For my recent birthday, my wife gave me a present that earned her a gold star. She got me a guided culinary, cultural and architectural walking tour of Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood just south and west of downtown Chicago. It's the heart of the Latino population in the city and has a long history of hosting immigrants from Eastern Europe and more recently from Mexico. When I found out what we were going to do for my birthday, I was extremely excited and couldn't wait to get started on the tour.
The Pilsen tour is one of many types of similar tours offered by Walk Chicago Tours, a company headed by Terry Sullivan, a lifelong Chicago resident who started out doing tours for the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. Going out on his own, Sullivan focused primarily on guiding small groups on different tours around Chicago. As word of how good his tours were, he found that he needed more people to help with the growing requests of specially guided tours around Chicago neighborhoods. Sullivan has recruited over a dozen people with experience in Chicago history, architecture and culinary arts to help him with the tours.
Actually, Cindy and a friend of hers tried to get a guided culinary walking tour of one of the other neighborhoods Walk Chicago Tours offers last fall, but the guides were all taken on the Saturday they were going to meet in Chicago. When she told me that I needed to take a heavy coat to Chicago with me because "we would be inside and outside" for my birthday present, I finally figured out what the present was going to be, spoiling her surprise. But I was pleasantly surprised when she told me that it would be a guided tour of the heart of the Mexican population in Chicago, a neighborhood that I was not familiar with in the least.
Our tour guide this day was Judith Dunbar Hines who has a long résumé as a chef, a weekly columnist for the Chicago Sun Times, a media coach for celebrity television chefs, a culinary instructor, a caterer, and as a recipe developer for companies and home chefs. She met Terry Sullivan when they were both working with the city's Department of Cultural Affairs when she was the director of culinary arts and events for the D.C.A. Judith was the person who championed the burgeoning celebrity chef/restaurant scene in Chicago in the late 1990's. She worked closely with many of the great chefs in Chicago - Rick Bayless and Charlie Trotter to name a couple - to help get the word out to tourists looking for a heightened culinary experience in the city.
Judith started out learning French cuisine in the 60's and worked in the kitchen with the famed French chef Jacques Pepin on one of his PBS television shows. From there, she was the kitchen coordinator for Martin Yan when he had his upscale "Yan Can Cook" Chinese cuisine show on PBS. She worked various jobs in places like Texas, Massachusetts and California but she always ended up back in Chicago close to her roots in downstate Illinois. After leaving the Chicago D.C.A., she was recruited by Terry Sullivan to be one of the culinary guides for Walk Chicago Tours. Judith continues to write a weekly column in the Sun Times' food section and helps develop recipes in her home test kitchen.
We were to meet Judith at the Panaderia Nuevo Leon bakery on 18th Street in the Pilsen neighborhood at 11 a.m. (see map) It was just Cindy and I on the tour and I was excited to not only learn some more in-depth information about Mexican food, but I was equally excited to learn about an area of Chicago that was completely unfamiliar with. Little Italy is just to the north of the Pilsen neighborhood and I've never ventured further south than Little Italy in previous trips to the area.
Just before 11 a.m., Judith came into Panderia Nuevo Leon and met us. She was a short lady armed with a quick smile, a sort of sassy disposition, but warm and friendly the whole way through. She was a person you immediately liked. After exchanging pleasantries, she introduced us to the managing owner of the bakery, Artemio Casas. Casas' father-in-law started the bakery in 1973 and Artemio took over the day-to-day operation a few years ago. His father-in-law - in his 70's now - still comes in to open up the kitchen at 4 a.m. daily.
Artemio invited us back to the kitchen area of the bakery. Large ovens, industrial-sized mixers and strange looking machines were interspersed throughout the somewhat cramped quarters in the back of the bakery. The first thing that Artemio did was explain the difference between American pastries and Mexican pastries - Mexican baked goods weren't as sweet at their American counterparts. He said that the more sweet the pastry, the more that it hides the true flavor. Judith commented that she had recently given a tour to a group of a dozen high school students and some of them were disappointed in the taste of the Mexican pastries because they're much more used to a sweeter taste.
Artemio then demonstrated the hand-made technique that they use to make a number of their pastries. They make over 50 different types of pastries and breads at Nuevo Leon, many of them handmade daily.
Artemio showed us a tray of huge specialty donuts that they feature at Nuevo Leon. He asked, "How much you think these cost?" We asked him how much his regular donut cost and he said 79 cents. So, trying to figure the size of these donuts versus the regular sized donuts, then figuring a little off because of the bulk size, I guessed $3.99 each. "No, $1.99 each." Judith explained that cutting out the middle-man helps keeps the cost of their baked goods low.
