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26th St - La Villita

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Rene G Aug 17, 2001 02:31 PM

This is a version of something I posted in chi.eats a while back. There’s not a whole lot new here, so if you read it already you can just skip it. I certainly don’t claim these are all the best places in the neighborhood but maybe it will help some people get started. I think it goes without saying that I hope others make some great discoveries and share their reports.

Twenty-sixth Street between about Kedzie and Pulaski is easily one of the most interesting miles in Chicago. It's very densely packed with Mexican businesses and many of these are food oriented. I hadn't really explored seriously for a couple years but have made several trips recently and have been even more impressed than before. I'm certainly no expert on the area and have only scratched the surface. Here are some places I’ve enjoyed, organized from east to west.

If you approach from the east you'll pass the County Jail and Courthouse at 26th and California, one of the more depressing stretches in the city.

Within feet of the tall walls things pick up dramatically. La Kermese (3002) is one of the first bright spots. This is a modern, crowded taqueria. It looks a bit too much like a Mexican Denny's but the food is pretty good.

Continuing on you'll hit El Milagro (3050), a tortilla factory with a little restaurant next door. Another modern, clean place, this might be a good stop for a first visit. The food is displayed cafeteria style and you place your order after walking down the line checking out the ten or so dishes. Most things look pretty darn good and the guisados (stews) are a steal at $3.50 a plate. There's a somewhat informative menu in English above the line. You can also get okay homemade tamales to go at $6 a dozen (several varieties including a sweet coconut raisin).

Between Albany (3100W) and Troy is the arch welcoming you to La Villita.

Carniceria Aguascalientes (3132) a pretty good market (good looking, well priced meat) with a little restaurant (Gorditas Aguascalientes) on the side. As you might guess they're known for their gorditas which are awfully good. You can get them filled with any number of great things for about 2 bucks. Huge tubs of pickled jalapenos are on each table.

Not food-related, I hope, there's an interesting pet store, one of the El Arca de Noe chain ("We buy and sell animals") across the street. Looks like an excellent place if you're in the market for an iguana.

Crossing Kedzie you'll approach La Guadalupana (3215) a little grocery known for their fresh masa and tamales (to go only). Their slogan is "La Casa de la Masa" and the phone is 773-TAMALES so you might get the idea they're serious about it. For fifty-five cents you can get a pound of fresh masa that bears little resemblance to what you get after rehydrating the standard Quaker masa harina. The plain masa, for tortillas and atole, comes in white and yellow versions and they have masa with added fat for tamales. There's a good variety of these, salted, sweet, or flavored with different fruits. Their homemade tamales ($3.25 a half dozen, many varieties) are in a heated case toward the back of the store. Wonderful. They have a small selection of kitchen utensils including beautiful, rustic, heavy wooden tortilla presses for about $18. But you can do about as well with a cheap aluminum device, available everywhere.

Another must-visit is Dulce Landia (3300 and at least 4 other locations). This is a bright, modern, well-organized candy store, with lots of pinatas hanging overhead and loud music playing. It's sort of sensory overload and great fun to wander around in. I'm not even a big candy fan and I love this place. If you have an adventurous child handy, I'll bet they'll love it too. I like the tamarind candy with salt and chile (it's sweet, sour, hot, and salty and will simultaneously stimulate most of your taste receptors; of the several brands, Pulparindo is my favorite), the various forms of goat milk caramel (cajeta), and several kinds of coconut candies. There is a huge variety of lollipops, including the Pollito Asado--a peach-flavored, chile-spiked, chicken-shaped candy (I'm not kidding; $2.99 for a bag of 40).

There are quite a few bakeries in the area. I like Coral (3807) only partly for its looks. It's a very old and worn formerly eastern European shop with nice old tile and stained glass. Most of the stock is displayed in the windows; just grab a tray and tongs from the counter, slide open the doors and go to work. Only a few items are over fifty cents each.

One of the few bakeries that's not self-service is El Nopal (3648). A good place for pan mexicano. Check out that amazing green pottery thing in the window.

There are a number of liquor stores but the best in the area is Moreno's (3724). An astounding selection of tequilas in all price ranges from well under $10 to almost $500. It puts Sam's (a truly great store) to shame in the tequila category. The excellent Don Julio Anejo is $42.99 but there are many, many other choices in this price range. Several seldom-seen central American beers and they even have 6 packs of pulque (fermented agave juice) in the cooler.

Across the street is Chicago Live Poultry House (2601 S Ridgeway). The usual chickens and ducks as well as conejo vivo for the more adventurous. Not for the squeamish, when the door is open you can hear lots of squawks of the birds and thwacks of the cleavers.

There are more taquerias than you can shake a stick at. I mention just a few that caught my eye.

