In Chicago, the colorful neighborhood of Pilsen is thriving in arts and culture

By Ceil Miller Bouchet / Special To The Washington Post

While exploring Thalia Hall, the most happening new spot in Chicago’s emerging Pilsen neighborhood, I do a double take. It’s a freezing night, and there’s a small woman with a guitar slung over her back standing in the recess of a doorway. “Come into my office,” she beckons. So I do. She tells me that her name is Kez Ban, and would I like to hear her play?

“This is the song I used to audition for ‘American Idol,’” she says, stepping out onto the sidewalk across from St. Procopius Church, the opulent brick heart of this Latino community. She begins strumming her guitar. I listen in disbelief as the husky melody spills out of her mouth. A South Asian man who says that his name is Girsh walks by and smiles. “She’s fantastic,” he says. “Did you know she was on ‘American Idol’? You should get her CD.”

A decade ago, unless you were a fan of authentic mom-and-pop Mexican cuisine, a pilgrimage to Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art was practically the only reason a “Northsider” would trek to Pilsen, the gritty community three miles southwest of Chicago’s downtown. In fact, the last time I visited Chicago’s Mexican enclave, my kids were small, and we spent an enjoyable afternoon at the pocket-size museum in a former boathouse.

Since then, the museum, the neighborhood and my kids have evolved. Today, my 18-year-old son could be one of the lanky guys in knit caps visiting the crop of new Pilsen art galleries on the monthly “2nd Friday” nocturnal gallery crawls. My 16-year-old daughter awaits the “House on Mango Street” exhibit, based on the beloved book by Chicago-born author Sandra Cisneros, which opens next January at the expanded National Museum of Mexican Art, now a renowned center for Mexican and Mexican-American art and culture.

And, well, my husband and I drive down for Thalia Hall, where you can sip a punch cocktail in the ’80s throwback basement bar, eat a succulent tagine baked in the ground-floor restaurant’s wood-fired oven and, as of May, enjoy live music upstairs (I vote for “American Idol’s” Kez Ban, she’s just outside!), all in one gorgeously restored 19th-century limestone building that was built as a Czech community social hall.

Dat’s Chicago for you. Or, rather, así es Pilsen, which, as I learned on recent visits to Chicago’s latest gentrifying neighborhood, is home to one of the largest Mexican communities in the United States. And before Mexicans, the area hosted Czech and Slovak immigrants. Hence the Pilsen moniker.

Today, a stroll through the neighborhood brings a wondrous sense of cultural whiplash, both artistic and culinary.

“Hope, Respect, Jobs, Dignidad.” Proud heritage is trumpeted from murals splashed on the walls of brick two-flats near the museum and from street art such as the lovely rendering of Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos that I spot painted on a locked metal door along 18th Street between Western and Halsted, the community’s commercial epicenter. There’s even a mural (on the wall of Benny’s Pizza) reproducing one of the Mexican art museum’s most famous works: “The Legend of Two Volcanoes,” an iconic painting of an Aztec warrior kneeling beside his dead princess.

Farther east along 18th, cars are parked two deep in front of Carnitas Don Pedro. Five patrons wait patiently in line by the restaurant’s sidewalk stand for the best taco in the neighborhood, or so I’ve been told, where “you can get, like, a pound of roast pork and tortillas, fantastically delicious, for $6.50!”

The person who shared this taco tidbit, Jared Rouben, is a good authority, a new Pilsen resident and business owner who recently opened a craft brewery called the Moody Tongue. I meet Rouben, who was formerly head brewmaster at Chicago’s Goose Island Brewery, one Sunday morning at the Pilsen farmers market. He’s hovering over the homemade organic salsas at Yvolina’s Tamales stand. “These are great salsas,” he says before asking, “Have you been to the chicken place?”

Yes, in fact, I have. On a previous visit to 18th Street, I’d followed my nose, drawn to Pollo Express by the rich aroma of charred chicken and smoky spices. Inside, I found a long, narrow room with a few bare tables and 25 plump birds, split and splayed and sizzling away on the charcoal grill across the counter. Waiting for my chicken, I spoke with the cashier, whose calm demeanor and slight smile gave her the air of a Mexican Mona Lisa. Turned out, she’s the owner, and her brother-in-law’s special adobo rub recipe keeps clients beating down the door to the tune of 80 to 100 grilled birds a day, she said.

Down the street, murals cover the outer brick walls of Simone’s Bar. Inside, Simone’s new “Art Lab” curator, Jessica Gorse, tells me that the murals are by Chicago artist Ruben Aguirre, and that she’s hoping to feature Chicago’s vibrant urban art in an upcoming show.

Creativity thrives here, especially on the second Friday of each month, between 6 and 10 p.m., when most small businesses — plus studios and galleries — stay open late, and one section of South Halsted, between 18th Street and South Canalport Avenue, takes on a life of its own.

On a recent “2nd Friday,” I found vintage clothing at Market Supply; a chocolate-making class underway at Chocolat; and flowers at Blumgarten & Co., a boutique florist owned by self-described “Pilsen gals” Ilda Orozco and Michelle Vazquez. “I grew up here,” Orozco told me, “and Michelle’s grandparents had a furniture refinishing shop where Nightwood Restaurant is now located.”

Later, my husband and I met for dinner at Nightwood. In honor of early Pilsenites, many of whom toiled at the now-demolished Chicago Stockyards, we began with pig ears. “You can still see the hair!” my husband noted, as we devoured the crispy morsels glistening with maple glaze. The rest of our meal — “strange little whole wheat pastas stuffed with pistachio goo” (per the menu), smoked Illinois duck leg confit and the Nightwood cheeseburger (best burger I’ve ever had) — mirrored the happy ambiance: unpretentious, local and totally enjoyable.

We worked it off across the street at 1932 S. Halsted, a cavernous converted manufacturing space where artists live and work. Dodging millennials clutching beer cans and skirting strollers parked by the main gallery, we found the back stairwell and climbed to where artist Bryan Sperry, who transforms vintage mannequins into dystopian creatures dripping with found objects, was holding court in his trippy fifth-floor gallery.

He’s a Pilsen native. “I remember running from gang-bangers here in the late ’70s,” Sperry told us. “I don’t know where they’ve gone, but there’s community pride everywhere now.” Before turning to another visitor, he added, “My mission is just to make art and let people see it.”

Kez Ban would fit right in.