In a recent post, Barrett described the trek he made to the lower west side of Chicago in search of a tortilla press. I was so jealous. I wanted a tortilla press. I wanted the opportunity to wander in one of the largest Mexican neighborhoods in the US, sampling exotic produce and eating great food. And so when I found myself in the Chicago area in August, I knew where I wanted Barrett to take me. PILSEN.
Originally, the Pilsen neighborhood was home to a mix of German and Czech immigrants. The namesake of the neighborhood is a town in the Czech Republic which is the origin of my favorite kind of beer. But some time around the mid-eighties, the Czech and German population had diminished and housing prices were extremely low and the new poor immigrants to take over were the Mexicans. The area has always had a strong sense of identity and although that identity has changed with the years its sense of self has not. It's not an affluent neighborhood, but it's a vibrant one. The parks are full of children and the shops are full of great Mexican products. The restaurants are cheap and cheerful and full of great food. It's a great place for a poor Paris expat to bask in Mexican culture.
Our first stop was in a grocery store just West of the 18th Street Blue line el stop. (Barrett can correct me if I'm getting any of this wrong...) And they had...pickled pigs' ears! I am sorry to say that I was too cowardly to actually purchase pickled pigs' ears, even with the best interests of our readers. I can and will eat most things but some just go that one step too far. Brains. And pickled pigs' ears.
Cheese, glorious cheese! Unfortunately we were about to embark on a long flight and a week's stay in the UK so I could only explore them visually. NEXT TIME. Next time Barrett and I will put aside some time to play with Rick Bayless' recipes instead of frequenting his restaurant. (That said, I tasted the most interesting and delicious oyster sauce in my experience. I never thought I would find a sauce to improve on the beauty and simplicity of lemon juice tout court and I was wrong.)
Nuevo Leon was my favorite Mexican restaurant when I left Chicago about a dozen years ago and I was pleased to see it is still around. It has gone a bit gaudier but it's still there. If you have the opportunity and are not vegetarian, they have The Best Nachos In The World. Seriously. (The Redhead thinks they put meat in the refried beans and she's undoubtedly right. But for the meat-eaters they are a delight: little pyramids of perfectly piled beans, guacamole, cheese and sour cream, with a spicy nugget of jalepeno pepper nestled in the center. Sigh...)
And to finish, I loved this sign. It sums up the eclectic ethnic nature of Chicago at its best. Hoy! (Spanish) Karaoke! (Japanese) And Italian Buffet. Love it.
515 W 18th St.
Chicago, IL, 60608