Last March, while I was in Chicago for a food conference, I was also criss-crossing the city—from Devon Avenue in the north to Pilsen in the west—reporting on its ethnic neigbhorhoods for Endless Vacation. Of course, I focused on food. I had the best papri chaat at Kamdar Grocery on Devon Ave. and a super fresh, vegetable-filled bánh mi at Ba Le on Argyle Street (why doesn't every bánh mi shop let you add avocado?).
Here's my story, in full.
A Chicago Sampler
The Windy City is a melting pot of cultures. A stroll through these three neighborhoods is like taking a trip around the world.
Not only does Chicago—the third-largest city in America—have one of the largest Polish populations outside Warsaw, but it also has the fourth-largest Mexican population in the United States and a robust Asian community. This cultural diversity makes Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods particularly rich areas to explore—not just for authentic pho and tamales, but also for public art, shops and food markets. Here’s our guide to three ethnic neighborhoods in the Windy City: Pilsen, Devon Avenue and Argyle Street.
Pilsen, Lower West Side
In the 19th century, Pilsen was a neighborhood of Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes and others from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. But by the mid-’60s, it had become a Mexican stronghold.
The permanent exhibit at the National Museum of Mexican Art covers everything from ancient Mesoamerica to the Mexican Revolution to modern-day folk art. Don’t miss the museum’s legendary Day of the Dead exhibit (from mid-September to mid-December).
the mosaics at Peter Cooper Dual Language Academy
One of the first things you’ll notice about Pilsen is its colorful murals. Many of the newer ones, by internationally renowned street artists, like Gaia, Reyes 78 and Jon Burgerman, are clustered along 16th Street. But since there are so many to see—100 or so in all—it’s worth taking a tour with a knowledgeable guide, like Zorayda Ortiz at Pilsen Bike Tours. She’ll be sure you see Sam Kirk’s mural about Mexican workers and Hector Duarte’s portrayal of an immigrant’s journey, which he calls Gulliver in Wonderland.
The series of mosaics on the facade of Peter Cooper Dual Language Academy were done in the 1990s by neighborhood artist Francisco Mendoza and several students. They depict eminent Latino figures, such as Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez and Selena.
There are dozens of taquerias in this neighborhood, but Taqueria El Milagro stands out for its Virgin of Guadalupe mosaic, set above a cherub fountain—and its dynamite tacos and burritos.
La Casa del Pueblo is the place for nopales, dried guajillo chiles, Mexican soft cheeses and fresh corn tortillas. It also sells candy-stuffed piñatas.
a wedding sari at Sahil on Devon Ave.
Devon Avenue, Uptown
One of the largest South Asian neighborhoods in North America, Devon Avenue is a thriving corridor full of Indian, Pakistani and even Iraqi and Georgian businesses.
You can find everything you need to make an Indian feast at Patel Brothers, a grocery store founded in 1974 by the Patel family. In addition to staples, like rice, beans and dal, they carry fresh okra, two-pound bags of besan (chickpea) flour, candy-coated fennel seeds and frozen chunks of chikoo fruit. They also have a profusion of salty Indian snacks made with fried ladu besan like thin sev and ganthia (“eat it with tea,” says owner Tulsi Patel). The store has been so successful that it has expanded to throughout the U.S. to 52 locations.
“Indians live for snacks,” says journalist and Indian cookbook author Anupy Singla, whose Indian For Everyone is out this fall. Head to Kamdar Plaza for authentic Indian snacks called papri chaat. Order the kachori (flattened dough balls stuffed with fillings such as spicy green peas), aloo tikki (a potato croquette with coriander, garam masala and other spices) and panipuri (wheat crisps filled with potatoes, small black chickpeas and a “spicy water” of mint, cilantro and tamarind).
panipuri with kala chana (black chickpeas) at Kamdar Plaza
Mysore Woodlands is a southern Indian vegetarian restaurant that serves unusual treats, such as idli, a spongy cake made of rice flour and fermented black lentils, and lacy dosas stuffed with masala potatoes or spinach and paneer. If you’re really hungry, try the thali meal, which comes with 10 delicate silver bowls of stewed okra, pickled lemons, dal, yogurt and curries—as well as chapati and basmati rice.
