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Chicago has one of the largest Latino populations in the United States. Photo: Daniel Ekblad
Chicago has one of the largest Latino populations in the United States. Photo: Daniel Ekblad

Food & Drink

Visit the vibrant Latino neighborhoods in Chicago

Chicago has one of the largest Latino populations in the United States, including 1.5 million Mexicans and 190,000 Puerto Ricans. Scandinavian Traveler visited the vibrant Mexican neighborhood of Pilsen and Puerto Rican Humboldt Park.

The spring sunshine falls warmly on West 16th Street, the northern boundary of the Pilsen district. A wall extends from the sidewalk up to the elevated railroad. It’s covered in murals. The Mexican population brought this art form to the area, a style popularized worldwide by artists such as Diego Rivera. The neighborhood is one giant gallery open to the skies. On facades and walls everywhere there are colorful, often political, paintings, some of them gigantic.

Murals in Pilsen, Chicago. Photo: Daniel  Ekbladh

Pilsen was first inhabited by the Irish and the Germans, who were replaced in the 19th century by the Czechs. They named the area Pilsen after the Czech Republic’s fourth-largest city. In the 1960s, Mexicans begin to move there.

Today, Pilsen is a lively district full of bars, cafés, restaurants and boutiques. Street vendors sell tamales, a kind of Mexican pasty, and elote, grilled corn on the cob on sticks. There are Mexican bookstores and bakeries.

Get the Latino taste in Pilsen. Photo: Daniel Ekbladh

La Esperanza, one of Pilsen’s many Mexican restaurants (and reputedly one of the best), is almost full. There are few non-Mexicans. A mariachi band plays amongst the tables. At one of the tables sits José Guzmán, a man in his fifties, who together with a few colleagues runs the bilingual online magazine elbeisman.com, which is based in Pilsen.

Despite appearances, Guzmán says, the area is changing. “Pilsen is close to The Loop, Chicago’s downtown,” he says. “Young people no longer dream of living in a house in the suburbs. They want to live in the center of town. So house prices and rents have skyrocketed here. Affluent people are moving in, and more and more Mexicans are moving out.”

Division Street runs through the Humboldt Park area. Photo:  Daniel Ekbladh

Division Street runs through the Humboldt Park area. Up by Western Avenue. Huge metal sculptures of the Puerto Rican hang across the street at two points, almost like gates. The flags were erected in 1995 to honor the area’s Puerto Rican population. The area between the flags is known as Paseo Boricua. In the park, cars are lined up. Speakers blast merengue music. People are barbecuing. Some are dancing, while others relax in sun loungers. A few older men play dominos.

“We always come here at the weekend when the weather is good,” says a woman in a worn-out sun lounger. “In the summer, the park is completely full.”

At Puerto Rican restaurant El Nuevo Borinquen, we get to talking with one of the staff, Jesmarie Carrion. She likes her neighborhood but says it is changing – fast.

“They even want to sell the steel flags to New York,” she tells us.

This rumor seems to be unfounded, but it’s indicative of the concerns of many Puerto Rican residents, who feel they are being bought out.

Things to do in Pilsen

Nuevo Leon is the area’s most popular restaurant with tourists. Locals eat at La Esperanza. Their guarache with beans, avocado, and cheese is fit for a king and the horchata, a drink made with rice, milk, vanilla and cinnamon, is also excellent. Panaderia Nueva Leon bakes wonderful typically Mexican cakes called conchas and a wide range of other pastries. Don Pedro Carnitas is famous for its carnitas, a dish of tender braised meat, and Pollo Express is renowned for oven-baked chicken. Both are highly recommended.

Photo:  Daniel Ekbladh

The National Museum of Mexican Art is one of the best museums of Mexican art in the US. Pilsen’s famous murals can be found all over the neighborhood. Along 16th Street, you’ll find the new generation’s murals. Between 18th and 22nd Streets are the old ones, and on 26th Street you will find more typical graffiti.

Nuevo Leon
1515 W 18th St
nuevoleonrestaurant26.com

La Esperanza
1864 S Blue Island Ave

Panaderia Nueva Leon
1634 W 18th St

Don Pedro Carnitas
1113 W 18th St

Pollo Express
1315 W 18th St

National Museum of Mexican Art
1852 W 19th St
nationalmuseumofmexicanart.org

 Photo: Daniel Ekbladh

Things to do in Humboldt Park

Hanging out in the park itself is a must (if it’s the weekend and warm). Buy a watermelon juice from one of the street vendors, listen to music, and chat with the locals. Eat a jibarito, said to have been invented by Puerto Ricans in Chicago, at El Nuevo Borinquen or Las Delicias de Puerto Rico. Or munch grilled chicken at the unkempt and cozy Papa’s Cache Sabroso. For something sweet, head to Cafe Colao, and for a cold beer in the afternoon sun, try La Bruquena.

Photo: Daniel Ekbladh

To immerse yourself in Puerto Rican culture and art, head to The National Museum of Puerto Rican Art and Culture. 

El Nuevo Borinquen
1720 N California Ave
uevoborinquen.com

Las Delicias de Puerto Rico
4821 W Armitage ave

Papa’s Cache Sabroso
2517 W Division St
papascachesabroso.com

Cafe Colao
2638 W Division St

La Bruquena
2726 W Division St

The National Museum of Puerto Rican Art and Culture
3015 W Division St
nmprac.org

Photo:  Daniel Ekbladh

Salsa

There are lots of salsa clubs around Chicago. Check out salsachicago.com to find out when and where – updated weekly.

Other culture

latinoculturalcenter.org organizes film festivals, concerts, literary events, and all kinds of events with a focus on Latin American culture.

Text: Martin Brusewitz

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