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Pilsen - a cultural fusion of Chicago

pilsen la catrina dia de los muertos

Welcome to one of the most colorful and culturally rich Chicago neighborhoods!

It was founded by Irish and German immigrants, but after Czechs moved to Pilsen at the end of the 19th century, the area received the name Pilsen after the fourth-largest city in Czechia Pilsen. Later more immigrants arrived from Eastern Europe: Poland, Yugoslavia, and Lithuania. In the late 1960s, Pilsen was overtaken by Mexicans. The signs of Latino culture are visible today on every corner: street murals, shops, and restaurants.

Pilsen is located just 3 miles from downtown Chicago and bounded on the east by 800 West Halsted Street, on the west by 2400 West Western Avenue, on the north by 16th Street, and on the south by the Chicago River.

The area is famous for its art and Mexican culture. Since the 1960s, many artists live and work on Halsted Street near 18th, Eastern part of Pilsen, and the area is called Chicago Artist District. Each month, on the second Friday, from 6 to 10 PM, many artists open their studio doors where you can not only take a look at their artworks but also admire the innovative spaces, they live in. Some galleries may be open during other hours or by appointment.

But some art spaces are always open. The most famous is about 2 miles long stretch along 16th Street west from Halsted Street to Western Avenue. It is full of murals – paintings on walls. Although the tradition of murals is very old, it goes back ca 30,000 years and is one the oldest human visual arts, in Mexico, it was popularized in the first part of the 20th century by famous Mexican muralists, including Diego Rivera, as a means to tell the story to the people who did not know how to read. Mexican muralists depicted strictly social and political scenes, and just recently after many fights some murals started being just aesthetic.

It is fun to look for the doors painted according to the Mexican lottery while walking in the heart of Pilsen. Images of Lotería in Pilsen popped up in 2016 as a means to combat gang graffiti which was a big problem on Pilsen doors. The author of this idea was Rick Garza, the owner of International Real Estate, a real estate company on 18th Street.

Pilsen is home to two parks: Harrison and Dvorak, where especially during the summer many outdoor events take place: open-air movie nights, concerts, and festivals. Harrison Park is a place to be during the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration.

Near Harrison Park well worth the visit is the National Museum of Mexican Art. It is relatively small but is filled with collections of textiles, paintings, photographs, etc. The museum is free.

Only a block south of Harrison Park is the home of the famous local artist Hector Duarte. You can spot his house and studio from a huge mural of “Gulliver in Wonderland” (a Mexican immigrant trying to break free).

murale by Hector Duarte

During the summer months, Pilsen is filled with many street festivals. Every weekend at least a few blocks are closed for block parties. The biggest Latino festival – Fiesta del Sol (Festival of the Sun)- takes place in Pilsen at the end of July on Cermak Street.

In May Pilsen hosts the “Mole de Mayo” festival. During that time the heart of Pilsen –18th Street- is partially closed for celebration and tasting of the traditional Mexican sauce – mole.

18th Street is full of restaurants, galleries, bakeries, and Mexican stories.

One of the most famous places in Pilsen is on the corner of 18th and Allport Street – a former Czech community building, built after the Prague Opera House in 1892.

Thalia hall Pilsen

The historic building hosts 4 different venues:

- a concert hall- the place for rock, jazz, metal, etc. concerts;

- “Dusek’s Tavern” - a restaurant that became a destination in the area after it was opened in 2013. Since that time the restaurant has earned and lost Michelin stars and gone through changes in chefs and menus;

- Punch House, serving communal beverage in the basement;

- Tack Room – a cocktail bar, where live piano music is played in the former carriage house.

Two of the four corners of the same street intersection are taken by other food establishments:

S.K.Y. – Chef Stephen Gillander named my favorite brunch place after his wife: Seon Kyung Yuk. I love this place not because of the memories of taking my small children to the doctor’s office (that was in the building before 😊 ), but because of their innovative dishes.

Azul 18 – another more traditional place previously just a breakfast and lunch place recently started serving dinner as well.

There is no lack of various places to eat and drink in Pilsen: from very simple and old bars and eateries, even food carts selling tamales or paletas (Mexican ice cream) to fancy upscale restaurants that made Pilsen to a destination serving international cuisines.

carnitas at Don Pedro in Pilsen

A staple of Pilsen’s “Carnitas Don Pedro” creates traffic jams on 18th Street on weekends. Huge piles of pork, tortillas, and some condiments: simple, tasty, and very affordable.

