Illinois might not be your first response if you were planted in the middle of Little Village (or “La Villita”) and asked to guess your location.
“Es como estar en un pueblito en México,” (“It’s like being in a village in Mexico”)—a sentiment frequently expressed with a smile in conversations with shop owners, waiters, and other residents—indicates how successfully Mexican immigrants have created a home away from home here since roughly the 1970s. And in truth, standing on the corner of 26th and Trumbull next to a shaved-ice stand offering raspados de hielo con jarabe de fruta, the musical cadence of Spanish and street signs bearing “ñ’s” all around, the steely skyscrapers of the Loop seem a lot more than five miles away.
An ornate archway welcomes the visitor to the Mexico of the Midwest on the far east end of 26th Street. A gift to La Villita from the Mexican government, the archway is crowned with an impressive clock from one of the oldest clock manufacturers in South America. However, despite its distinctness, Little Village is very much ingrained in Chicago politics and affected by the neighborhoods surrounding it, especially economically. In 2012, Mayor Emanuel suggested changing the name of 26th Street, the second most affluent street in the entire city, to “The Second Magnificent Mile.” The neighborhood is at home in the greater city, but it’s also a tight-knit village.
The ingredients and the clothes are imported, and the people sitting in Taquería Milagros have millions of stories sewn into the lines of their smiles. There’s no show for tourists. The feeling is overwhelming: when you come into Little Village, you are coming into someone’s home.
BEST PLACE TO BUY LITERALLY ANYTHING
Little Village Discount Mall
All the retail stores and malls in Chicago must be frightened of the day when the general population discovers the Little Village Discount Mall. Why go to the hardware store, then drive to the pet store, then take the CTA to a boutique for formal dresses when you could find it all in an endless labyrinth of small shops and kiosks? Imagine the strangest, most specific commercially produced item and chances are, they have a dozen of them in a variety of colors, including zebra print. Need to replace the rusty carburetor in your car and pick out a wedding dress at the same time? Look no further. Want to give yourself a tattoo? Tattoo kits are available for only $250. There is no better place to pick out an intense Halloween costume, or else browse for formal attire. Little Village Discount Mall showcases all the options for elegant toddlers, including tiny tails, tiny mariachi suits, and fluffy, white, First Communion dresses. So when you’re looking for a industrial-sized mixing bowl for the next time you want to make soup for a thousand people, BMW-brand cleats to kill it at your next fútbol match, or a tiny green parakeet to sing you to sleep, you know where to go. Just don’t forget to grab a refreshing scoop of cheese ice cream on the way out. Little Village Discount Mall, 3101 W. 26th St. Monday-Saturday, 9am-9pm; Sunday, 10am-6pm. (773)254-9207 (Lucia Ahrensdorf)
Situated at one side of a small convenience store at 26th and Kedzie, with a modest white sign and plastered in advertisements for beer, Carnicería Aguascalientes is unlikely to grab your eye. If you’re led by by your nostrils, however, a glorious smell hangs so thick around the whole block you’ll find yourself wandering in even if you’re not hungry. The restaurant proper is a surprisingly large and cheery space with an open kitchen and rows of booths with bright orange and green walls. Inside, the deliciously meaty smell—nearly faint-inducing on the street—is overpowering. Ask the wait staff what smells so good, and they’ll respond with only one word: “carne.” Their answer is confirmed by the enormous carnitas en salsa verde taco piled with slabs of avocado and doused liberally with sour cream. The spice warms the back of your mouth and slowly numbs your tongue and lips. And the meat—well, it would be an understatement to say that it melts in your mouth. It’s so good that after one heaping, steaming, monument of hot, spicy pork, I started to get a bit teary. And no, it wasn’t just the salsa verde. Carnicería Aguascalientes, 3132 W. 26th St. Daily, 8am-9pm. (773)254-3466 (Robert Sorrell)
BEST LATE NIGHT DRIVE-THROUGH
Taquería Los Comales
