Devon Ave., on Chicago's north side, visitors can
window shop for beautiful saris and vibrant produce
as some 19 blocks of Indian restaurants send whiffs
of garlic and curry into the air.
modest "kitchen," if it could be called that,
had drawn a crowd.
the shade of a white plastic tent, a man and woman bowed
over a grill, flipping tortillas. Fragrant smoke spiraled
into the air. A cluster of diners stood in the street,
eagerly awaiting their prizes.
one of these quesadillas, chica," a man observing the
operation told me. "You’ll feel like you’re in
Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood indeed felt like an
experience near to a Mexican vacation. And Mexico wasn’t
the only country I immersed myself in after a quick flight
to Chicago, where a host of vibrant, long established
neighborhoods let travelers feel as if they have landed
the course of a long weekend, I explored five such areas,
starting with Pilsen, where I stayed.
predominantly by people of Hispanic heritage since the
1970s — before that, the makeup was heavily Polish —
Pilsen has deep Latin roots and wears them on its sleeve.
panaderias and bodegas line its bustling main
thoroughfares, 18th Street and Blue Island Avenue, near
the popular Loop. Walking along the residential streets, I
more often heard Spanish than English.
many major-city neighborhoods, gentrification is taking
hold — a subject that inevitably arises in neighborhood
coffee shops and bars — but Pilsen’s charms have not
years ago, gang violence made it difficult for even the
people who lived there, let alone tourists, to fully
experience the beauty of the neighborhood. These days,
mercados sit next to boutiques, juice bars and artist
studios. Hotshot restaurants have pulled in food lovers
from across the city. Crime has drastically dropped.
are worn on the streets. Carts sell chicharrons (pork
rinds) outside Harrison Park. Beautiful brick and stone
buildings, erected in Eastern European architectural
style, are awash in color with street art tableaus painted
over their once somber exteriors.
across the neighborhood haven’t caught up with the rest
of the city, making Pilsen an attractive place to stay. I
rented a pristine, Scandinavian-designed Airbnb for less
than $100 a night and ate great meals for less than $15,
followed up by a cocktail at the charismatic Barrel bar
for just $8. The National Museum of Mexican Art, in the
heart of the neighborhood, has gained national repute but
remains free — as, of course, do the six-plus blocks of
remarkable murals along the 16th Street train tracks,
which have been painted and repainted by artists for
made for plentiful and cheap entertainment — and a very
full belly. The 2.8-square-mile neighborhood claims enough
taquerias for a week’s worth of crawls — Taqueria
Atotonilco was the best I found. Bakeries such as
Panaderia Nuevo Leon fill the sidewalks with the smell of
baking masa and pastries. The highlight? One afternoon, I
crammed along with dozens of others into Carnitas Uruapan,
a small restaurant touting a major pork operation. As I
waited for a table, I watched the parade of trays with
meat and chicarrons coming from the kitchen to the
counter, where a man was lopping off pieces and wrapping
them in paper for customers to take home.
is the best carnitas in the city," said Polo Mendoza,
who immigrated to the neighborhood with his family in the
1970s. "But you also have to try the brain taquitos.
I wouldn’t touch them as a kid, but one time I
accidentally ate one at home, and it was amazing. So
invited me to sit with him and his family, and we ordered
taquitos. He was right. Pilsen’s bold flavor and warm
spirit had gotten me again.
was time to move on to other parts of the city, but I
could barely pull myself away.
ON DEVON AVENUE
nose alerted me to my arrival on Devon Avenue.
then waves, of curry, garlic and onions drifted through
the open windows of my Lyft. It was immediately clear: I
had made it to Chicago’s desi corridor.
area — about 20 blocks of Devon Avenue, near the city’s
northern boundary — is one of the best known of its
kind. It became popular after the first location of the
Patel Brothers’ store, an Asian-American grocery chain
with outlets nationwide, debuted there in the mid-1970s.
Today, the stretch is lined with restaurants, bakeries and
Indian snack shops, markets overflowing with produce and
stores with racks of saris pulled out onto the sidewalks.
scores of authentic eateries, it wasn’t hard to find a
good meal. I chose Mysore Woodlands because of its
creative approach to vegetables. For the $9.99 lunch
special, I received a spinach and cheese dosa (rice crepe)
much larger than my head and two medhu vada (savory
doughnuts dipped in a lentil soup) along with a spicy
couldn’t pass up window shopping at Sukhadia’s, one of
a handful of sweets emporiums in the area. The store’s
burfees and pista rolls, colorful cookies made with
chickpea flour, were perfections in paper boxes.
to Little Italy, the sign greeted me, then implored, Time
like the Italians to get right down to business with the
I wanted to take in the scenery — and attempt to walk
off some of my extensive mangia-ing of the previous couple
arriving at one end of Taylor Street, where most of the
activity resides, I wandered over to the beautiful Arrigo
Park — named for Victor Arrigo, a former Illinois state
representative and vocal advocate of the Italian-American
community — and admired the European-style architecture
that surrounded it. Nearby was the National Italian
American Sports Hall of Fame. Across the street, a statue
of New York Yankees great Joe DiMaggio, born to Italian
immigrants, perpetually swings his mighty bat.