A baker had just made a batch of lemon tarts and was getting ready to put them into an oven that featured Ferris Wheel-type shelving to keep the temperature constant around the baked goods. This was a smaller oven compared to the other one in the kitchen area. I damned near reached for one before he stuck a try in the oven, they looked so good even unbaked.
One thing that surprised me was the amount of flour tortillas Nuevo Leon made on a weekly basis. Artemio told us that they make about 4500 tortillas a week in his little bakery - most of which are bought by patrons. The machine that they make the tortillas with was designed by his father-in-law. The tortilla dough is pressed, then the tortillas are cooked on a special grill that rotates as they cook. He wasn't making any at the time and it was a little hard to fathom how exactly the machine worked. But if they make 4500 a week, this thing gets quite the work-out.
In the bakery, Nuevo Leon features about 15 different varieties of flavored tortillas. Artemio used to work in the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant years ago and started to experiment with adding flavors to the tortilla batter. He tried mixing avocados in with batter and found that it was a hit. He tried other concoctions - chili powder, jalapeños, cilantro, even habanero peppers. Judith said, "I made the mistake of getting the habanero tortillas one time. I took a bite and thought, 'Oh my God!' " Before we left, Cindy picked up a dozen each of the chipotle, jalapeño and habanero tacos. Her son-in-law is a Mexican national and he loves his food the hotter the better. She was going to give him the habanero tortillas while I wanted to try the chipotle tortillas with homemade fish tacos at some point.
Judith told us to pick out something for a snack that we would be eating shortly at our next stop. The unique thing about Panaderia Nuevo Leon is that it's completely self-serve. With over 50 different types of pastries, I didn't exactly know what to get. Artemio was showing us some empanadas that were either plain or had filling in them. When he said they had pumpkin empanadas, I had to take one of those.
Cindy ended up getting a churro and Judith said that we needed to get a coffee or chocolate milk to dunk some of the churro into. She also talked us into getting something that she called a buñuelo - they take day old tortilla shells, deep fry them and then top them with cinnamon and sugar. "They're very big at Christmas time," she explained. "But I think they're good anytime."
(Part of the price of the tour is that the guide will pay for most of the food products at each stop. Judith paid for much of the food that we consumed or took home that day. Anything extra - such as the tortilla shells - we paid for ourselves.)
We ended up in a little park in front of the Church of St. Vitus - a former Catholic Church that is now a daycare and cultural center for the neighborhood - and took a seat on a bench to enjoy our late morning snacks. The empanada was very good - the lessened amount of sugar used in Mexican pastries allowed me to get a good forward pumpkin taste in each bite. It was very good.
Judith explained that the neighborhood - at one time - had over a dozen Catholic churches. A lot of the churches had closed because of lack of parishioners - like St. Vitas in 1990 - but some have been repurposed. The Pilsen neighborhood was first settled by Germans and Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century, but then gave way to a large Czech population just before the turn of the century. 100 years ago, the neighborhood became a melting pot of Eastern Europe immigrants - the neighborhood's growth was fueled by the stockyards and lumberyards that were located just south of the area.
In the 1960's there was a large influx of Latinos into the neighborhood, many of whom came from Michoacán in southwest Mexico. In less than 10 years, the number of Latino households outnumbered Eastern European families. However, Judith told us that the neighborhood was undergoing another change with more of an influx "urban hipsters". "We're seeing coffee shops, trendy bars and non-Mexican restaurants popping up around the neighborhood," she told us. "Some of the Hispanics in the neighborhood aren't happy with the change, but they're still about 80% of the population of the neighborhood. And about 65% of the Latino population came from Michoacán."
We ended up walking caddy-cornered across the street to the front of the Peter Cooper Elementary School, a dual-language academy that caters primarily to the Hispanic families in the neighborhood. Each summer, students honor their heritage by making artistic mosaics of prominent Hispanic people. The project was started back in the 1980's by local artist Francisco Mendoza, also known as the "Pilsen Picasso". Mendoza painted or supervised a number of murals that were painted in the Pilsen neighborhood and he got together with the school to help students pay tribute to Hispanic artists, activists, musicians and leaders. Colorful mosaic portraits of people such as Carlos Santana, Cesar Chavez, Frida Kahlo and Selena adorned the outer wall of the school. Mendoza has long since passed away, but his legacy lives on as each year school children work to put up a new mosaic portrait.
