Get off campus and check out five cool things to do in five hot 'hoods. By TOC staff
Originally a Czech community, this Near West Side area has a heavy Mexican population and culture, with a smattering of artists.
Eat your fill for cheap.
Since they began Mexican-food fave 1. Nuevo Leon in 1962, the Gutierrez family has been starting every dinner with an unexpected free, bite-sized creation. Taste, but don’t fill up—there’s a lot more where that came from, like roasted chicken covered in thick, dark, chocolatey mole sauce, and tacos de chorizo (house-made spicy sausage scrambled into an egg and wrapped in one of the famous house-made tortillas). 1515 W 18th St between Laflin St and Ashland Ave (312-421-1517).
See the writing on the wall.
In the 1960s, Pilsen’s wall murals emerged as a powerful form of Mexican-American expression. Influenced by Mexican art and the South Side mural movement, this form of public art advocated civil rights and a strong community. This is best reflected in José Guerrero and John Pitman Weber’s 1973 2. Solidarity (37th St and Ashland Ave). It depicts strife, civil-rights clashes and anti-war sentiment during Vietnam. We also like some of Pilsen’s newer murals, including Jeff Zimmerman’s Dejen Que Los Niños Se Acerquen a Mí, with its priest hoisting a baby on the side of Saint Pius Church (Ashland Ave and Cullerton St). For a guided look at all the local wall paintings, call José Guerrero at Pilsen Murals Tour (773-342-4191).
Catch a buzz.
The walls of 3. Kristoffer’s Cafe are full of work from Pilsen artists, but the masterpiece is the chocoflan, chocolate cake topped with flan and baked. It tastes even better when you eat it on the patio in back. 1733 S Halsted St between 17th and 18th Sts (312-829-4150).
Walk and talk art at Chicago Arts District’s 2nd Fridays.
It was just a matter of time before gentrification reached east Pilsen, but even that can’t keep a good artist down. On the second Friday of every month, the 4. Chicago Arts District hosts this free art walk and open house from 6–10pm, where the area’s artists throw open studio and gallery doors, show off their work and—for the real starving artists or students—host wine-and-cheese receptions. Whatever you do, don’t leave east Pilsen without checking out Vespine Gallery (1907 S Halsted St, 1st Floor; 312-962-5850) and Dubhe Carreño Gallery (1841 S Halsted St, 312-666-3150). Venture about 10 blocks toward Ashland Avenue, and you’ll hit west Pilsen, where artists studios are more scattered about, but feature work that’s just as compelling. The 18th Street Pilsen Open Studios, which takes place in late October, should not be missed. For a map of participating spaces for 2nd Fridays, visit the information booth at 1821 S Halsted St at 18th St ( 312-377-4444, www.chicagoartsdistrict.org).
See some history.
The collection at the 5. Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum includes folk art, textiles and artifacts in the permanent exhibition, “Mexicanidad: Our Past Is Present.” Temporary exhibitions, plus events like the Day of the Dead festivities and the Sor Juana Festival, which take place in the fall, make this one of the neighborhood’s hotspots. The tidy gift shop, the Tienda Tzintzuntzan, offers a good collection of literature, art, cookbooks and handicrafts. 1852 W 19th St between Wolcott and Wood St (312-738-1503, www.mfacmchicago.org).
In the 1940s, it was the epicenter of gangsters and big bands, but now Uptown’s on the upswing with a diverse immigrant community and awesome concert venues.
Chow on African food.
Between 1990 and 2000, the number of African immigrants (especially from Ghana, Nigeria and Ethiopia) tripled in Chicago, and many settled in Uptown and Edgewater. Along with the population influx came fine eats like the kind you’ll find at Ethiopian restaurant 1. Ras Dashen (5846 N Broadway, 773-506-9601). Tangy injera bread takes the place of silverware at this local fave. Spinach sambusas—hot, crispy dumplings ($3)—are a fine way to start your meal, but if you follow the directions on the menu, you’ll have so much food that you won’t need starters at all. Be brave and try the fiery zilzil tibs ($13.95), beef strips sautéed with peppers in berbere sauce, an Ethiopian specialty made with red peppers and cumin. Or go for the doro alicha ($10.95), a fragrant, milder chicken dish. Or try Nigerian eats at 2. B and Q Afro Root Cuisine (4802 N Clark St, 773-878-7489/). The primarily meat-based menu is pretty idiot-proof at this no-frills Nigerian restaurant; you simply point to one of the color pictures. Carnivores won’t be disappointed with the tender-to-the-bone beef and chicken, or the pepper soup with goat ($5, available in winter only). Hard-core vegetarians will have a tough time, though they can count on the sassy owner to help construct a meal out of entrée sides like black-eyed peas with white rice and überspicy chili sauce ($9), dodo (fried plantains; $1 for six pieces) and soft yam porridge ($10).