The next time you’re craving Mexican fare past midnight, head down 26th Street and into the heart of Little Village. There, you’ll find the neighborhood favorite Los Comales, first opened by Camerino Gonzalez in 1973. The drive-through—one of few within the city—is reason enough for celebration, but the speed and wide variety of traditional, handmade Mexican fare available late at night makes it well worth the visit. Try the tacos al pastor or the bistec torta, either of which can easily be consumed in a moving vehicle. The menu contains seemingly endless combinations of meats featured in different iterations, ranging from fried tilapia to beef tripe and tongue. Family-friendly and serviced by attentive staff, the interior of Los Comales boasts enough seating for large groups as well as the more casual meals and the late-night fare Little Village locals come for. Whether you dine via vehicle or in a booth, don’t leave without getting a cup of their horchata—the milky sweetness of the rice-based drink serves well to cut the heat of the grilled jalapeños that feature on most dishes, and it won’t last long in a cupholder. Taquería Los Comales. Monday-Thursday, 8:30am-2am; Friday, 8:30am-4am; Saturday-Sunday, 8:30am-5pm. (773)247-0977. loscomales.com (Julianna St. Onge)
BEST EYE CANDY
Dulcelandia del Sol
You don’t need to find a golden ticket to experience the candy-colored psychedelic vision of Dulcelandia on the corner of 26th Street and Spaulding. Crazy-eyed red and orange piñatas stare at you from the glass windows, inviting you in. The shop offers every possible party accessory, and as the window display suggests, the piñata selection is very impressive. Papier-mâché blue unicorns, magenta dragons, green racecars, and Transformers hang from the ceiling and line the walls of the front of the store. However, shop’s main attraction is its incredible array of vibrant and delicious candy. Cases of gummies, lollipops, chocolates, hard candy, and gum span from floor to ceiling. Mixed with the expected bubble gum, chewy fruit snacks, and sweet, flavored lollipops, are the most unusual flavors and textures you’ve ever seen. Cut into thin strips to look like pasta, pineapple-flavored sticks with chili are doused with a tamarind sauce to make a treat called Salsaghetti. Little clear packets of a paste-like substance offer pineapple pulp with spice. Chili turns out to be a wildly popular flavor for the candy. Watermelon lollipops covered in chili, gummies with chili, tamarind chili—as the sun on the store’s sign suggests, this saccharine establishment also brings the heat. Dulcelandia del Sol, 3300 W. 26th St. Monday-Friday, 10am-8pm; Saturday, 9am-8pm; Sunday, 10am-7pm. (773)522-3816. dulcelandia.com (Lucia Ahrensdorf)
BEST DISCOUNT DESTINATION
Village Discount Outlet Store #9
For bargain-lovers who scoff at the high prices of North Side resale shops, a pilgrimage to Village Discount Outlet Store #9 is exhilarating. Shoppers enter through a turnstile into the gymnasium-sized sales floor packed with racks of clothes, organized vaguely by color. The three-floor complex sells women’s, men’s, and children’s clothes, along with accessories and miscellaneous home goods. The chaos is initially disorienting, but a bilingual female voice over the intercom welcomes customers to “The Village” and informs shoppers that they have made it to the largest thrift store in Chicagoland. There are no fitting rooms, and color-coded price-tags are stapled to the merchandise. Most items are under $5, but each day, at least two colors are 50% off. (Approximately once a month, Village Discount has weekend sales and offers 50% off of all its merchandise.) There is a consistently plentiful supply of sweaters, flannel shirts, mom jeans, dresses from decades past, mugs, and other quirky objects, and it is not uncommon to find great deals on what the Village considers “Better Brand” merchandise from labels including J.Crew, Ann Taylor, and Coach. Take a granola bar and a bottle of water, wear clothes that will allow you to easily try on potential purchases, and spend a few hours treasure-hunting. You definitely won’t leave empty-handed. Village Discount Outlet Store #9, 4020 W. 26th St. Monday-Saturday, 9am-9pm; Sunday, 10am-6pm. (886)545-3836. vdoil.com (Kirsten Gindler)
BEST BILINGUAL REFUGE
On 26th Street—where the eye is attacked with displays of quinceañera dresses so incredibly pink that they melt your eyeballs—it is easy to miss the understated black awning announcing the presence of Librería Girón. Were it not for an intriguing (and misleading) subtitle that caught my eye—“Discoteca International”—I would have passed right by the Librería’s unassuming storefront. Walking into the primarily Spanish-language bookstore, there are no books and no dance floor in sight (as “Discoteca International” might suggest). Birthday cards, festive guitars, and miniatures of the Virgin Mary take up the whole front half of the store. But tucked away against the back walls are crowded shelves housing the books that one expects. See feature-length story. (Lucia Ahrensdorf)