Best of Brighton Park 2021. Photo by Jocelyn Vega

Best of Brighton Park 2021

Brighton Park represents a crossroads for an immigrant family business, a mother and daughter, and a first-generation Latina college graduate. Despite not knowing one another, they share names of streets, favorite flavors from local food, and the locations that define Brighton Park for this Best of the South Side edition. They also share major life trajectories here: launching their first business during COVID-19, meeting their daughter’s father, or seeing the world through Brighton Park as a child. This neighborhood has shaped lives and opportunities for these three perspectives. Brighton Park is irreplaceable.

However, Brighton Park is also at its own crossroads. Future generations could be crossed out of Brighton Park’s current form as interest in the area grows. For example, the Chicago Park District has planned to build a new headquarters in the neighborhood. Alarms of gentrification are growing and with them, questions about who can claim ownership of the community. Like many neighborhoods in Chicago, working-class communities have been targeted through various forms of structural and physical harms as the pandemic before COVID-19. Yet, many Black, Indigenous, and people-of-color communities continue to collectively care and show love for this hood. They approach this current crossroad with culture, generations of connections, and ancestors from these streets. Alejandro Vargas, Reyna, Daisy Vega, Adeline Rosiello, and Brenda Benítez are some of those community members.

A recent mural, on the intersection of South Archer and West 47th Street captures this dynamic. The piece covers both sides of Archer and recognizes the deep ties between Archer Heights and Brighton Park. It highlights community members whose dedication, time, and energy have kept the neighborhood alive during the pandemic. Various community members, families, and affirming messages have transformed the space and recognized the humans that make Brighton Park possible.  

As a couple, Alejandro and Reyna launched their family-run restaurant MEXICOLOMBIA this year, facing the odds as a new business during COVID-19. They’re determined to show the South Side South America from their family to yours.  

Daisy and her eleven-year-old daughter Adeline pass through the neighborhood to connect with the larger South Side. Brighton Park is their bridge to family in Gage Park, memories, and ancestors who passed away, like her grandfather Ricardo Lara in 2016. Brighton Park connects Daisy’s past with her daughter’s childhood. Shopping small allows Daisy and Adeline to stay creative and on budget. Together, they spend time visiting locally owned businesses as a family tradition.  

“I want investment, and I want development, I want better infrastructure there. I want to see the roads built up, I want to see more jobs for people, but I want them to be owned and led by the people that live there, that know that community, and that have worked so hard to build it up into what it is…I don’t want [Brighton Park] to be pushed away… Something has to be intentionally done differently for there to be a result. Or else, we’re going to keep seeing the same thing over and over again,” said Brenda Benítez. Having grown up in Brighton Park, Brenda is the oldest sibling of immigrant parents and continues to advocate for communities like hers.

Neighborhood captain Jocelyn Vega is a first generation Latina and hija de Enrique y Obdulia Vega. She dedicates her life to intergenerational healing and ancestral justice for past and future generations.

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Best Colombian Food on the Southwest Side

MEXICOLOMBIA

Photo by Jocelyn Vega

“We wanted to have something different, very different from what is currently in the neighborhood,” said Alejandro Vargas, father, husband, and owner of the family-run MEXICOLOMBIA. “It’s a combination of Mexican and Colombian food that is very delicious. We invite the whole world to come try our food. Come see the difference there is between Central American and Mexican food. We have the best combination so that everyone can feel like family and at home. A food that is casera (homemade) y muy rica (and very delicious).”

Community members from Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, Ecuador, countries in Central America, and elsewhere have already visited to signal their support. MEXICOLOMBIA moves between cultures as an immigrant family expressing its own roots in Chicago.

This restaurant is truly run as a family. Together, Alejandro and co-owner and wife Reyna—self-proclaimed “Reyna De MEXICOLOMBIA” (Queen of MEXICOLOMBIA)—along with Juan, their son, and Reyna’s mama dedicate their days to preparing the restaurant and caring for each customer. 

Despite COVID-19’s devastating impact on their lives, Alejandro remains motivated and excited by his family’s progress and effort in making this dream possible. He added, “¡Vamos adelante!” (“We move forward!”) 

Reyna understands that her son could work anywhere but is extremely thankful for his presence and commitment to their family business. “He gives us confidence and a big help because we don’t have many people that we trust or any employees. We have struggled a lot,” she said. Standing in between his father and grandmother, Juan smiled and made eye contact with his mom in that moment.

