Pilsen & Heart of Chicago
Exploring Chicago Neighborhoods.
Two and a half miles outside of downtown Chicago, you will stumble upon a neighborhood that deserves more than just a simple glance. From Halsted Street west to Western Avenue and 16th Street/the railroad viaduct south to highway 55 are Pilsen and/or Heart of Chicago. Historically rich in immigrant stories and culture, architecturally interesting in housing and space, and vibrant with artistic voices and expression, these communities are an excellent snapshot of an authentic Chicago.
Whether you decide to explore for a day or an entire weekend, what follows are a few ideas to help you discover how these pockets of Chicago are so unique. Big advice tip: go hungry, wear comfy shoes, dress for the weather, and get excited!
Art: Raul “Rawooh” Ramirez, 1447 W. 18th Street, 2016
Work up that appetite and log steps into your fitness pal by walking from Halsted Street and 16th west to Damen. The train viaduct which borders the north end of the area is decorated with colorful, cultural street art and murals. Commentary of each one runs the spectrum of conversation from politics, pop-culture, music, tradition, religion, and panels in memoriam to locals as well as celebrities. Be sure not to miss out on the art in the viaducts at Peoria, Morgan, Paulina, and Wood. Here's a great guide to the location of the murals.
Your hunger will kick in on this walk, I promise you. If you find yourself on 18th street on a Sunday – get there early. Make your way to Don Pedro Carnitas (1113 W. 18th St.). The meaty, salty, savory scent of carnitas will no doubt have your mouth watering before you arrive, as the entire neighborhood smells this way on Saturday and Sunday. Azul 18 (1236 W. 18th St.) a few blocks west offers a spot-on brunch with Mimosas, Palomas, and Micheladas to top off your experience (and some of the best chilaquiles in the city). If a nice jolt of Metropolis coffee and espresso is needed, swing through Café Jumping Bean (1439 W 18th St.). Since 1994, Jumping Bean has been a community meeting spot with Metropolis coffee and delicious café fare, as well as a gallery of local artists.
The ever-satisfying taco will inevitably be craved and consumed while you are here. This conversation can get quite passionate, which means you will have to make multiple trips to Pilsen in order to sample all that is offered. For now, here are three big mentions. The holy grail of tortillas, El Milagro, has a storefront serving cafeteria-style at 1923 S. Blue Island Ave. What differentiates their taco from the rest (besides the incomparable tortilla) is the addition of crispy cabbage and refried beans. Do not forget the salsa, the combination is on point! Perched on a corner facing Harrison Park is 5 Rabanitos (1758 W 18th St.). An acclaimed taqueria, this small BYOB restaurant has Michelin quality food at completely affordable prices. Your stop here would be amiss if you do not order the Cochinita Pibil or Barbacoa tacos. Finally, at the edge of the Heart of Chicago, is a tiny place called Taqueria Tayahua (2411 S. Western Ave.). While takeout and delivery are available, sitting down to enjoy one of their tasty al Pastor tacos and washing it down with a slushy margarita is an option that will bring joy to your belly.
Food can shed light on cultures in an amazing tangible way. However, to dig deeper than a stroll on the street and a handful of tacos, make sure you have time for the National Museum of Mexican Art (1852 W 19th St.). Visit their website to see which exhibits are showing. Their permanent collection boasts 11,000 pieces and is considered one of the largest in the U.S. Admission is free, but donations are happily accepted.
Take a walk toward the southwest end of Pilsen and you will find yourself in The Heart of Italy. On Oakley between 24th and 25th Streets and Coulter Avenue, is a tiny little community straight out of a Hollywood film set. Flanked on either side of the street are a handful of Italian restaurant mainstays. The old school vibe will have you ready to order up some fried calamari, pop open a bottle of Chianti, share a heaping bowl of spaghetti Bolognese, and finish things off with an espresso-laced slab of creamy Tiramisu. Whether you sit down at Bruna’s (2424 S. Oakley Ave.), Ignotz’s (2421 S. Oakley Ave.), or Bacchanalia (2413 S Oakley Ave.), they all make you feel like you just became part of their family.