Pilsen's best 18th Street spots

Explore the South Side neighborhood's busiest strip.

1. Orozco Community Academy Orozco art teacher Francisco Mendoza directed students in the completion of these nine mosaic panels—which depict traditional Mexican imagery and pre-Columbian iconography alongside neighborhood scenes—adorning the facade of this elementary school. (Note the rendition of the National Museum of Mexican Art on the first panel from the left and the ice-cream vendor on the right.) In an example of meta-art, the first panel also illustrates a scene of the 18th Street El station and its colorful murals, which Mendoza also oversaw. 1940 W 18th St (no phone).

2. Mundial–Cocina Mestiza It’s no surprise this bright restaurant is a hit—Mundial’s chefs and co-owners, Katie and Eusebio Garcia, dish out an innovative menu of Mexican classics whipped up with European techniques. Every time we eat here, we’re awestruck by seasonal dishes like the prosciutto-wrapped scallops and “elote” tamales. 1640 W 18th St (312-491-9908).

3. Mi Cafetal Old-schoolers remember that Mi Cafetal’s sweet-as-sugar owner, Doña Meche, was the first to introduce the Internet café concept to the ’hood. Grab a seat in the darling patio when the weather’s warm, or a pitch-black, cinnamony Mexican coffee to go when it’s not. 1519 W 18th St (312-738-2883).

4. A.P.O. Building When this hulking edifice was built in 1883, it served as a community center for Pilsen’s then-Czech population. Nowadays, a new brand of bohemian occupies the space: The building’s ground floor is home to La Casa de la Cultura Carlos Cortez, an art gallery and print-making workshop with deep roots (local Mexican-American artists Hector Duarte and Nicolas de Jesus worked here years ago), while artists’ live/work studios occupy the top floors. Drop by on weekends to take a peek at printing apprentices at work or on March 7 for La Casa’s “Woman, Yes You Can” exhibit, a female-artist–only show. Or wait until October for the Pilsen Open Studios (part of Chicago Artists Month, explorechicago.org) to check out the art inside the cavernous, creaking studios upstairs. 1440 W 18th St (no phone).

5. Libreria Girón Chicago’s leading Spanish-language bookseller isn’t the “en español” section at Borders. It’s this neighborhood fixture, which imports books from Spain, Mexico and Argentina for local and national distribution. In fact, Girón stocks the big chains, though you wouldn’t gather as much from the compact storefront. Yes, all the books are in Spanish, but don’t let that deter you—after all, learning to recite Neruda in his native tongue is that much more romantic. Recently, however, Pablo’s taken a backseat to Crespúsculo—apparently, Twilight is not just bloodlusty; it’s also bilingual. 1443 W 18th St (312-226-2086).

6. Knee Deep Vintage Stop in at this shop and gallery for cheap and stylish duds and kick-ass boots. Co-owners Trent Marinelli and Carlos Lourenco also pick estate sales dry to stock killer housewares, like ’50s milk-glass mugs and midcentury furniture (we recently scored several public-school bucket chairs for $10 apiece). The store hosts sale parties almost every month, meaning you can double your style for less. 1425 W 18th St (312-850-2510).

7. RadioArte and Yollocalli mural This community-focused radio station (90.5FM) has rocked Pilsen’s airwaves since the National Museum of Mexican Art founded the teen-operated station 13 years ago. Peep the street-level DJ booth, as well as the alley-facing side of the building for a whimsical mural of a kid with outstretched arms flying through space painted by members of the Yollocalli Youth Museum, another NMMA teen program. 1401 W 18th St.

8. Irv’s Bike Shop Despite the fact this family-run retailer and repair shop is the only bicycle store for miles, prices and services remain affordable. Owner Enrique Ortiz and his crew can fix a flat for $8 or convert your Working Bikes junker into a customized one-speed for around $300. Irv’s also stocks new and used bikes, plus tires, locks, bells and pant-leg cuffs. You know, in case your skinny jeans aren’t tight enough. 1725 S Racine Ave (312-226-6330).

9. Galería del Pastel After a fire burned out the Bombon Bakery flagship down the street last summer, pastry chef Laura Cid-Perea relocated to this bakery. Thankfully, her cakes remain as heavenly as ever, especially the tres leches and the individual-sized confections. Our favorite sugar rush comes from the pretty Mini Luisito, a vanilla cake spiked with mango and white chocolate. 1238 W 18th St (312-733-9790).

10. Don Pedro Carnitas His restaurant? Small. His posturing? Crotchety. His carnitas? Legendary. Don Pedro once ran us out when we were trying to write a story about him, so we had to settle for doing “field research” on the juicy, savory, simmered-then-braised pork chunks. The place turns into a madhouse around 11am on weekends, so avoid peak hours or get a pound to go—it comes with a little sample on the side for those who can’t wait to tear into the goods. 1113 W 18th St (312-829-4757).

11. Del Rey Tortillería Any place you can get a 12-pack of made-before-your-eyes tortillas (25 cents) for less than the cost of a stamp gets our vote. Throw in buñuelos (deep-fried, cinnamon-and-sugar–dusted tortilla chips; 85 cents) and housemade nacho chips ($1.50), and we’re there at 6am sharp with our piggy bank and a hammer. 1023 W 18th St (312-829-3725).

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