“It’s a new restaurant that we opened six months ago. And yes, we have been lucky to sell as we withstand this pandemic,” said Reyna. She describes their food as “Comida Poblana” that maintains and combines distinctive Mexican and Colombian recipes. They are also inventing new plates that can be found in their updated menu with photos. She added, “Ahi estamos poniendo ganas en todo.” (“Here is where we are putting everything into this.”)

This family is continuing to overcome many barriers as first-time business owners. Reyna described the financial burdens of permits when opening up a restaurant, costing her family a significant amount. “We are so grateful to our customers because despite everything that is happening right now, we are able to sell something,” she added. 

 Reyna’s dream is to simply see her restaurant succeed as it has become a home for her family. She said, “Sácalo adelante y échale ganas porque ahorita con esta enfermedad, ya no se sabe. Ahorita está calmado, mañana, ¿quién sabe?” (“Moving it forward and putting effort in this very moment because with this disease, you don’t know anymore. Right now, things are calm, but tomorrow, who knows?”) (Jocelyn Vega)    

MEXICOLOMBIA, 4129 S. Archer Ave. Monday-Sunday, 10am-8pm. (773) 526-6921.

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Best SSA Mural

Archer Heights and Brighton Park

Photo by Marc Monaghan

At the intersection of Archer Avenue and 47th Street, you will find a beautiful mural depicting the essence of its host neighborhoods, Archer Heights and Brighton Park. Commissioned by the Special Service Area #39 and painted by Anne Heisler (@buttrbelle), this mural brightens up the viaduct that once was a blank canvas. The Archer Heights side of the mural pays tribute to essential workers that worked throughout the pandemic and to the residents that love and care for their community. Perhaps my favorite part of the mural is the image of two girls watering a small plant. Looking at this image, the first thing that comes to mind is the phrase, “nos quisieron enterrar pero, no sabían que éramos semillas” or “they tried to bury us but they did not know that we were seeds.” This empowering phrase reminds us that despite hardship, we are able to overcome challenges and persevere. (Joseline Rodriguez)

Under the viaduct on 47th and Archer.

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Best Paletas to Chase as a Small Child

Paleteria Ayutla

“At eight or nine, I remember me and one of my siblings would hear the [paleta cart] ringing of the bells, and it would be like ‘Oh shoot, paletas! All right!’ We’re like, ‘okay, you run at them, and you will get coins. Go ask mom for a dollar.’ And one of us would run and finally catch up to the paletero and be like, ‘my sister, my mom, or someone’s coming with money’ kind of thing.” This mission to get paletas was common in Brenda’s family. She joked that when she entered Paleteria Ayutla’s storefront that she described it as a “headquarters” and asked [and] “this is where they are? Is this where they keep them all!” Before visiting the shop, Brenda understood the paletero to be “the beginning and the end of where paletas come from.” 

She encourages visiting the shop but also supporting local paleteros. If possible, tipping a paletero goes a long way and is deeply appreciated. “Pay what you can…and buy from them instead of buying paletas from a chain,” Brenda added. 

“It is the best paleteria that is consistently good that doesn’t taste artificial, like some other paletas. It was awesome,” said Brenda. Some of her favorites are mamey, arroz con leche, and guava. The chunks of fresh fruit makes these paletas irresistible to any taste buds. “Branch out and try new flavors,” said Brenda. (Jocelyn Vega)

Paleteria Ayutla, 2404 W. 46th Pl. Monday-Saturday, 10am-8pm; Sunday, 11am-6:30pm. Cash only.

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Best Bakery for Your Inner Latinx Child

La Central Bakery

Photo by Samuel Colon

On Saturday mornings, this bakery was Brenda’s family spot to get “pan” (“bread” in Spanish). After moving to Brighton Park at eight years old, this bakery continues to be one of her favorites in Chicago. As the oldest sibling, Brenda remembers jumping into the car early in the mornings to buy fresh bread. “It always felt like a place where we could go,” Brenda said. “My parents could say ‘yes’ to things, like this bunch of conchas or those little cookies. It just felt like we had so many choices, and so many of them were available to us. It’s a combination of [La Central Bakery] just being a bomb bakery that has so many different options, and that it was priced affordably for my family.” 

