On Saturday, September 14, 18th Street is covered in the colors of Mexico. It’s almost Independence Day, and Pilsen is wearing its heart on its sleeve. Flags wave from second-story apartments and car roofs. Glittering tassels, alternating pennants, and tissue-paper flowers boast red, green, and white. On the temporary stage at Paulina Street, a singer sways in an equally blooming dress, crooning Mexican tunes for an eager crowd at the Mercaditos en el Zócalo. At Racine, music floats from empty doorways, and in the late afternoon, the sidewalk begins to fill with a scattering of neighborhood cookouts.
The night before, the neighborhood hosted a more frequent celebration: the still young Second Fridays, monthly nights of art and commerce led by the Chicago Arts District. A new vintage boutique and barbershop welcomed a fashionable throng, while a DJ spun old-school Latin tracks at Modern Cooperative, a newly re-opened furniture store in the landmark Thalia Hall. The store will soon be joined by a series of sleek, much-hyped projects led by successful North Side entrepreneur Bruce Finkelman. That Pilsen is going the way of Wicker Park has been a refrain here for years, but the Thalia Hall development, with an upstairs restaurant that plans to feature twenty-four beers on tap when it opens Friday night, and a basement punch bar boasting a glowing fish tank, has the feel of an outpost from the Kennedy branch of the Blue Line.
It is too easy to fall into an image of two Pilsens: that of the working-class Latino family, and that of the younger, probably whiter, transplant—the gentrifier. One could categorize each element on sight, the jingling paleta cart vs. the sleek fixed-gear bike. The vintage boutique’s painstakingly arranged finds vs. the dollar store’s crowded racks. The dim pool hall and the craggy-faced men lingering outside vs. the pinball-themed Simone’s—or the revamped Thalia Hall.
But beyond a first glance, no street is so easily sorted, and no narrative of neighborhood change so tidy. Built by Bohemian hands in 1889, the landmark Thalia Hall pre-dates not just the newest wave of the young and the hip, but the generations of immigrants before that. One of its new tenants is a board member of the Pilsen Community Market, a co-sponsor of Saturday’s display of Mexican pride. The rapid, controversial demolition of the local Whittier Elementary School fieldhouse drew protesters of all ages and colors, a crowd as diverse as the one found on a Wednesday night at Harbee’s or Friday rush at Nuevo Leon. Declaring two Pilsens would be like viewing one of the neighborhood’s famous murals in black and white. You could do it, but you’d miss a lot of color.
BEST BACON CANDY: Honky Tonk BBQ
From the prominent oak bar to the prolific oil landscapes on the walls, Honky Tonk BBQ is so committed to the western saloon look that you half expect to find spittoons on the floor. Its selection of smoked meats—savory brisket, tender spare ribs, and succulent hot links, among others—all pair excellently with the rich cornbread and crisp slaw. But the candied bacon is the stand out. Thick, chewy, and sweetly salty, this treat could be the love child of jerky and churros. Eight bucks will get you enough to share with a friend, if you’re feeling generous. Wash it down with the craft beer on tap or the barrel-aged Manhattan, and make sure to stay for the live music (on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays), which ranges from bluegrass to jazz to western swing. If you catch Brahms playing on the banjo, you might just have the perfect cure for your food coma. Honky Tonk BBQ, 1800 S. Racine Ave. Tuesday-Friday, 4pm-2am; Saturday, 4pm-3am; Sunday, 4pm-2am. Kitchen closes at 11pm. (312)226-7427. honkytonkbbqchicago.com (Janet Xu)
BEST WEEKEND WAIT: Don Pedro Carnitas
Across the city, weekend brunch is almost synonymous with a wait time, but at Don Pedro Carnitas, that wait is made sharper and more pleasurable by a multi-sensory onslaught that will have your stomach grumbling and your mouth watering. On weekends, Don Pedro’s menu centers on build-your-own carnitas. Platters of carved pork are wheeled to the front window on carts, with smoke wisping off. A mound of crisped pigskins, still to be shattered into pieces for the table, is carried aloft, its crackle audible over the mostly Spanish chatter. The food is served family style, and clans spanning several generations crowd the room. Eating in or ordering out, the wait is twenty minutes or so, but once seated a brief counsel with a friendly waitress will have a pile of meat, warm tortillas, tart salsa verde, and onions and cilantro splayed across the table quicker than it takes to fetch a couple large horchatas from the vendor outside. $5 or less buys a full stomach that will root you to your chair, even as you remember the hungry line behind you. Don Pedro Carnitas, 1113 W. 18th St. Monday-Thursday, 6am-6pm; Friday, 5am-6pm; Saturday, 5am-5pm; Sunday, 5am-3pm. Cash only. (312)829-4757. (Hannah Nyhart)
BEST SECOND FRIDAY: Second Fridays at the Chicago Arts District