Taqueria “La Casa del Pueblo” which is next to the “La Casa Del Pueblo” grocery store (where you can buy not only Mexican staples but also fashionable vegan products) serves homecooked Mexican food in a very simple eatery but usually full of native Mexicans which is an excellent sign of food quality.

If you prefer the fancier environment check out “Canton Regio”, serving Northern Mexican cuisine. The restaurant is famous for grilled skirt steak which is sold by the pound. It is BYOB and accepts only cash. The restaurant is very busy on weekends, and it does not accept reservations, so sometimes the wait could be up to an hour or so, but you could be pleasantly surprised not only by the taste of food and mood but also by the live musicians, usually mariachi. The owners of the “Canton Regio” opened the restaurant after their first restaurant “Nuevo Leon” (opened in 1962) across the street burned down.

“El Milagro Tortilla” is another simple, very affordable place with a tortilla factory on the side.

Taqueria “Los Comales” is one of the oldest taquerias in town and our late-night favorite place for tacos.

“5 Rabanitos” (5 radishes) is another Mexican place in Pilsen, praised by critics and people. It is located a block from National Mexican Culture Museum.

The specialty of “Birreria Reyes de Ocotlan” is goat meat.

“La Luna” is beloved by the younger generation. It is nice to sit outside and watch people, however, the music inside is way too loud for me😊 The restaurant has specials from 3 to 6 Pm Tuesdays to Fridays.

Tacos at La Luna

Another place beloved by young people is “La Vaca” (a cow). It has an outside patio and serves interesting tacos. It is the place in Pilsen for margaritas!

Across the street is “Pilsen Yards” – a place with a seasonal patio serving innovative Mexican food, having a DJ, and serving interesting cocktails at the small bar “The Alderman” (reservations strongly recommended on weekends).

You can not miss the bar “Simon’s” on 18th Street (960 West 18th) with bright lighting and an outside seating area.

The “Skylark” (2149 South Halsted St), a night gathering place of artists and cheap beer, is more difficult to spot.

Relatively new additions to Pilsen’s scene are breweries:

Alulu Brewpub makes small-batch craft beer and constantly changes the selection. They have a huge outdoor seating area and can pack the beer to go.

A couple blocks east, near Dvorak Park is “Lo Rez Brewery & Taproom".

One of the biggest tap rooms in Chicago featuring art exhibitions and tours is located on the west edge of Pilsen Lagunita’s brewery. It is famous for its IPA beer.

There are a few old coffee shops in Pilsen:

“The Jumping Bean” and “Kristoffer's Cafe&Bakery"(famous for its Tres Leches cake).

If you have a sweet tooth check out “La Michoacana Premium”, a Mexican ice cream shop since 2015, that serves dozens of fruit ice cream and Mexican snacks, or “Xurro" (long donut dusted with sugar, etc with or without filling (my favorite is with cream cheese).

A few non-Mexican restaurant places:

Honkey Tonk BBQ specializes in pork dishes and has live music on weekends.

"Bobijoa" - a good Korean restaurant serving typical Korean dishes as well as Korean-American food.

British “Pleasant House Pub” is famous for its hand meat pies.

It is impossible not to mention the Vietnamese “Haisous” – a team of chef Thai Dang and his wife Danielle elevating Vietnamese street food to a fancy restaurant level. The restaurant changes the menu often, especially the Grand Tasting Menu, but some dishes have been since the opening of the place (Fried Whole Fluke and Vietnamese Chicken Wings) and they are really worth trying.

A few dishes from Saigon Grand Tasting menu: Steamed Clams, Grilled Quail, Saigonese Rice Paper Salad, Grilled Pork Chop, Grilled Mushrooms, and "Haisous" famous Chicken Wings from their everyday menu.

Lychee Rice Pudding with Whipped Coconut Mousse and French Crepe was served for dessert.

There are many eclectic shops: music records, like 606 Records and Pinwheel Records, Pilsen Community Books, various retail shops, etc.

So it is easy to spend a few days in a colorful and culturally rich destination looking for signs of various immigrant communities and their fusion as well as embracing the creative spirit of Pilsen's residents.

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