Get lost in “Little Saigon.”
Not to be confused with Chinatown on the South Side, the few blocks surrounding the Argyle El stop are home to numerous Vietnamese restaurants, grocers and stores. Make your first stop 3. Ba Le (5018 N Broadway at Winnemac Ave, 773-561-4424). When the French controlled Vietnam, baguettes crossed cultures, and one of the finest results of this mix is the banh mi sandwich ($2.75–$3.95). They’re plentiful in this area, but this bakery creates most of the bread that local restaurants use, so go straight to the source. For a good sit-down meal, go to 4. Hai Yen (1055 W Argyle St between Winthrop and Kenmore Aves, 773-561-4077). This bastion of authentic eats will make you an expert on Vietnamese cuisine. We start with the tiny beef sausages wrapped in heart-shaped, herbal la lot leaves (#1; $3), as well as lotus root salad (#18; $7.95), a sprightly mix of crunchy lotus root and rau ram, also called hot mint. Memorable entrées like catfish in a clay pot (#72; $8) match perfectly with a side order of garlic-laden, stir-fried water spinach.
Catch a show.
The 5. Aragon (1106 W Lawrence Ave at Winthrop Ave, 773-561-9500) was originally known as the Aragon Ballroom, and once you step inside you’ll see why: This beautiful, ornate building was originally just that, hosting dances and parties for organizations from around the city. That ballroom dance floor can hold a lot of people, and today this is one of the biggest venues within the city limits, booking acts like the Black Eyed Peas, Slayer and others. 6. The Riviera Theatre (4746 N Racine Ave between Lawrence and Leland Aves, 773-275-6800)—or The Riv, as it’s known to city dwellers—is considered by many to be the sister rock club to Aragon, as the two are only a few blocks from each other. It’s not quite as big, but still quite large (you might catch someone like Ryan Adams there), and here’s an inside tip: The acoustics are better.
Follow the dead.
No, 7. Graceland Cemetery isn’t the King’s final resting spot—but it is the end of the road for Chicago’s captains of industry. Al Walavich, who also leads ghost tours, guides the Chicago History Museum’s (1601 N Clark St at North Ave, 312-642-4600) Graceland Cemetery Walking Tour, which highlights the resting places of many of Chicago’s industrial, political and cultural leaders, including retail tycoon Marshall Field and influential architect Louis Sullivan. For a focus on the history as well as the art, the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s (312-922-3432) Graceland Cemetery tour (which meets at Graceland Cemetery, 4001 N Clark St between Montrose Ave and Irving Park Rd) adds info on the tombstones and monuments designed by Daniel Chester French and Lorado Taft.
Spend the day at the beach.
You could go to relax or ponder the meaning of life while staring at Lake Michigan, but who wants to do that when there’s so much going on? Aside from the skate park at Wilson Avenue (see Out There, page 4), we love 8. Montrose Beach because we can play soccer in the sand, grill with a portable Weber, buy a paleta and pet the pooches at the doggie beach. 4400 N Lake Shore (312-742-5121).
Bucktown + Wicker Park
Once the gritty home to starving artists, this nabe is now abuzz with restaurants and boutiques.
Grab an Italian ice.
One thing about Chicago: It gets hot in the summer. Bike-tire–melting hot. So our favorite way to combat the swelter is to head straight to 1. Miko’s Italian Ice. We can never decide between the refreshing watermelon, the fresh strawberry (with seeds and pulp galore), or the sweet, velvety mango (how Miko makes the ice so creamy without dairy is beyond us). The banana with chocolate chips is an acquired taste worth acquiring. 1846 N Damen Ave between Moffat and Churchill Streets (773-645-9664).
