Chicago's Flavor: Pilsen

February 18, 2011 5:22:40 AM PST
Pilsen has been called the heart of Chicago's Mexican-American community, and walking along 18th Street, it's easy to see why.

The colorful murals, the architecture and restaurants are everywhere you look. Food journalist David Hammond was Roz's guide along "La Calle Dieciocho."

"Mexican food is extraordinarily rich and influenced not only by the Native American in Mexico, the indigenous culture, but also by the Spanish and French," Hammond said.

Roz started at a bakery, Panaderia Nuevo Leon, a Pilsen favorite since 1973.

Owner Artemio Casas explained two differences between a Mexican panaderia and an American bakery. The pastries have plenty of flavor, but they're not as sweet, and it's all self serve.

There are more than 50 types of pastries, breads and homemade tortillas, made fresh daily. Muy sabroso!

Our next stop was La Casa del Pueblo, a traditional Mexican grocery store, this was an adventure.

Within walking distance of La Casa del Pueblo is the hidden gem of Pilsen. The National Museum of Mexican Art is a place where visitors can learn about Mexican culture, art and its history in Chicago.

"When we first opened a lot of people said, 'You're not really supposed to open a world-class institution in a neighborhood; little did they know the neighborhood would grow with us and support the kind of work we do here," said Cesareo Moreno, chief curator, National Museum of Mexican Art.

Next year, the museum will celebrate its 25th anniversary, and it's still free to the public.

Our final stop was Carnitas Uruapan, a quaint little restaurant that serves only one thing -- carnitas, or stewed pork, cooked over long periods of time, in its own fat, to give it that tender, juicy flavor. Owner Inocencio Carbajal has been serving his Michoacan-style carnitas here since 1975. You can get it plain or mixta, with skin and ears. They also have "chicharones,' fried pork rind. I went with the plain carnitas, taco style and just for kicks, tried a jalepeno.

To top it off, the price is more than reasonable -- $6.50 for a pound of carnitas, and yes, Roz took some to go. Me gustan mucho las carnitas - me encanta Pilsen, which means Roz really likes carnitas and adores Pilsen.

If the name "Pilsen" doesn't sound very Spanish to you, that's because it isn't. It was coined when the population was mostly Czech, named after the city of Plzen in what is now the Czech Republic.

Panaderia Nuevo Leon
1634 W. 18th

La Casa del Pueblo
1810 S. Blue Island Avenue

National Museum of Mexican Art
1852 W. 19th Street

Carnitas Uruapan
1725 W. 18th