Ambriehl Crutchfield

Best of Gage Park 2018

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Best of Gage Park? Meet mi Tita, Maria Lara

Walking down the street in Gage Park with mi Titami abuelita—Maria Lara, we always meet a friend, whether it’s inside of a corner store, across the street, or at a yard sale.

Mi Tita arrived in Chicago in the mid nineties, and settled into Gage Park with mis tias y tios (my aunts and uncles) the year I was born.

“Of course I remember that year, it’s like a dream. A dream we just live; life is just a dream we live,” she explained after I asked about her first memories living in Gage Park and meeting newborn me in her new community that year. I can’t think of Gage Park sin (without) mi Tita.

One hand carried her purse, and the other my hand, as I followed her during errands and home visits with friends or family at an early age. I always thanked her with the biggest hug possible after she bought me food my heart craved for, but was too shy to ever ask for knowing it cost money. Today, we still hold hands as we walk across the neighborhood to get where we need to be. There are always a handful of people we know along our path.

Individual community members come from different streets, memories, and relationships with mi Tita, but are drawn together in these moments by a willingness to connect. These moments of connection and conversation are far from gestures—they are simply genuine, full of care and awareness.

These are conversations where speaking for yourself supports someone else’s voice, whether it’s on the steps of your neighbor’s home or the sidewalk outside of St. Gall. These conversations provide a tremendous source for mediation, validation, and encouragement for many. These conversations are a lived tradition of Gage Park. I have listened and grown from these conversations as I became the young adult I am today.

Mi Tita and community members actively demonstrate that conversations can all help us find where we are, or might be, in our day or lives. Sharing helps us find each other. After leaving for four years and returning home last fall, I am guided by mi Tita to hold on to connections as the very paths shaping and giving meaning to our embedded lives.

Gracias Tita por apoyarme en viviendo mi mejor vida. (Thank you Tita for guiding me to live my best life.) Mi Tita agreed to be interviewed about the neighborhood and some of her favorite places, resulting in the Bests included in this section. Mi Tita doesn’t dive into details to contextualize her choices, insisting “a place speaks for itself.”

At the end of the interview, I had just one final question: “Tita, how would you describe your neighborhood?” With an air of ease, mi Tita responded, “Esta bien” (It is good). “Because everything is close?” I joked. “Everything is close. That’s what I’m telling you, everything is what you can walk,” affirmed mi Tita.

Everything is close in Gage Park, truly: people, conversations, places. We both started laughing after she added on, “This is why I don’t want to go anywhere else.”  

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Las Mejores Cecinas Que Está Cerca (Best Cecinas That Are Close)

Las Brisas del Mar and La Quebrada

For clarity, mi Tita insists both places are great. It just depends what’s the closest to walk to—no ranking intended.

La Brisas del Mar

“I like it because it’s close,” stated mi Tita after I asked why she liked this spot. She wondered why I needed to ask follow up questions when she already gave her full answer.

She paused to then share, “I eat the cecina. It’s what I get. It’s what I like there the most.”

“It has been here for a lot of time. A lot of time it’s been here. A lot of time,” she explained and added it hasn’t changed and doesn’t need to. “This is where I can walk to and go,” clarified mi Tita.  

If you ever need to use an event space, ask to check out their decked-out salon underneath the restaurant, where I’ve attended—with mi Tita and independently—birthday parties, quinceaneras, and even a wedding.  

Las Brisas Del Mar, 3207 W. 51st St. Open daily, 8am–11pm. (773) 434-5040.

La Quebrada

Mi Tita always took me to this spot whenever I was back in town from upstate New York these past four years. We could talk for hours, but food always came first. Usually, we came straight here after I was picked up from either the airport or Amtrak.

La Quebrada was where I landed with a deep hunger for recipes, textures, and spice far from Ithaca, New York. I’ve gone with friends to La Quebrada when we needed a torta to nourish us for a long bike ride to, up, and down the Lakefront Trail during hot summer days. We only needed a single torta, with no sides, thanks to the generous portions of meat, avocado, veggies, and cheese that filled each bite.

However, mi Tita changed my life when she introduced one of their specialty plates: Cecina estilo Guerrero. I’ve had cecina before, but it was the mixture of missing home, lacking quality ingredients for months, and a wrenching hunger that made this absolutely my favorite meal in and outside of La Quebrada after that day.

Cecina estilo Guerrero has pieces of thinly sliced steak cooked with tradition. Its unique flavor eases the pace at which you eat as you savor each bite. Bright guacamole and shredded lettuce sit next to the meat, waiting to be picked up and placed into the warm stack of homemade tortillas. The tortillas themselves, with salsa, lime, and a pinch of salt, can be an entire meal on their own.