Complete with a charcoal grill and a TV showing guy-friendly flicks, 2. Akira for Men is designed to look and feel like a bachelor pad. The “bedroom” brims with eclectic T-shirts ($24) from Threadless, Heavy Rotation and Vintage Vantage . Feed your style cravings in the “kitchen,” stocked with accessories such as Italian leather belts ($10–$30). The walk-in closet houses trendy dress shirts ($24–$60) from Akira’s house label and Roar. Pick up a pair of jeans from Silver ($79) or Rock & Republic ($209) and try it all on in the “bathroom” shower. While you’re shopping, send your girlfriend to Akira for women, Akira Footwear and accessories store Detail by Akira, all a stone’s throw away. 1920 W North Ave between Wolcott and Winchester Aves (773-276-5640).
People-watch at Pontiac.
It’s impossible to be in the Wicker Park triangle and not hear the din from the patio of 3. Pontiac, a converted gas station. Aside from the insanely popular Friday-night live-band karaoke, DJs and bands fill the air with music, while an anything-goes crowd gawks at passersby, custom bicycles and shiny motorcycles. Get there early enough to grab a table, order a burger and settle in for the show. And don’t miss Redneck Bingo Sunday nights, either. 1531 N Damen Ave between Pierce Ave and Le Moyne St (773-252-7767).
Check out some zines.
Underground publishing fans, here is your Valhalla: 4. Quimby’s has enough zines, graphic novels, poetry books and hip videos to keep you blissfully perusing the shelves for hours. This little shop packs a big wallop in the literature world—past guest readers include Michelle Tea, Daniel Clowes and Dave Eggers. And here’s the best part: At readings, you’re likely to end up sitting right next to the porn section. Nice. 1854 W North Ave between Wolcott Ave and Honore St (773-342-0910).
Get your pizza fix.
Yes, MTV’s Real World: Chicago was filmed right across the street from 5. Piece, and yes, two of the women in the house worked here. (And no, your friends won’t be impressed when you impart this knowledge.) But forget that and know this: The always-busy Piece has kick-ass, New Haven–style thin-crust pizza (trust us: try the mashed-potato topping) and TVs tuned to all the big games. And the space itself is cool—a former garage with vaulted ceilings, skylights and tri-level seating. To us, that’s a pretty good combination. Just show up before 10pm on weekends, because they start to card then. 1927 W North Ave between Damen and Elk Grove Aves (773-772-4422).
This huge ‘hood has something for everyone; cheap eats, theaters, shopping and one magical ballpark.
Turn back time.
There’s more chrome and grease at 1. Salt & Pepper Diner than a motorcycle repair shop, but that’s how you know a diner is worth its spit. The décor’s no retro throwback—the original Lincoln Avenue location has been around since ’65. Our favorites include gooey, juicy cheeseburgers; hot, crispy fries; thin omelets overstuffed with sauteed vegetables; and tall, thick and appropriately famous milk shakes. We also love the fact that you can eat your heart out (or at least eat enough to give yourself heart disease) for less than ten bucks a person. 3537 N Clark St, 773-883-9800.
Shop yourself hip.
The style is Wet Seal meets H&M at small, uber-trendy Lakeview boutique 2. Tragically Hip. Racks of sexy, flirty tank tops ($10–$30) hang alongside Doghouse jackets ($68) and Tramp silk skirts ($48). The store also has a cute collection of handbags ($16–$98) and jewelry ($5–$25). With its vintage-store vibe, Tragically Hip definitely isn’t a fancy boutique, but girly girls with an eye for the trendy can appreciate the low prices and constantly-changing selection. 931 W Belmont Ave, 773-549-1500.
Root, root, root for the Cubbies.
It might be brimming with cell-phone–wielding frat boys and their adoring halter-top–clad bimbettes. And yes, once again, the Cubs suck. But we’ll be damned if 3. Wrigley Field doesn’t deserves to be treated with the same reverence as the Sistine Chapel. Think we’re being hyperbolic? Finagle a night-game seat in the upper deck. Get there early. Get a cold beverage and take it all in. For our money, Wrigley is the best baseball stadium in the country. You can argue with us, but after you watch the sky slowly fade and the lights brighten, we’re guessing you won’t. (Our tip on getting seats: Go to the day-of-game window at Addison and Clark—it opens at 9am Saturday and Sunday, 8am Monday–Friday. Get there early, and eventually you’ll be strolling past the suckers doling out big bucks to scalpers.) 1060 W Addison St at Clark St (773-404-2827).
