Travel Guides for Un-tourists


Head to Pilsen For Vibrant Murals, Al Pastor, and Chicago’s Tastiest Tres Leches Cake

by Amanda Svachula

posted on February 05, 2019

Photo Courtesy: @streetart_chilango

Settled by Czech immigrants in the late 19th century, Pilsen became majority Latino in the 1950s and 1960s. Nowadays, the neighborhood is the epicenter of Mexican art, dining, and culture in Chicago: colorful murals cover buildings throughout this Lower West Side neighborhood, with a concentration along its main drag, while restaurants and storefronts offer up some of the city’s best tacos, tres leches cake, and other Mexican fare.

Photo Courtesy: @kt.chandler

With 10,000 pieces dating from ancient Mexico to the present day, this museum offers a rich retrospective of Mexican culture. Take a tour of the permanent collection, “Nuestras Historias”, which delves into Mexican identity in North America, featuring ancient Mesoamerican artifacts along with modern art, then, check out whatever rotating exhibition is up.

Photo Courtesy: @lacatrinacafe

Both a cafe and community hub, La Catrina Cafe puts its roomy interior to good use by hosting poetry readings, activist gatherings, and other events. The walls are decorated with Day of the Dead accents, photos from the Mexican revolution, and local art, and the pastry case is stocked with Mexican treats. Order up a cup of coffee, of better yet, the Dirty Abuelita: Mexican hot chocolate spiked with a shot of espresso.

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Aztec chocolate, Dirty Abuelita, pastries, organic tea, sandwiches

Photo Courtesy: sainttheos

In 1973, Camerino Gonzales opened a taco stand in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago. As the stand grew in popularity, the brand expanded into multiple storefronts, including one in Pilsen. Here you’ll find a variety of tacos; be sure to try the specialty: al pastor. Or venture into different territory with a torta, burrito, gordita, or bistec a la Mexicana, a dish similar to steak fajitas, but spicier.

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Al Pastor taco, burritos, eggs scrambled with Mexican sausage, licuados, horchata

Photo Courtesy: @k_tighe

For the best tres leches in Chicago, head to Kristoffer’s Café, where slices of the the dairy-rich Mexican cake are on offer in a variety of flavors (you can’t go wrong with the traditional vanilla), as well as superb flan, horchata, and Intelligentsia coffee. A neighborhood favorite, it’s also Rick-Bayless-endorsed.

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Coconut tres leches cake, Chocoflan, Mayan tamales

Photo Courtesy: streetart_chilango

The tradition of street art in Pilsen was started by Mexican artists, including Ray Patlan. Today, if you wander along the 16th St. railroad embankment, you’ll find a wealth of colorful murals, many painted by local contemporary artists. Some highlights: Gaia’s Quetzalcoatl and the Stork, Sam Kirk’s restoration of Galeria del Barrio, a mural originally painted in the ‘70s by students from St. Procopius Church under the lead of artist Aurelio Diaz, and Erik Burke’s The House on Mango Street, which draws inspiration from Sandra Cisnero’s beloved novel about the coming-of-age of a Latina girl in Chicago.

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