She also describes it as one of the few places she was allowed to be a curious child. “It was nice as a kid to have your own tongs, to be able to grab stuff, and put it on the big tray. I felt welcomed even as a kid,” she said, comparing it to other stores that didn’t want kids touching or doing things. To this day, Brenda remembers the tall kitchen windows, stacks of trays holding hot bread, kind workers, and family bonding over “pan” despite challenging times.  

“Despite whatever was going on at home, when we got there, it was something that everybody enjoyed and brought everyone together. A special moment each or every other week,” she added. 

La Central Bakery, 2422 W. 47th St. (773) 890-3950. Cash only.

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Best “Little Crib” Cafe for Mental Health According to a Ten-Year-Old

Café El Mesón

“It feels like a home on the top. I think it’s really nice and beautiful, and I am excited to eat their food,” Adeline, a ten-year-old Virgo, told me after placing her order. Café El Mesón is one of her favorite coffee shops in the city. This new sixth grader picked this cafe to celebrate her first day of school and came with an appetite.

“You can pick to eat upstairs or downstairs, your decision,” said Adeline. “If you want, you can buy some stuff” from their inclusive faith-based store and book shop, she added. Adeline recommends buying one of their “cute bags and a mug” for a friend, especially if you’re searching for a gift and you’re hungry for fresh food.

However, don’t bring your classmates, or if you do, bring only the “calm ones,” according to Adeline. “They would just interrupt people who want to eat, relax, read, and stuff,” said Adeline. This is her go-to for peace, comfortable seating options, and delicious food under one roof. She loved the shifting natural light shining from the various windows on the second floor. 

She commented that there aren’t places like this near her current home, her dad’s side of the family, her great grandmother’s community, or any other nearby neighborhoods. Café El Mesón is her relaxing place. Adeline also recognizes the labor behind the beauty. “They work so hard, and I think we should tip them cause it’s always nice,” she said. “Like, [what if] they can’t pay stuff? That one guy just wants to keep this place the best [that he can] to get money and to pay these bills with this beautiful house. It’s a small business cafe.” 

That “guy” is Juan Crespo, the owner of Café El Mesón. Adeline appreciates the cafe’s friendliness toward children. Pictures are important for this ten-year-old and her decision making. Menu photos allow her “to see what it is, to see if you want it or not,” she added. The owner also turned to Adeline when it was our turn to order and reviewed each ingredient to confirm her preferences. 

 The food finally arrived! Adeline received a tall glass jug for her oreo frappe for five bucks. She titled it the best five dollar frappe that you can get due its large size and consistent flavoring.  

Adeline said, “I’m not impatient, but I just really want to have one” after a long day of in-person classes for the first time in one year. “I recommend you to come to this place” and try the grilled chicken sandwich, she added. She doesn’t eat vegetables often but had no need to remove the spinach, tomato, or avocado because it was fresh and Café El Mesón’s flavors were “very good.”

Before we left, Adeline pointed out the most important image to her about Café El Mesón. The sign read “Home is where family gathers, friends meet, and roots grow.” (Jocelyn Vega)

Café El Mesón, 4631 S. Kedzie Ave. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, 10am-9pm; Wednesday, 10am-6pm; Saturday, 9am-6pm; Sunday, closed. (773) 696-9691. cafemeson.com

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Best Barbacoa and Homemade Tortillas Weekend Spot

La Palma Supermercado

Early Sunday mornings, Brenda’s family would stop at this local institution. La Palma opened its doors in the 1990s and continues to serve the community by promoting locally made food in weekly menus and keeping grocery prices affordable. According to Brenda, La Palma’s staff are responsive and attentive.   

As a young child, Brenda described walking past rows of limes, cilantro, and onions to reach her favorite part of the store: where hot food was for sale. Her family’s classic order was one or two pounds of barbacoa and one or two pounds of chicharrón. Brenda joked that she was getting hungry thinking about La Palma’s food. As a child, she remembers holding the warm food in butcher paper after it was given from the food counters. Brenda associates La Palma with belonging in a large family growing up. Even though she lives with many roommates now, La Palma is deeply rooted in family for her.

“It was something that brought our family together. It was a meal that we would actually all sit down together. And [the food] was ready right away. So we don’t have to worry about who’s gonna cook and all these things. It was a nice treat. It was delicious. It was special because we’d only get it every now and then on the weekend,” said Brenda.  

Every weekend, there is an assortment of carnitas, menudo, and homemade tortillas for sale starting at 8:30am. “I’m telling you, the food in Brighton Park is just amazing,” Brenda added.  