I was too late for museum hours — and too early to
indulge in the famous Mario’s Italian Lemonade stand
down a few blocks. (They were painting the exterior for
the summer season when I walked past.) But there was still
plenty to take in.
recent years the neighborhood — on Chicago’s Near West
Side, just north of Pilsen — has become more of a mixed
bag of food cultures, lessening the feeling of strolling
through Rome. Still, I got the feeling that inside the
marinara-infused restaurants — especially the likes of
the Rosebud, a mainstay for 39 years — little has
happy hour, as the many eateries churned to life, the
scent of roasting garlic gave me the only hint I needed.
It was time to mangia. Davanti Enoteca was jammed with
patrons clinking glasses of red wine and diving into bowls
of pasta; I followed their lead.
ASIAN ON ARGYLE STREET
petite woman worked with practiced precision, slicing open
the oversized, buttery croissants that would be made into
sandwiches later, one by one.
was still early, and Argyle Street — a packed
three-block stretch in the heart of Uptown, just inland
from Lake Michigan’s lovely Montrose Beach — was just
stirring to life. The area that has long served as home to
Southeast Asian restaurants and businesses was quiet, with
few cars and bikes weaving through the bridge arch that
reads "Asia on Argyle."
La Patisserie P., a tiny French-Vietnamese bakery boasting
several cases of carb-laden treats, the day was in full
swing. Eyeballing the coconut tarts and curry buns, I
finally chose a jian dui — a Chinese rice-flour doughnut
filled with sweet red bean paste — savoring the
sesame-covered pastry slowly.
a brisk walk along Lake Michigan, I turned back toward the
neighborhood’s streets. Shopkeepers, some selling
intricate china vases and hosts of maneki-nekos (the
waving Japanese cat figurines), pulled baby kumquat trees
and aloe plants onto the street to tempt passersby.
Suddenly, the area, ablaze with painted murals, had come
area is perhaps most vibrant on Thursday evenings in July
and August, when it hosts a night market filled with food
stalls. But on this day, I was simply on the hunt for
lunch, and the pho shops had all just opened.
landed at Pho 777, not for a steaming bowl of noodle
goodness, but for the banh xeo — a shrimp and pork egg
crepe that is served with lettuce and herbs for wrapping
around each bite. Armed with a Vietnamese coffee to go, I
walked out onto the sidewalk. A little boy chased after a
mob of pigeons. People gathered on benches to drink tea
and chat. And I felt as awake and alive as the street.
IN LINCOLN SQUARE
Plaza was in the midst of becoming a masterpiece.
least, I’m pretty sure that’s what one toddler,
eagerly scribbling chalk across the stone platform,
was Sunday afternoon, near the end of my trip, and I was
in Lincoln Square, the historic German area on Chicago’s
North Side — along with everyone else. Bikers and dog
walkers wandered through, along with a couple of men
smoking cigars. The families, though, stayed, converting
the quaint, brownstone- and shop-surrounded plaza into a
makeshift playground, albeit one as picturesque as they
come. Under the gaze of cherubs, which beamed from the
intricate bases of vintage-style green lampposts, tiny
stamping feet galloped and twirled. It was still April,
and the fountains hadn’t yet been activated, but the
atmosphere felt perfect — and not too far away from
some, the three-block stretch of Lincoln Avenue has played
the role of a sort of mini-Europe since the late 1800s,
when German immigrants started a pickling operation
nearby, and ultimately settled by the thousands.
Unfortunately, the Chicago Brauhaus, the 40-year-old brick
behemoth that fronts the plaza with bold German
architecture, recently closed, taking with it a dose of
European flair. But the real gem of the mini ’hood —
stretching from one green entrance arch to another — is
still going strong. I could have spent an hour in Gene’s
Sausage Shop, a two-story maze of cured meats, cheeses,
beer and so much more, particularly if the rooftop were
open for sausage grilling and beer drinking, as it is in
the summer months. But I tore myself away for a pint at
Huettenbar, one of the longest-standing pubs in the area.
was more to see, but it was almost time to go home. Before
arranging a Lyft, I sat in the square, among the cherubs,
and let the sun stream onto my face to the soundtrack of
tiny giggles. I was full from all the food; sore from all
the walking. I was happy and tired. After all: I’d been
around the world and back.