In Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, the face is changing


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CHICAGO —To find authentic Mexican food, a friend said I needed to go to Chicago. A native Chicagoan, Tonantzin was disappointed by the options offered in the Boston area, where we were both living at the time. If I ever visited her, we’d get tacos. 

Years later, I took her up on her offer, turning a recent visit to Chicago for a conference into a weekend vacation. I did many of Chicago’s well-worn tourist activities, including a visit to the Art Institute, an architectural boat tour of the Chicago River and a game at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs happened to be playing (and alas, defeating) the Pirates. During the conference, I attended Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Grant Park Orchestra concerts; along the way, I stumbled upon the public art scattered throughout the city.

But in the Loop, where my group was staying, I didn’t get a sense of the city’s lively neighborhoods that Chicagoans seemed to relish. In Pilsen, three miles southwest of Downtown, I got a flavor of that — and my tacos, too.

I met Tonantzin for lunch at Nuevo Leon (“Hands down the BEST food in Pilsen,” according to one review; Chicago magazine said it‘‍s been a neighborhood favorite for 50 years). It’‍s on 18th Street, which is filled with Mexican businesses and eateries (including another Nuevo Leon — that one was a bakery). Tonantzin, who is Mexican-American, was waiting in line when I arrived, but we barely had to wait before being shepherded to our booth and served tortillas with beans and some sort of meat, two types of salsa and chips.

PG map: Pilsen Neighborhood Detail
(Click image for larger version)

This was no mere amuse-bouche, and the free appetizers (provided to us so we wouldn’t go hungry while we waited, Tonantzin said) could have sufficed for lunch. The soft corn tortillas were delicious; Tonantzin said Nuevo Leon also has tasty flour tortillas, which she normally advises against. Our interactions with the wait staff at Nuevo Leon were in English and Spanish.

Changing scene in Pilsen

Since it was established in the mid-19th century, Pilsen has been a working-class immigrant neighborhood populated by European then, starting in the mid-20th century, Mexican residents. Mexicans started moving to the Chicago area in the early 1900s to take industrial jobs, according to Nelson Soza, executive director of the Pilsen Alliance, a social justice organization.

The neighborhood is changing. Eastern Pilsen, closer to downtown Chicago, has seen a reduction in affordable housing units, said Mr. Soza, whose organization advocates for policies to protect affordable housing and public schools, among other issues.

“Chicago used to be known for the things that it made, and now it’s known for the services it provides,” Mr. Soza said. “Pilsen is caught in the middle of all these changes.”

He provided me with census data for Chicago’s Lower West Side, where Pilsen is located, to demonstrate his point. From 2000 to 2010, almost 10,000 Hispanic or Latino residents left the neighborhood; as of 2010, they made up 82.4 percent of the population, down from 89 percent a decade earlier.

Median household income has increased in most census tracts, as has the percentage of people who are both employed and unemployed, due to a higher workforce participation rate.

Given its convenience to downtown Chicago, comparatively affordable rents and cultural color, including murals, restaurants and the National Museum of Mexican Art, the neighborhood is attractive to new residents, Mr. Soza said. They often work in white-collar and creative industries, pushing up rents and pushing out longtime inhabitants.

The demographic trends concern him; he said he is advocating for a community that he believes helped build Chicago.

“I think there’s no question that the process is moving forward,” Mr. Soza said, “and it’s part of an overall vision that the city has.”

Dining, drinking, culture

Beyond new residents, Pilsen is becoming a popular destination for tourists attracted to its dining, drinking and arts scene, especially along 18th and Halsted streets, according to Chicago magazine.

Back at Nuevo Leon, Tonantzin favored the spicy tacos de sabinas: three flour tortillas with rib-eye, onions, tomatoes, jalapenos, refried beans and Chihuahua cheese. We also ordered enchiladas suizas, which had been recommended on Yelp – often my go-to when checking out a new restaurant and certainly one with as large a menu as Nuevo Leon‘‍s. Our chicken enchiladas in corn tortillas were topped with cheese and served with rice and beans on the side. The beans, smooth, simple and flavorful, were my favorite part of the meal. We split up the plates and clawed through as much as we could. Together, it cost under $20.


Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.

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