing near Bridgeport/Chinatown territory here, we know—but Skylark, which sits at the intersection of Halsted Street and Cermak Road, is still definitely within the Pilsen boundaries. You'll go for the pierogi (baked, not boiled) and photo booth and stay for the simply great cocktails and vegetarian-friendly menu. Slouch down in a dark booth or camp out at the bar with a Skylark burger (topped with onion rings!) and tater tots; the staff and clientele are friendly, but won't force you to mingle.
1807 S. Allport St., 312-526-3851
Thalia Hall, which is easily one of Pilsen's most recognizable landmarks, was founded in the late 19th century by John Dusek, a family man who ran a neighborhood tavern. Dusek was also a patron of the arts, and he helped turn the Czech architect-designed building into a fulcrum for local businesses and community events. Thalia Hall has changed hands multiple times, but it's now owned and operated by the team that also brought to life Longman & Eagle, Empty Bottle's Bruce Finkelman and Evanston Space's Craig Golden. They've added two new bars and a vintage shop, as well as renovated the hall's concert venue.
The People's Stage Karaoke with Pablo Serrano
Weekly shows in Pilsen locations; monthly shows throughout Chicago
The People's Stage Karaoke started with one man and one mic: muralist and Pilsen perennial Pablo Serrano originated his gig at Simone's on Sunday nights. He has since expanded to weekly and monthly shows in multiple neighborhoods: Pilsen, Logan Square, University Village and (briefly) the West Loop. As a host and producer, Serrano emphasizes the importance of "giving people control over the soundtrack of their entertainment experiences and allowing people to literally sing and dance their culture." The song lists are extensive, so you can croon Sinatra, attempt some Wu-Tang or belt out Bon Jovi with your boleros (ballads).
2nd Fridays in Pilsen
1821 S. Halsted Street, participating galleries and businesses vary
The 2nd Fridays series highlights the galleries of Pilsen, though mostly the ones on Halsted Street between 16th Street and Cermak (aka Podmajersky Row). The Chicago Arts District coordinates this monthly art fest, which sees the openings of new exhibitions as well as special deals with partnering businesses (think two-for-one tamales or drink specials). Head to 1821 S. Halsted Street on the second Friday of every month for a map to plan your artistic journey.
Danette Chavez is a lifelong Chicagoan who's quick to tell you she's a lifelong Chicagoan. Despite this, she totally puts ketchup on her hot dog (that's not a euphemism for anything). She's a freelance culture writer, which is a fancy way of saying she sometimes gets paid to watch TV and adorable animal videos. She's been published in The Chicago Reader, The A.V. Club, and XOJane.