The Pilsen neighborhood features dozens and dozens of colorful murals. As Judith told us, "A mural tells a story. A painted picture on the side of a building that does not tell the story is just a picture." Many of the murals told stories of hope, some told stories of despair, some honored local people. The mural below at left was commissioned by one of the churches in the area to counter a mural across the street that showed a family torn apart by immigration issues. This mural depicts Hispanics graduating from college, holding good jobs and offering an uplifting message of religious hope.
One of the murals was a tribute to comic book super heroes. We were told that a group of younger artists worked on this mural for about three months. The one thing that we noticed was that once a mural was up there was no graffiti or any defacing of the mural. There seems to be an unwritten neighborhood rule that "taggers" don't deface any of the colorful murals once they're up on a wall.
However, there was one mural that was sort of defaced, but in a somewhat positive way. Below left if a tribute mural to journalist James Wright Foley, the American journalist who was kidnapped and beheaded by ISIS militants in Syria last year. Before he became a journalist, Foley worked for Teach for America, a non-profit group that helps inner city and rural students realize their full potential of learning. Foley worked in the Pilsen neighborhood and made an impact on many young people. After he was killed, they started a memorial mural for Foley with messages of peace in Spanish, English and Arabic. Around the mural, some people have tagged their own tributes to Foley angering many who feel that a memorial mural is sacred.
The murals along the streets of the Pilsen neighborhood were staggering, both in their numbers, but also in their colorful beauty. It's worth the trip to the neighborhood just to walk around and see the murals. You can see more Pilsen neighborhood murals by clicking here.
After walking through the neighborhood with Judith pointing out buildings and homes with Czech, Polish and German architectural influences, she said, "Hey, it's your birthday! We need to get you a birthday treat!" She took us to a little cake shop called the Bombon Cake Shop. (see map) The owner, Laura Cid-Perea (pictured right) was raised in Mexico, but was exposed to gourmet foods and high-quality pastries in mid-teens. She eventually went to France to study at the acclaimed Le Cordon Bleu school in Paris graduating in 1991. While she was in Paris, she not only worked for the school, but for the U.S. Consulate in Paris as their chef.
After moving back to Mexico, she worked in a handful of restaurants before moving to Chicago to work at the prestigious French Pastry School (one of the co-owners was her first husband). She eventually went to work as the pastry chef for Rick Bayless at Tompolobampo and Frontera Grill before opening the Bombon Cake shop in Pilsen in 2001 with her second husband, Luis. Her cakes have won numerous awards and accolades over the years. There are now four locations for Bombon Cake Shop in the Chicago area.
The place was pretty small. It featured a small counter with a glass cake showing off numerous colorful cakes of all sizes. Judith told me that they make a small Rompope (pronounced rom-op-pay) cake served in a small tin that is just to die for. She said it's made with Mexican style eggnog which is significantly different from American eggnog in that while they still use rum, they don't use cream in the Mexican version and the eggs are cooked. Mexican eggnog is sweet and very rich, so it's usually served in small glasses. She was so adamant about getting the Rompope cake that I couldn't say no. We also decided upon a small coffee cake. "It's not like American coffee cake," Judith explained. "It's made with real coffee." We took them with us to have as a dessert after our lunch.
From the Bombon Cake Shop, we ended up walking to a place down the street called Tortilleria Sabinas, one of the very few places where you can buy tortillas and tortilla chips directly from the factory. (see map) Rick Bayless once said that Chicago has "the greatest concentration of artisanal tortilla factories in the world." Judith explained to us that Sabinas was one of the big three tortilla manufacturers in Chicago (Los Milagros and Atotonilco being the other two) and was part of the famed "Tortilla Wars" that took place between the three companies a couple three decades ago. Each tortilleria was trying gain shelf space in grocery stores as well as supply tortillas and tortilla chips to restaurants. One company would literally come in, take all the tortillas and chips from one company off the shelves in stores and put theirs in place. Things got so bad between the three companies that a truce had to be brokered to allow one company supply tortillas to restaurants, one company supplied tortillas to grocery stores, and the third supplied tortilla chips to restaurants. However, Judith told us that all three co-exist on shelves of grocery stores across Chicago today.
We were able to take a peek into the product facility at Tortilleria Sabinas as we walked in. The production line was shut down for the day, but we were able to see most of the facility where they made their corn and flour tortillas and corn tortilla chips. Judith offered to get us a bag of chips and we picked out a bag of the regular tortilla chips (they also had variations of spicy chips) to take with us. It was a large bag of very fresh chips in a heavy paper bag that you could re-close time and time again. The chips were still fresh tasting up to 10 days after we bought them.