On the second Friday of every month, the self-proclaimed Chicago Arts District opens its doors along Halsted Street to welcome after-dark visitors into storefront galleries, artists’ lofts, and a smattering of boutiques. A map picked up at the info center at 1821 S. Halsted will steer you well: artists fill windows with performance art and open their loft studios to the public, evidence of home life is tucked away, and work stands proudly for the buying. The night is organized by Podmajersky Inc., a family-owned real estate company whose properties make up most of the art district, or “Pilsen East.” Don’t let the map keep you from straying west, though: businesses along 18th Street celebrate their own second Fridays, and the cluster of well-stocked thrift stores just past Ashland joins with the neighboring bars to offer food and drink and special late hours. Mobile art and food trucks bring the night further into the streets, and there is usually live music to be found somewhere along the stretch. Go get your art on! Chicago Arts District, 1821 S. Halsted St. Friday, October 11, 4pm-10pm. Also on the second Fridays of ensuing months. (312)738-8000x108. chicagoartsdistrict.org (Hannah Nyhart)
BEST URBAN RUIN: The Sanctuary
The Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church at 19th and Peoria hasn’t housed a congregation for more than thirty years. Behind barred windows and a door padlocked from the inside, a sunken courtyard fills foundations originally laid in 1880. The church initially hosted German immigrants, whose inscription on the front tower has survived the 1979 fire that destroyed much of the structure. The developer who bought the lot restored the tower, with plans to build artists’ lofts behind it, but those never materialized. Instead, you’ll find an open-air chapel colloquially dubbed “The Sanctuary.” Truncated stone columns mingle with young trees. A small well stands dry, its insides painted the cheerful blue of a backyard pool. A charred crucifix watches from the inner wall of the facade, the only side of the church that remains. Today the sanctuary’s only flock is sparrows; iron gates have replaced three walls, and entrance, whether to worship or to wander, is restricted. The South Side Weekly does not endorse fence-hopping, even in good faith. The Sanctuary, W. 19th St. and S. Peoria St. (Hannah Nyhart)
BEST CHANCE TO HELP YOURSELF: Librería Girón
The neon, bicolored “Libros en Español” sign in the window of Librería Girón on 18th Street is an apt beacon. With another location in Little Village and an extensive online wholesale operation, Girón Books is the largest provider of Spanish literature in the city of Chicago. The store offers a swath of books aimed at teaching both Spanish and English, and the selection is broad enough to suit students and teachers of either language. The traveller looking to cast off from Google Translate can find several language dictionaries. But bilingualism is just one of the self-improvement projects Girón’s offerings support. Beyond a substantial fiction section that carries everything from Spanish classics to translations of the full “Twilight” series, the store is stocked with texts on how to eat better, learn better, date better, earn better. “We tend to carry books that leave you with a message,” says one clerk. Sí se puede. Librería Girón, 1443 W. 18th St. Little Village location at 3547 W. 26th St. Monday-Saturday, 9am-8pm. (312)226-2086. gironbooks.com (Hannah Nyhart)
BEST BIKE OASIS: Working Bikes
Working Bikes co-founder Lee Ravenscroft is quick to tell you that the Southwest Side is a “bike desert,” and walking into their warehouse, it looks like the shop is trying to stock every block south to 91st. Bike parts are splayed across every surface of the massive room: bins of gears, neatly hung frames and stacked wheels, boxes of helmets. For-sale models, ranging from as-is clunkers to spiffy road bikes, stand in neat rows, ready for a test-ride in the alley to the side of the building. As a straight bike shop, it would be hard to beat. But the nonprofit’s aims extend beyond fitting local customers with the perfect ride. While a team of paid mechanics refurbishes bikes for sale, volunteers fix up others to be distributed to local organizations. Another set of bikes, their handlebars and pedals removed and strapped to their frames for tighter packing, have destinations farther afield: Working Bikes sends thirteen shipments of bikes every year to developing countries across the world. It sounds like the hippest cause since Toms Shoes, but the model seems to work: 38,000 bikes in, they’re still going strong. Working Bikes, 2434 S. Western Ave. Wednesday-Thursday, noon-7pm; Friday-Saturday, noon-5pm. (773)847-5440. workingbikes.org (Hannah Nyhart)
BEST BILINGUAL KARAOKE: Harbee Liquors & Tavern
Harbee’s is a bar. From the street, Harbee’s looks like a dive. It’s not. First of all, they have a coat check. Beyond that, the drinks are good, and they have more than a hundred different bottled beers and rotating craft beers on draft. The interior is clean and sparsely decorated, with round booths that leave a little to be desired in the leg-room department. The drinks and decor are enough to make Harbee’s a good bar, but one thing bumps it up to spectacular: the karaoke. Every Thursday is karaoke night, and for no extra cost—it’s billed as “NO COVER/NO LAPTOPS”—anyone can butcher popular songs in front of a crowd, or just watch an assortment of people drunkenly mangle classic tunes in English and Spanish. The selection of artists runs the gamut from South Side native R. Kelly to the Talking Heads, and the DJ is more than happy to download music that’s not in his library. Have a few drinks and see just how similar slurred English and Spanish really are. Harbee Liquors and & Tavern, 1345 W. 18th St. Monday-Friday, noon-2am; Saturday, noon-3am; Sunday, noon-2am. (312)733-0333. harbees.com (Kalil Smith-Nuevelle)