Collect some kitsch.
What do you get for that person who has everything? Forget the Coach handbag. Limited-edition Adidas kicks? Come on. No, head to 4. Uncle Fun for an Evel Knievel lunchbox, or maybe a Pee Wee Herman harmonica. Or, hell, go all the way and splurge for the fart powder. Just keep this in mind: It’s impossible not to get lost amid all the knickknacks and geegaws. So don’t blame us when you emerge hours later, bleary-eyed and triumphantly holding Silly String and a rubber chicken. 1338 W Belmont Ave between Racine and Southport Aves (773-477-8223).
Yuk it up.
We could blather on about the alums who have graduated from comedy academy 5. IO back when it was known as Improv Olympic, like Mike Myers and Tina Fey. Or we could go on about legendary IO co-creator Del Close, who nurtured these talents and bequeathed his skull to the Goodman Theatre for use as a prop. But we’ll save the high-minded yakkety-yak and say this: Check out a show (we’re partial to TJ & Dave, which features improv masters TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi) and you’ll laugh your ass off. 3541 N Clark St between Addison St and Newport Ave (773-880-0199).
Mostly a business district and what most people think of when referring to downtown, this is the place to find Chicago’s iconic architecture and civic legacy.
Buy stuff you didn’t even know you needed.
Even if it’s not actually located on Maxwell Street anymore, there’s nothing like junk and Mexican food at the open-air, mile-long 1. Maxwell Street Market on Sunday morning. If you’re lucky, you might find (and have a chance to buy back) your stolen bike, but you’re sure to find electronics, socks, mangoes by the crate and a hundred kinds of chiles. Bite into freshly grilled mayo- and cheese-slathered elote (corn on the cob), and you’ll be hooked for good. Canal St and Roosevelt Rd (312-922-3169). 7am–3pm Sundays year round.
Life’s a beach.
Snuggled between the Adler Planetarium and Northerly Island Park (formerly a waterfront airport and now an outdoor-music venue) is the 2. 12th Street Beach. This sandy cove is empty in the early afternoon, aside from a few beach bums and a family or two, which makes it the perfect place to play hooky with your sweetheart (or just a book if you haven’t hooked up yet). For privacy and a scenic view of the lakefront, head to the north side and cast your towel under a shady tree. 1200 S Lake Shore Drive at Solidarity Drive, 312-747-2524.
Learn all about the Loop on this free 40-minute tour of Chicago’s business hub. As you ride along, Architecture Foundation docents will guide you through some of the city’s more noteworthy architecture, all from the elevated perspective of an El car on the 3. Loop Tour Train. For a full list of CAF tours, visit www.architecture.org. Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E Washington St, 312-744-6630. Tours depart from the Randolph and Wabash El station.
The 4. HotHouse is small enough that you can get up close to the performers, but big enough that it draws a good crowd and international musicians like Juana Molina and DJ Spooky. The venue’s variety is staggering—from grey-haired blues legends to seven-piece samba bands. A handful of the offerings are all-ages, and almost all of the shows offer student-discount tickets. 31 E Balbo Ave between State St and Wabash Ave (312-362-9707).
Experience the new Millennium.
When 5. Millenium Park was far from finished and blowing both its opening schedule and its budget in 2001 (and then 2002, and 2003…), it looked like it might turn out to be one of the city’s most expensive mistakes. Now, it’s one of the most happening spots in town and Chicago’s looking like a trend-setter among cities. What is there to do in this new gem? Well, there’s plenty to look at—Pritzker Pavilion, Crown Fountain, the ice rink in the winter, the Lurie Garden, and, of course “The Bean,” as Anish Kapoor’s sculpture Cloud Gate is known. Even better is the people watching—from the dorks touring the park on Segways to the kids splashing in the water of Crown Fountain. The outdoor exhibits are cool, too, so visit www.millenniumpark.org for a schedule. Welcome center: 201 E Randolph St; the park is bordered by Michigan Ave, Columbus Dr, Randolph St and Monroe St.