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A flair for Mexican in the hot spots of a changing Pilsen

Email|Print| Text size + By Keith O'Brien
Globe Correspondent / March 18, 2007

CHICAGO -- Years ago, working late at her diner, where the huevos con chorizo are served up cheap, spicy, and delicious, Martha Solis took out the trash and found a dead man in the alley. He had been shot .

"I was in shock for two days," says Solis, 66, the owner of the Parkview Restaurant & Grill in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood for the last 16 years.

Solis, a moon-faced and jolly native of Ecuador , shakes her head at the memory . Then, with a wave of her spatula, she leaves her customers sitting around the Formica counter at the Parkview and returns to the eggs cooking on the grill.

Crime is still part of life here in Pilsen, one of Chicago's largest Mexican neighborhoods. To recognize that, one need look no further than the small, blue blinking lights suspended above some intersections near Pilsen's main artery, 18th Street. There are surveillance cameras up there and police are watching.

But Pilsen, nestled amid the interstate highways a few miles southwest of downtown , is changing -- and fast. Condo developers are moving in. Rents are going up, according to a recent study by DePaul University, and some working-class people are moving out.

This historic port-of-entry immigrant community -- home first to Czechs, then to other Eastern Europeans, then to Mexicans -- has finally been discovered. It was simply too close to downtown to be ignored any longer. From 18th Street, where David Beltran is selling vegetables from his truck and Claudia Garcia is selling tamales from her stand, the Sears Tower feels so close that you want to reach out and touch it.

This has preservationists and community activists worried , and maybe with good reason. They fear that an influx of new residents could forever alter this neighborhood, taking a unique Mexican community and turning it into Lincoln Park, a well-heeled, predominantly white neighborhood on Chicago's North Side .

That may be happening. But the fact that people have finally discovered Pilsen has led to a second realization: The neighborhood has some of the best, most authentic Mexican food this side of the Mississippi River. And that's something that presumably even new residents of the neighborhood wouldn't want to change.

"For me it's a legacy," says Daniel Gutierrez Jr., 35, the third-generation operator of his family's restaurant, Nuevo Leon, on 18th Street. "It's something very important for me. For me personally, it's in my blood. I love to serve people. I love to cook. Every plate you have, it's very important to me. It's a representation of the family."

His family's story is the same, Gutierrez says, "as every immigrant who crossed a river in hopes for a better future." His grandparents migrated to Chicago in the 1950s and settled in Pilsen, a working-class neighborhood where the people historically worked for nearby slaughterhouses and railroad companies.

They bought a taco stand on 18th Street in 1962 and named it for the family's native land in Mexico, Nuevo Leon. But Pilsen, at the time, was far from the community that it is today.

It was an immigrant neighborhood, certainly. But most immigrants until the 1950s had been Czech or Polish as evidenced by the name of the community itself. Pilsen was named for a city in the modern-day Czech Republic. Hispanic and Latino newcomers, Solis recalls, were not exactly welcomed and many old-guard Pilsen residents moved. The new guard, by and large, spoke Spanish.

"Hasta mañana ," a customer says while leaving Solis's restaurant.

"Bye-bye," Solis replies.

Her diner is now part of a concentration of Hispanic eateries bustling with activity and customers. Tamales are sold on street corners, beans with almost every meal. Old men walk the streets in cowboy hats and boots and, at times, it gets even more authentic than that. On a recent morning, a man sat at a bus stop on 18th Street wearing a sombrero. No one batted an eye.

According to US Census data, the ZIP code that includes most of Pilsen was roughly 63 percent Latino and Hispanic in 2000 with the same percentage speaking a language other than English at home.

"I have strong ties to this neighborhood because of my family and because of the way the neighborhood is," says Marcela Gallo, 31, a first-generation Mexican-American who grew up in Pilsen and opened Café Mestizo, a coffee shop, four years ago. "It's very cultural. It's very artistic. It kind of reminds me of my home back in Mexico."

But Gallo is among those worrying that the character of the neighborhood is changing yet again, and not for the best. Housing prices are on the rise, up 68 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to the Pilsen Alliance, a neighborhood advocacy group. Condo developments, including one 387-unit project in the works, are moving in, and that has preservationists troubled. In 2006, when Preservation Chicago released its annual list of the top seven most endangered historic buildings in the city, the advocacy group named the entire Pilsen neighborhood number two.

"Low-income families are moving out. You got all these migrant families who came from Mexico who can no longer afford to live in Pilsen," says Gutierrez , sitting in the dining room at Nuevo Leon. "On a Friday night, you used to see Mexican families in here. Now you see a lot of white American families. Business is business. But you see the change."

It's upsetting to longtime residents like Gutierrez for more than just cultural reasons. He reports that property taxes for the restaurant almost doubled in 2006. But while some may be moving out, others, including Katie and Eusevio Garcia, are moving in.

In July last year, the husband-wife team and a partner opened a new restaurant on 18th Street not far from Nuevo Leon. Their Mundial Cocina Mestiza is not your typical Mexican eatery.

" Carne asada, " marinated flank steak, is on the menu. But so is a turkey club sandwich. "Yeah, we could do tacos," says Katie Garcia, who along with her husband has worked in fine Chicago restaurants for years. "But we want to do more than tacos."

It may be a sign of things to come in Pilsen. But the Garcia s says they're not trying to change the neighborhood; they're trying to fit into the neighborhood. They're keeping prices low and running their business without the slightest hint of pretense.

When a table of customers recently asked to have a bottle of wine decanted, Garcia responded in a way that many people in Pilsen could probably appreciate.

"Gimme a break," she said.

Keith O'Brien, a freelance writer in Boston, can be reached at keith@keithob.com.

If You Go

How to get there

Pilsen is a Chicago neighborhood about three miles southwest of the downtown Loop. By car, it is little more than a 10-minute drive west on Interstate 290 to the Damen Avenue south exit. Public transportation includes bus and the Blue Line subway to the 18th Street stop.

Where to eat

Parkview Restaurant Grill

2000 West 19th St.

312-733-0132

Diner with Mexican breakfasts and soups; breakfast and lunch only.

Café Mestizo 1646 West 18th St.

312-421-5920

cafemestizo.com

Coffee shop; try the Cocoa Azteca , Mexican-spiced hot chocolate.

Mundial Cocina Mestiza 1640 West 18th St.

312-491-9908

Cozy dining, a bit upscale but without the prices. More than just tacos.

Restaurante Nuevo Leon 1515 West 18th St.

312-421-1517

Family dining done right; the granddaddy of them all.

Panaderia Nuevo Leon

1634 West 18th St.

312-243-5977

Mexican pastries since 1973. Try the concha , the shell-patterned pastry in chocolate or vanilla.

Bombon

1508 West 18th St.

312-733-7788

Fine pastries and cakes.

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