I cannot escape Ashland.
I have moved three times in this city already, each time to a new neighborhood and I’m always within a few blocks of Ashland. Now, I’ve made the trek all the way to the south side, throwing all caution and familiar surroundings to the wind and….oh wait.. there’s Ashland.
That being said, I moved to Pilsen. A self-avowed lifetime Northsider has picked up and moved to a neighborhood I know next to nothing about, despite the fact that most of my friends and favorite haunts are littered across the north side. Anchored by trusty Ashland, I decided to plant myself somewhere completely new in this great big city and force myself to explore it. So far, I am very happy. We managed to find a gorgeous loft space just in our price range, and are loving living in this neighborhood.
From my time here exploring so far, here are some things I can recommend if you find yourself down here, in my neck of the woods.
1. Try one of the amazing Mexican restaurants around the area. I shamefully have only tried a couple so far, but they have proved to be excellent. Neuvo Leon is rated the best Mexican option in Chicago on Citysearch based on a variety of factors and I can see why. The region they cook from uses lard in their cooking, so the food is heavy, but delicious. There is also a meat market right next door which they get their food from, so its real fresh. Top it off with the fact that they are open from 7 am to 11pm and their food is very affordable and you have a winning combination. I’ve also found myself going to Perez lately, another restaurant on 18th street, which is excellent. Their fare seems much lighter, they make their own corn tortillas and also get their meat very fresh from a meat market they’re associated with. They have a fantastic chipotle salsa and their diablo sauce has made a return customer out of me.
2. Between 18th and Cermak on Halsted is the Chicago Arts District. On 2nd Fridays of the month, they open their doors and people can wander in and out of the various galleries on the street. The National Museum of Mexican Art is also in the area just a little off the pink line on 18th and is supposed to be excellent. I haven’t made it out to this yet, but its on the list of things to do.
3. Check out two of the local bars, Skylark and Simone’s. Skylark looks like a total dive bar. It’s on the corner of Cermak and Halsted, the decor inside is far from impressive, but it does have that artistic cool, a photo booth and all the chairs are comfy and look like stuff picked up from an estate sale. In addition, they have some really cheap beer, and really good beer for cheap. I saw some decent craft beers on their beer list and recall none of them being more than $5. The biggest surprise there, however, was that they have an impressive food selection. I’ve never been to a dive bar before that served creme brulee on occasion. When we went, my girlfriend had a caprese salad with sea scallops which she enjoyed. I had the burger and tater tots and was satisfied with the results. Simone’s is on the other end of the spectrum. You’re definitely gonna find yourself dropping more money here. On the other hand, the place is incredibly well designed with each aspect of the bar carefully thought out and crafted from the artwork to every creative piece of furniture and decoration that they adorn the place with. They offer good craft beer and decent food. The bartender I met on the first night we went there was really cool and knowledgeable too. The most interesting thing about Simone’s for me, was that it really looks like a diamond in the rough. I had no idea that a bar with an interior like that was sitting on 18th not too far from two huge empty lots and walking into it was a very pleasant surprise and feels like a hidden secret.
4. Go to Heart Of Italy. I’m not talking about Little Italy on Taylor street. Well…go there too, but you were already probably planning on it, or have been there at some point. Heart of Italy is really tucked away in Heart of Chicago. If you have the chance, take a drive down to 24th and Oakley and you will find a small piece of Italy tucked away. That stretch of Oakley has about 4 or 5 great little Italian restaurants all in the same block and serving some excellent, authentic Italian food at a reasonable price. I’ve dined at Bruna’s Restaurante and Ignotz, and would highly recommend them both. When bringing the parents to Ignotz they were suitably impressed, as was I, with the service and food. My only regret is that I filled up on so much bread, but it simply can’t be helped. They make the stuff fresh for each table. We ordered a fried calamari appetizer which was lightly breaded and out of this world, and also a caraffe of the house wine, which was a fine compliment to the meal. While my baked mostaccioli was good, the stuffed gnocchi my girlfriend ordered was phenomenal and will probably be my next order at that place when we return.
5. Check out the surrounding areas. It’s close to Little Italy, Greektown, Chinatown, downtown and a bunch of south loop and west loop stuff. I plan on checking out more of the west loop in the near future as it’s still pretty foreign to me and there seem to be a lot of great restaurants and galleries in that area. In the south loop you can find Villains, which makes several great burgers and has a cool group of regulars there who all seem to know each other. Cobra lounge isn’t too far away, over by Lake and Ashland, and also has some affordable food and drinks. In addition, they have live bands and burlesque shows playing there occasionally. Another place with live music in the area is Reggie’s Music Joint on State st, near Cermak. I haven’t tried the food there, but it seems like a decent music venue and they generally have several bands taking the stage in a given night. If you want to go to a sports bar for a Bears game, I can definitely recommend Kroll’s on 18th and Michigan, which boasts a pretty extensive beer list and some excellent butter burgers.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed about being down here so far is the proximity to everything. For shopping, at Roosevelt and Canal there is a Whole Foods, PetSmart, Best Buy, Home Depot, Dominicks, Walgreens, Michaels, Staples, and probably more than I’m forgetting. Target is around Roosevelt and Clark. Work is a short el ride away. Plus, getting smashed in the loop will not end in a long and expensive cab ride home to the edge of the northside.
Pilsen, we might be here a while.