A statuette of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, greets you when you enter the posh Raj Jewels. Brides-to-be come here for gold everything—rings, dangly earrings and intricate bangles—some studded with stones. Nearly everything is 22 karats or more, since it has a richer hue.
Argyle Street, Uptown
In-the-know foodies bypass Chicago’s touristy Chinatown for this strip in Uptown. Sometimes called New Chinatown, this is where you’ll find authentic Chinese pastries, steaming bowls of pho and Vietnamese markets. Historically, the area around Argyle was known as the Uptown Entertainment District, and there are still a few remnants of the Roaring ’20s, including music venues and jazz bars.
From the moment the lavish Aragon Ballroom opened, in 1926, it drew crowds. Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra all performed here in the ’40s and ’50s. Today the Aragon is still a popular music venue where well-known acts, such as Lorde and DJ David Guetta, perform. It also hosts events such as the Vintage Bazaar.
Ba Le Whether you get the special bánh mi (headcheese, pâté and ham) or the veggie version, with avocado, fried tofu, jicama, vermicelli noodles and mayo, you can’t go wrong. The baguettes here—made from scratch daily—are what set these bánh mi apart. (The mayo is house-made too.) For dessert, try the chè bap pudding, a traditional tapioca-based dessert that comes in a range of flavors from mung bean to basil seed and jackfruit.
At Chiu Quon Bakery, locals linger over breakfasts of reasonably priced savory buns (both baked and steamed) and pastries of all sorts: apple pie, red-bean-paste cake and winter-melon cake.
Though it’s been around since 1987, Sun Wah BBQ—also known simply as the Duck Place—recently moved around the corner to an exposed-brick space that’s four times the size of the original restaurant. Order the Peking duck, tender and succulent, with an addictively rich, crisp skin. Carved at tableside and served with steamed buns, hoisin sauce, fried rice, chicken soup and sliced carrots, it’s enough for four hungry people—especially if you order a side of Chinese broccoli or stir-fried pea pod tips.
The bustling Tai Nam Market sells everything from fresh wonton noodles and dried mushrooms to live lobsters and lemongrass. You’ll also find medicinal teas, sambal and Phoenix Bean tofu—a GMO-free tofu that’s made only a few blocks away.
And the affable staff at Tank Noodle will guide you through the menu, steering you to the pho-tai (sliced-beef pho), which has a more pungent flavor than most versions of this Vietnamese soup because the rare beef cooks in the broth. But it’s always fun to try new things, so go ahead, order the briny catfish simmered in a clay pot with hot pepper, garlic-pork oil and a house-made fish sauce. The pickled veggies that come with it help cut the salt. It’s a taste of Chicago you probably weren’t expecting.
For addresses, etc. see the address book here.
Though Chicago’s Polish population rivals only Warsaw’s, there’s no longer one discrete neighborhood where Polish businesses concentrate. West Town, which was once the city’s most prominent Polish settlement, is now the gateway to fully gentrified Wicker Park. (Though many Poles still commute here for church services at either Holy Trinity or St. Stanislaus.) Many Polish establishments today are scattered along Milwaukee Avenue to the North or Archer Avenue to the South. Start with the Polish Museum of America which has exhibits on famous Poles such as Shakespearean actress Helena Modrzejewska, Polish folk art, and Wycinanki—traditional Polish paper-cutting art.
Further north, Milwaukee bisects the residential neighborhood of Jefferson Park, where you can dine on borscht with delicate meat dumplings and pork tenderloins with boletus sauce at Smakosz Restaurant. Owner Renee Kaminska has had this upscale restaurant for 16 years and she employs a talented Polish chef.
For a more rustic experience, try Theresa II. Don’t be put off by the plastic tablecloths and fake flowers. The food, made by a no-nonsense Polish woman in her ‘70s, is pure comfort. Fried pierogis—particularly the buttery cabbage & mushroom ones—are lip-smacking good, as are the crisp potato pancakes. (Warning: you get one as a complimentary appetizer.)