La Palma Supermercado, 4173 S. Archer Ave. (773) 823-1897. lapalmasupermarket.com.

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Photo by Samuel Colon

Best Hidden Gem of One-Stop Shops

Omar’s

“It’s a bodega, but it’s like a one-stop shop with pretty much different necessities, even from party to home,” said Daisy. As her go-to destination, she highlights its convenience, affordability, and its unique experience. I feel like it’s very overlooked. A lot of people don’t know [it] is there. It is way cheaper than the dollar store,” she added.

All of Adeline’s themed birthday parties were made financially possible by Omar’s. The store has multiple aisles and updates its merchandise pretty often to include the most raging trends for kids. However, you’ll also find old school party items recognizable by any pre-2000 household.

“I do feel that in Brighton Park, [Omar’s] is one of the best places to get everything you need,” Daisy added.

Daisy said, for “nowhere near $100,” she has successfully purchased everything for major birthday parties. “I’ve been there multiple times. I went in for a piñata, but I was able to get the candy, the gift bags, decorations, table covers, the utensils, and the food trays. Everything to serve the food and to eat with the food. You can even buy blankets there or household needs. They have a lot of employees there to help you out with different things.  They even have tortillas,” she added.

Omar’s additionally sells a variety of furniture, personal care products, balloons, toys, nostalgic plastic table covers seen in most abuelita’s (grandma) homes. Omar’s is also stocked to meet any household demands, like kitchen tools, household decor, cleaning supplies, and much more. Adeline joked that “you could even find a husband there,” before Daisy and I cracked up. 

By shopping at Omar’s, Daisy said “you support a small business instead of going to Party City or Dollar Tree. They see you in line and they keep it moving. They don’t have one register open like many other stores…If you’re from Brighton Park and the surrounding neighborhoods, you know Omar’s, but I feel like [people] in the far away neighborhoods don’t know about Omar’s and go to Walmart, Target, or Dollar Tree.” Check out their multiple aisles and find rare items that used to stock the shelves when I was growing up as a first generation child in Chicago’s Southwest Latinx communities. 

Daisy remembers Omar as a go-to from an early age and recognizes its role in supporting direct jobs in the community. 

Visiting Omar’s “makes me feel like you know how it was simpler back in the day where everything was just ‘you go there.’ It’s just different [now], and I’m not even old like that. Like, it’s convenient to have all these other things, but I do think that it is nice to have places where it just takes you away from the fast-paced virtual world that we live in,” Daisy added. (Jocelyn Vega)

Omar Discount Center, 3247 W. 47th St. Monday-Sunday, 9am-9pm. (773) 579-0022.

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Best Corner Store to Support

El Rodeo Carnicería y Taquería (referred to as Supermercado El Rodeo)

This local store that marks the hearts of many past and present childhood memories is a community staple to definitely support. This old-school corner store offers extremely affordable snacks, candies, drinks, and go-to items for any home. It’s one of the few pla

Photo by Jocelyn Vega

ces where you can buy multiple things under a dollar, and accepts LINK.

I saw children stand on their toes to peek over the row of candies near the cash register and then look over at their caregiver for approval. Their small hands clapped with joy before high fiving each other as they selectively removed three candies each. Each extended their selection and stomped their feet with joy afterwards. They quietly sang “dulces, dulces, dulces” (candies, candies, candies) to each other.  

El Rodeo Carnicería y Taquería truly has it all as a historic, community staple. The tight aisles are organized by a busy employee who you’ll find rearranging and aligning each shelf row. He is extremely kind and asked each customer if they needed anything. I turned to him when looking for the beverages, and he walked me over and provided his feedback on his favorite drink options. Even through a face mask, I heard his smile.

Maybe the “best” element of El Rodeo Carnicería y Taquería is its unbeatable prices. Tacos and quesadillas are under three dollars, while the burritos and tortas cap at $7.99. Please make sure to tip the hard-working chef, who is often running a one-man show, because he truly tries to make the best experience as a long-term worker at El Rodeo. On the weekend, they offer additional options, like menudo by the gallon.

El Rodeo is the perfect spot to pick up a meal and all of your snacks for a long road trip. Just visiting is worth the trip! (Jocelyn Vega)

Supermercado El Rodeo, 4300 S. Mozart St. Monday-Sunday, 8am-9pm. (872) 444-5166.

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