Even though it is recognized today for having a large Mexican-American population, this culturally diverse neighborhood was named by Czechoslovakian immigrants who resided in the area during the late 1800s. They called the settlement Pilsen as a tribute to their homeland city of Plzen. It wasn’t until the mid-20th Century that the community’s demographics shifted from mostly Eastern European heritage to a considerable Latin American influence. Now the neighborhood is comparable to a Little Mexico and holds some of Chicago’s most prized Mexican treasures at the National Museum of Mexican Art.
The museum is the biggest Latino arts institution in the country and is considered a leader in Mexican cultural appreciation and preservation. Gallery displays showcase both ancient eras and modern-day artists, and the performing arts department highlights Mexican dance, music, literature, theater, and film. The museum’s exhibitions are highly regarded and are regularly enlisted to tour the U.S. and Mexico. Every autumn, there’s a special Day of the Dead exhibit that draws large numbers of visitors. The customary celebration honors the dead and calls attention to the fleeting nature of life.
Fiesta del Sol is a summertime street party that attracts up to a million people every year. All the fun, food, arts, and entertainment take place on Cermak Road between Morgan and Loomis. The event has been organized by the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council for over 30 years and is a great time for the whole family. In September, there’s a rare opportunity to see inside the Pilsen East Artists Colony, a cluster of artist studios and gardens tucked between 18th and 21st streets on Halsted. The annual Open House invites “outsiders” to join colony members in their homes and workspaces for an intimate viewing of their art and walk-through of their unique system of back-gallery commons.
Restaurants and grocery stores in Pilsen are heavy on the Mexican fare. Even the coffee shops have a Latino flavor, such as Café Jumping Bean, which is literally jumping during peak breakfasting and lunching times; and Café Mestizo, an urban coffee house that doubles as a stage for Pilsen’s poets, songwriters, rappers, comedians and artists. Mestizo’s menu has all the usual espresso drinks and lighter bites, but you can also get specialty Mexican spiced cocoa and tamale dinner plates. Jumping Bean also has a Mexican hot chocolate recipe that loyal patrons swear by, but we’ll leave the winner of that taste test for you to decide. Get authentic Mexican breads, cakes and pastries at BonBon Bakery, El Nopal Bakery, Nuevo Leon Bakery or Kristoffer’s Café & Bakery (to name a few). Local food critics praise Kristoffer’s tres leches cake and their coffee selection hails from several different regions of Mexico.
Playa Azul is a Pilsen seafood restaurant with an underwater theme that borders on cheesy. Fortunately, its reputation is based on the grub and this place has really fresh ocean-caught dishes. The ceviche, fish and shrimp options are all delicious and the cooks use classic Mexican spices and jalapenos to give each meal a zesty kick. Just down the street, Cuernavaca delivers on good food and strong drinks. It has a full service bar that makes a mean margarita to go with your fajita.