Best Pilsen restaurants
There are a few birrierias (spots that specialize in Mexican goat stew) sprinkled throughout the city, but all it takes is one visit to this one before you stop caring about the rest. There's just over half a dozen items here, but after trying the delectable tongue tacos, the cabeza tacos full of luscious beef cheeks, the simple yet rich goat consommé or the goat tacos bursting with sumptuous meat, you’ll find you won’t want for anything else.
This old-school favorite opened its doors in the Heart of Italy neighborhood in 1933, which almost explains the faded travel posters and weary saloon decor. But the kitchen is far from tired, going beyond typical pastas and parmigianas to specialize in rustic dishes from Siena. Listed between the Chicken Vesuvio and the stuffed shells are a rich ravioli filled with porcini mushrooms and a spirited rendition of penne alla puttanesca. Stop at the bar for a digestif with the locals on your way out.
This colorful Pilsen stalwart, open since 1994, is both a quick spot to grab coffee en route to the train and a neighborhood gathering place for low-key breakfasts or pounding away on laptops. The espresso bar serves the basics, as well as a terrific sweet Thai iced coffee, while the simple food menu includes bagels for breakfast and soups and sandwiches for lunch.
We were handed a big hunk of carnitas as soon as we entered this tiny Pilsen storefront, instantly endearing us to this spot. Ordered by the pound, the juicy pork is served to you on a platter with nothing but a side of corn tortillas and a spicy salsa verde so you can concoct your own tacos. Not leaving any part of the pig to waste, the limited menu also includes fresh, warm, delicious chicharrones.
Technically, this restaurant doubles as a gallery space. But though there’s plenty of well-curated art on these walls, there are too many tables in here to make it the kind of place you can pop into and browse. Yet there is an energy of community here, and artists often do come to sit at the bar and talk shop. Makes sense—if you want to foster artistic discussion, it helps to serve solid guacamole, well-seasoned skirt steaks, a nice chicken with housemade poblano mole and tres leches cake from nearby Kristoffer’s Bakery.
Success on the competition circuit and local festivals prompted Willie Wagner to set up a permanent home for his Memphis-style, dry-rubbed barbecue in Pilsen. The smoky pulled pork clocks in as one of the best around. Tender, juicy chicken comes in second for best bets, with puckery slaw and meaty beans right behind it. Make a night of it with the lively bands that play in the attached bar on weekends.
The bustling sit-down Mexican spot serves excellent tacos on fresh tortillas piled with fillings like spicy chorizo and tender steak, topped with onions and cilantro. Dress them with salsa served from squeeze bottles and spicy pickled veggies, including carrots and jalapenos, which sit on the table.
Things haven't changed much at the Heart of Chicago's Italian deli/grocery store in more than three decades. That's great for fans of old-school classics, like a generous Italian sub with layers of mortadella, salami, cheese and other meats, or daily hot specials like meatloaf and mashed potatoes on Mondays. But maybe the best part of all is the warm feeling in the restaurant—everyone sits a tables covered with black and white checkered tablecloths, and it feels like everyone has been doing it for years.
The vibrant paleteria only opened its Pilsen location in mid-2015, but with several other area locations under its belt, it's already polished. The dozens of paletas available are among the city's best, with rich cream flavors like blackberry or fruity kiwi frozen with strawberries. Rounding out the menu are snacks like elotes and nachos, as well as a Doritos walking taco—a sliced open bag of nacho cheese-flavored chips, topped with avocado, pork rinds, hot sauce and other toppings. Get one, and share with five friends.