From the tortilla factory, Judith took us across the street to one of the neighborhood's favorite stops, Dulceria Lapitas. Judith was quick to point out the irony of an iconic candy store situated next door to a dentist's office. (see map)
Dulceria Lapitas featured both Mexican and American candies - many old time favorites from both countries. But the most interesting aspect of the place were the large number of pinatas in all shapes, sizes and colors that they had to offer. The brightly colorful pinatas and party decorations gave the candy store a happy feel. While we declined getting any candy, Judith picked up a couple things for herself before we left.
As we walked out of the candy store, Judith asked, "Do you like carnitas?"
Oh my GOD! Of course, I LOVE carnitas. Cindy said, "I think carnitas is his middle name!" She pointed to a place just down and across the street with a big "Carnitas" sign out front. It was called Carnitas Uruapan and basically does nothing BUT pork carnitas and pork-based foods. (see map)
Carnitas Uruapan has been around since 1975 when Inocencio Carbajal opened the establishment serving food that was reflective of the street markets in his home town of Uruapan in the state of Michoacan in Mexico. Carnitas are huge in Michoacan and after Carbajal immigrated to Chicago he decided to open up a restaurant that served the beloved carnitas, pork ears and pig skins that he had been preparing along side his father and brother in their family butcher shop since he was 13.
With not a lot of money, Carbajal had a prized possession - a medal of the Virgin of Guadalupe. As he decided to sell it, he prayed to the Our Lady of Guadalupe to bless his choice of selling the medal. With the money he received for the medal, he bought the first piece of equipment for his restaurant. (Judith pointed out the number of portraits of Our Lady of Guadalupe - also known as the Virgin of Guadalupe - around the neighborhood. "She is the Mexican equivalent to the Virgin Mary," she explained to us.)
Inocencio Carbajal has turned the day-to-day operations over to his son Marcos and he spends about half the year back in his hometown of Uruapan. Marcos has been associated with the restaurant nearly his whole life - the Carbajal's lived in the apartment above the restaurant.
The pork carnitas were on a grill in the front window of the restaurant. The menu is basically all pork at Carnitas Uruapan, and they use ALL of the pig.
Now, I thought this was the place we were going to get lunch but Judith brought us in to just buy a pound of chopped carnitas to take home with us. "They'll keep fine on the way home," she told us. But we did have a bag cooler that we could put them in. (As a further surprise after we got home, I found that Judith also bought us a small container of Carnitas Uruapan's housemade salsa that had a great spicy taste to it. It went well with our Sabinas corn chips.)
I was telling Judith about El Mexicano, a place that we have in the Quad Cities that has outstanding carnitas. (Click here to see the entry on El Mexicano.) I explained to her that El Mexicano was located in a grocery store. "In fact," I said as we walked down the street. "Some of the best Mexican meals we've had have been in Mexican grocery stores."
She said, "Well, you're in luck. We're having lunch at a Mexican grocery store." We went to the corner of 18th and Wood (see map) and went into a building painted in bright red that had no signage on the front of the place. In the windows were signs for grocery items - the only way one would know that it was a grocery store from the outside. I asked Judith what the name of the store was and she said, "I don't know. 'Mexican Grocery Store', I guess. I mean, they've changed hands three times in the last two years (they were most recently known as the Meztisoy Market), but the food they serve is still consistently good."
It looked like a grocery store from the bins of produce to the meat counter in the back. They had all different types of Mexican peppers at the grocery store along with Mexican food staples. The meat case also housed a number of different types of cheese with the meats.
Off to the side of the place near the meat counter was a small seating area for the restaurant. The guy running the meat counter was also our server for the restaurant. There were three fixed bench seats/tables and a couple of tables with chairs.
The menu wasn't extensive - tacos, burritos, torts and gorditas - but the different types of meat and fillers for the tacos was quite extensive. Carne asida (steak), ground beef, chicken, chorizo (Mexican sausage), barbecoa (barbecued pork), camarones (shrimp), and potatoes were some of the fillings available for the tacos. Many of the fillings were available for the burritos, tortas and gorditas, as well. If you wanted to try a little bit of everything, the place had a Platillos al Gusto meal that featured all four of the items.
Figuring that most of the tacos that we've had at similar Mexican restaurants were usually served on small corn tacos, Cindy and I both order a couple of tacos. I went with an al Pastor (pork) taco and a cochinita taco. Judith had to help me out on that one - cochinita is a marinated pork that is found primarily in the Yucatan peninsula region of Mexico.
