When I was walking around Pilsen recently, it reminded me of Wicker Park 10 years ago. The bohemian coffee shops are truly unique, all independently-owned, and each has its own, unique style and menu. We popped into three Pilsen cafes this week, where no one leaves hungry, and there's still plenty of change in your pocket.
The vibe is laid back and casual at the tiny Cafe Aorta, just off the main drag of 18th Street. Local art adorns the walls, and on the plate, it's a mix of American and Caribbean fare.
"As we would say, 'total mundo', which means the total world; we have varied aspects of food, from vegan to you-name-it, but everything that sells we only use olive oil, no butter," said Papi Perez, Cafe Aorta.
The Havana Hot Plate is overloaded with steak, garlicky yucca, red beans and rice, while a Cuban sandwich is stacked with ham and chunks of roasted pork. A veggie-friendly penne pasta contains tofu meatballs that hold their own; even the jibarito sandwich gets a healthy makeover.
"We use a multi-grain bread instead of traditional platanos, which is normally dried out and marinated in garlic, but you have something a little bit more healthy but with sazon flavor," said Perez.
Desserts are a strong suit: wheatgrass-coconut cake tastes much better than it sounds; a crushed red velvet cake is aided by a drizzle of chocolate, and Perez's Angel sweet potato pie is low in sugar, high in flavor.
"We're about healthy and happiness and very good eating," Perez said.
A few blocks away, Cafe Mestizo has a tiny menu and some knock-out coffee drinks, including a Cafe Azteca, containing espresso, Mexican-spiced hot chocolate and cinnamon. Homemade Oaxacan tamales are not to be missed, and if any of the artwork strikes a chord, most of it is for sale.
The granddaddy in Pilsen is still Cafe Jumping Bean. This coffeehouse and gallery exudes a local vibe, whipping up addictive hot chocolate and espresso drinks, plus very good turkey foccacia and chicken salad sandwiches.
"We were the first here 14 years ago, and we brought the idea of a coffee shop to Pilsen and people sort of freaked out, and then they sorta got, 'Wow, this is a good thing to have.' You know, people come, have a cup of coffee, relax, talk, play a game of chess; you know whatever," said Eleazar Delgado, Cafe Jumping Bean.
If you had to pick one drink, the Choco Espresso is the way to go: Mexican hot chocolate with espresso -- it's their version of a mocha. Delgado says he keeps prices low -- nothing tops six bucks here -- thanks to an expanding clientele.
"We've seen a lot, lot more students from the university, there's more people out later in the evenings; there's a lot of more business, more diverse businesses opening up in the neighborhood," Delgado said.
Another great find is Tianguis, a combination tea shop-Latin bookstore, where you can pick up a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel and a range of hot and cold loose leaf teas.
1646 W. 18th St.
Cafe Jumping Bean
1439 W. 18th St.
2002 W. 21st St.
2003 S. Damen Ave.