One that's at the top of my list is Birriria Ocotlan (3809). A cool-looking, slightly decrepit, older place, they specialize in goat. Not just specialize, it's pretty much all they serve. For $1.25 the cook will take a couple tortillas, fill them with some slightly fatty hacked up goat, top it with onion and cilantro, drizzle on some goat juice, then wrap it expertly. They also serve good consome as well as plates (large or small) of goat meat.

Atotonilco (3916) is another popular taqueria that's been around a while and has a real nice feel to it. Get a taco al pastor and watch them slice the meat off a vertical spit (Mexican gyros). They also specialize in fresh-squeezed juices.

One of my favorite Chicago restaurants used to be Dudley Nieto's Chapulin ("Grasshopper") on Halsted. He now runs Adobo Grill on Wells which I still haven't been to. I was really happy to see another Chapulin on 26th (at 4139). But wait, this place is an exterminator! The windows are full of bottles of all kinds of poisons. They even display the "Gluee Louee Econo-Trap--Catches Rats, Mice & Snakes." A helpful demonstration using rubber rats and mice is provided in the window.

Little Village used to be mainly Eastern European and there are a few reminders here and there. One of the only remaining businesses is Troha's Fish and Shrimp House (4151) where they sell good-quality fried seafood to take out. Since they've been in business over 50 years they must be doing something right. I bet they didn't sell jalapeno poppers back in 1950.

Going on down the street another big, popular taqueria is Los Gallos (4211 and other locations). I haven't tried it yet but it looks very promising.

For non-Mexican fast food you might want to check out George's, a local mini chain. The gimmick here is everything costs $1.25. Polish & fries, fish sandwich, Italian beef, etc etc, it's all a buck and a quarter. I sure wouldn't make a special trip but it's a heck of a deal.

Things tend to thin out a little west of Pulaski, though there are some places well worth a look.

There are so many other places--markets with good meats and vegetables, seafood restaurants, birririas, and lots of panaderias. Also lots of street carts. And of course lots of other businesses including some pretty good record stores (try Ritmo Latino).

While most of the action is on 26th I wouldn't ignore the side streets. 25th in particular has several very appealing places. On 25th between Drake and St Louis is El D.F., a very nice-looking place. It seems that most of the businesses around 26th St are from northern Mexico. I would assume El D.F. serves food from the central region.

Also on 25th, at St Louis, is a quiet little shop, Fruteria 2 Arbolitas. They also have meat and many groceries. Last visit several items like tomatillos and squashes (good variety) were much better than at other stores. Nothing spectacular, just a real nice little neighborhood place. The nearby Lupita's is another.

The area is very busy on weekends and is at its liveliest on warm days. On the other hand weekdays are good as you'll likely get more personal attention in the shops. Traffic and parking can be challenging, especially on weekends. Accessible by the #60 bus from the loop (catch it on Adams; runs all the way to Cicero, a slow but interesting trip). You can also use the Kedzie (53) or Pulaski (52) buses.

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  1. z
    zim RE: Rene G Aug 17, 2001 03:08 PM

    Rene,

    I had read that one on chi.eats and copied it my PDA. It is a great post. now i just have to go down there and try some out. thanks for the info

    1. m
      Michael RE: Rene G Aug 17, 2001 04:54 PM

      Thanks for the post!

      I remember eating at Nuevo Leon on 26th and (I think) Pulaski a long time ago (I was in high school at the time), and I really enjoyed it. Haven't been back to 26th St. since.

      I have a friend in from Europe this weekend, and I think he might dig visiting that area this weekend.

      Thanks again!

      1. v
        Vital Information RE: Rene G Aug 18, 2001 03:23 PM

        Rene,

        Thanks for the great post. Both exhaustive and comprehensive...

        Which board do you all like, this one of chi.eats?

        Several weeks ago, at maxwell street, i fulfilled a lifelong ambition as someone told me what it means to be in the style of d.f. it's from mexico city, districo federal (or something to that extent). all this time, driving division or chicago, i saw the estillo d.f. on resturants, but i could never figure it out. my mom, who knows less spanish than me, figured it out on the spot last week at maxwell, bummer...

        VI

        1 Reply
        1. re: Vital Information
          z
          zim RE: Vital Information Aug 20, 2001 09:58 AM

          I definetely prefer this one. I lurk over there a bit, and haven't really noticed anything interesting over there in a while. Plus there is some unfortunate unpleasant threads that seem to go on and on. That being said Rene G's older posts on that board are worth searching out.

        2. t
          TJR RE: Rene G Aug 31, 2001 01:18 AM

          We used to go to El Milagro on Maxwell Street years ago. We thought it died and went to restaurant heaven, but it looks like it was resurrected on 26th St. Thanks for your great post!

          1 Reply
          1. re: TJR
            v
            Vital Information RE: TJR Aug 31, 2001 10:08 AM

            There is also an El Milagro on belmont a few blocks east of ashland. it is a long walk or so from the belmont stop on the red line. i especially like their salsa fresca which reminds me of a mexican version of italian beef giardinara.

            VI

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