Cindy went with a carne asida taco and a barbecoa taco. We each got them Mexican-style with fresh chopped cilantro and onions. The tacos were excellent. The only problem is that they were appreciably bigger than other tacos that we've experienced in the past. They were packed with meat, and I really enjoyed the seasonings they used in the cooking process.
Judith got a couple of gorditas - I forget what she had for meat in them. She had them filled with lettuce and chopped tomatoes. She also got a rice milk to go with her gorditas. I've had rice milk before - it's all right. Cindy tried some of Judith's rice milk and she thought it was good. Judith was able to eat one of her gorditas and she got a box to take the other one home for another meal at some point.
The dessert consisted of the two small cakes we got back at the Bombon Cake Shop. The coffee-flavored cake - which got squished in the sack by accident - was a tres leche (triple milk) mixture with the batter soaked in evaporated milk, condensed milk and heavy cream. It was so tasty, but OH!, so rich. However, the Rompope cake was just to die for. The Mexican egg nog that the cake was soaked in left a little bit of liquid in the bottom of the cake tin. Encouraged by Judith, I picked up the tin and drank the liquid after we finished both cakes. I'm not big on egg nog, but this had a wonderful and rich taste to it.
By the time we were done with lunch, we were full. Judith offered to take us to a Mexican ice cream place just down the street that she said was usually the highlight of the culinary tour, but we were so stuffed from the lunch and the little cakes that were so decadently rich that we declined the offer. She said, "Next time you come here, you've got to try Paleteria Las Tarascas. (see map) It's as authentic of a Michoacan ice cream place that you have around here." Michoacan-style ice cream is made or served with fresh fruit.
Another place that Judith talked highly of all during the tour, but then reminded herself that it was closed on Monday is the National Museum of Mexican Art located a block south of 18th between Wood and Damen. (see map) She said it was worth the time to go through the place.
She took us around the corner of the grocery store we had eaten at and pointed out the museum to us. And then she said, "Oh, good! She's here today!" She took us across the street to where a little Hispanic lady was serving roasted corn off of a Weber grill that was attached to the back of a three-wheeled bike. Only Judith said that the lady doctored the corn to make it even better.
This lady would take a roasted ear of corn, then slather it with mayonnaise. Then she would take liquid butter and pour it over the corn. The next thing she did was to dip the corn in cotija cheese, a Mexican cheese that is sort of like Parmesan cheese only with a more salty taste. Then she finished it off with a chili powder. The Mexican term for this is an elote (pronounced ee-low-tee). It can be eaten on the stick or the corn kernels can be cut off the cob and served in a bowl.
First of all, I was more enamored with the way that she had the bottom part of the Weber grilled attached to the back of her three-wheeled bike. I studied how she had it attached with a dozen different possibilites of why I would LOVE a Weber grill equipped bike at some point. But when she began to make one of her elote specialities for a young man who was standing there, I stopped to watch her in action.
As she was applying the mayo, then the butter, the cojita cheese, then the chili powder, the young man was giving us a play-by-play of all the steps she goes through to make one of the elotes. He said, "Oh, man, these things are just excellent. Whenever she comes around here, I make a beeline to get one." It appeared that she was a very popular person - a small crowd had gathered and people were pulling up in cars to order out their windows. After thanking the young guy for allowing us to get a picture of the finished product, he started to walk away. The lady yelled something to him in Spanish and he quickly turned around and came back. "I was so into telling you about these things that I forgot to pay her," he laughingly told us. "But she knows me. She would have tracked me down."
The tour lasted well over three hours. Judith told us that she usually only does tours for two to two and a half hours depending upon how much the people are into the tour. Just before the parking meters are going to expire, she usually gauges whether the people want to continue by asking them if they need to fill the meter. We TOLD her we needed to feed our meter because we didn't want the tour to end. Judith was entertaining, full of great information, was a bit of a classy broad - and I mean that in the most respectful big-city way - and showed us a lot about an area of Chicago that we didn't know little - if any - about before we met up with her that day. She does other tours - one an Indian tour and the other an "Argyle" tour that has nothing to do with Scotland - it's an area in Chicago where there's a fusion of Asian cuisine up and down the street. Vietnamese is most prevalent cuisine, but there's also Chinese, Burmese and Thai food restaurants. I hate to admit it - I've never had Vietnamese food before in my life! Since I confessed to Judith during our lunch that I had never had Vietnamese food before, she told me a couple days after our tour that she is certain that I'd love the Argyle tour. And we'll probably make a date for the tour with Chicago Walking Tours and with Judith when we decide to do it. The Pilsen tour was absolutely fabulous. I told my wife that this year for my birthday, she got a gold star for my present.