Tortillas move from one hand to one another; usually more are needed midway through our meal. With tortillas, there are no forks needed. Make sure you also order a chile asado (roasted chile), I always order two, or three.

Each bite is prolonged with conversations that bring mi Tita, my family, and I together after being separated for months. There have been times where every single plate at the table was Cecina estilo Guerrero. There’s a lot more that La Quebrada offers, but there’s nothing else I could want because Cecina estilo Guerrero is more than a meal. (Jocelyn Vega)

La Quebrada Restaurant, 5100 S. California Ave. Sunday–Thursday, 8:30am–9pm; Friday–Saturday, 8:30am–10pm. (773) 737-4575.

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El Mejor Iglesia Que Está Cerca (Best Church That Is Close)

St. Gall Catholic Church

It’s been over twenty years since mi Tita started attending St. Gall, but it took her awhile to realize it wasn’t instead ten or fifteen years after she first answered my question. “Yup, this is why I’m telling you. I’ve been there for a long time,” she said. “I like going there because it’s close. Well… Yes, it’s close. I can go walking because it’s that close. I can just go walking, meaning, that I don’t need anyone to take me. I like it because that’s my motivation. I like that I can go and just go when I want.”

Throughout the week, she finds herself attending service and various events because she feels at home, especially seeing families she has seen grow over the years. For some time, mi Tita was a first communion teacher and experienced the joy of waking up and working with some of the youngest community members.

She describes her routine now as, “First, you go to church right in the morning [on Sundays], and then you can go eat, and later, you go eat again, and just like that.” Mi Tita prefers the earliest service because “It’s still morning. Everyone and everything is so calm because everyone just woke up.”

St. Gall is a space that stands out in my memories of home. A place where I continue to walk on Sunday mornings with mi Tita. A place where mi Titomi abuelito—Ricardo Lara also spent most of his time before he left this Earth two years ago. You could always catch mi Tito in front of St. Gall, waiting underneath a lush tree, behind his carrito de nieve de garrafa (cart of handmade ice cream) from México made en la casa de mis abuelitos (in my grandparents’ home). When he wasn’t home, our family knew that he was there and on his ice cream route back.

After mass, you would also see a swirling line of children and their families patiently wait for him to layer each white cup with different flavors: mango, fresa (strawberry), nuez (walnut), and so many more. Flavors I can still taste but can only miss for the rest of my life. Double scoops de nieve would brim the edge of each cup from late spring to fall each year since I was a kid.

I don’t have the heart to mention it to mi Tita, but I continue to see his smile and his cart standing there, knowing he’s now in another life but always with us. (Jocelyn Vega)

St. Gall Catholic Church, 5511 S. Sawyer Ave. Misa bilingue diaria (daily bilingual mass), 8:30am; Sunday/domingo: English mass (misa en ingles), 9am; Spanish mass (misa en español), 7:30am, 10:30am, 12:30pm, and 6pm. Confesiones/confessions on Saturday/sábados, 6:30–8:30pm. (773) 737-3113. stgall.org  

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El Mejor Tienda Que Está Cerca (Best Store That Is Close)

Carniceria La Hacienda

When I call mi Tita, she’s always on a mission, always going where she needs to be.

During the early weekdays, when I’m commuting on the Halsted Street bus, I call mi Tita to share a good morning and check in, if I don’t have the chance to see her later that day. At least once a week, she answers when she is on her way to La Hacienda (which she calls La Haciendita) pushing her carrito (shopping cart). Her carefully curated shopping list is the main point of discussion. I’m quickly reminded why I should’ve had breakfast after hearing all of her planned recipes on my bus ride. Once she arrives, she informs me it’s time for me to go and call back another time as she gives all of her attention to each item at La Haciendita.

There’s no multitasking when you’re shopping at La Haciendita. “It has everything, everything. They have plates [to] gorditas.” We joked not all places have quality gorditas, but this La Haciendita “que si sirve,” (what they serve) she says—it’s worth it.

La Haciendita is where you go to buy cecina to cook at home. However, to make Cecina Estilo Guerrero requires inherited skills. At this point in my life, I’m only allowed to help mi Tita unpack la cecina and other groceries or wash dishes when she’s in the kitchen.

Thanks to the quality items throughout the store and conversations with the butchers, Mi Tita refuses to buy cecina, and most other items, from anywhere else. “I like it that it’s close. This way, wherever I can get to is where I am comfortable. I’m not waiting on anyone or anything. That’s the best,” confirmed mi Tita. (Jocelyn Vega)

Carniceria La Hacienda, 2744 W. 55th St. Monday–Saturday, 8am–7:45pm; Sunday, 8am–8pm. (773) 863-0083

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