An Afternoon Exploring... Pilsen

This weekend was one of those special times for us when my husband and I get to hang out together, just the two of us, while our sons are busy playing at their grandparents' house. All parents know that this is indeed a treat when you can kick back and relax (and hopefully catch up on some sleep) while your children are having the time of their lives being spoiled silly by their adoring grandparents.

Knowing how much of a rarity this is for us, we took full advantage of our time "off" and enjoyed exploring the city together. But, as parents, our thoughts are never far from our children, and of course, they still found a way to dictate our activities. (How do they do that?) Yes, even when faced with having some time to ourselves, we still talked and thought about our sons - a lot.

This time, our kid-free city explorations took us to Pilsen on Chicago's Lower West Side, which is home to a large Mexican American and burgeoning artist community in the city's Lower West Side. While we roamed the streets, explored the shops and sampled the treats and treasures of the neighborhood, we plotted where we would take our sons on our next visit there as a family. Our list started out small, but quickly grew as we turned down more streets, ventured into more stores and restaurants, and became further enamored with, and caught up in, the beauty of Pilsen.

Here are a few of the places we "scouted" out this weekend and can't wait to go back with our sons:

1) Restaurants and Bakeries.

- Nuevo Leon Restaurant (1515 W. 18th Street). Whenever we go by Nuevo Leon, there is a long line of people out front anxiously awaiting their turn to come inside and sample the Mexican restaurant's delights. It is the one Mexican restaurant everyone knows, recommends to others and tries to eat at (despite the long lines). Its extensive menu includes tacos, enchiladas, tamales, burritos and more, as well as one of our favorites, chilaquiles.

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- Cuernavaca Restaurant (1158 W. 18th Street). After acknowleding that most people who visit Pilsen go to eat at Nuevo Leon Restaurant, a local storeowner recommended we try one of his favorite restaurants - Cuernavaca Restaurant. The smaller, more "authentic" restaurant offers dishes like fajitas, burritos, tortas, seafood and more.

- Bombon Bakery (1508 W. 18th Street). The cakes in the window at the Pilsen outpost of Bombon Bakery will take your breathe away and make it impossible not to venture into the store. When we entered Bombon, we were immediately attracted to the cases of cupcakes and started plotting which ones our sons would most likely order and devour first.

- Xocoatl (2214 S. Wolcott Avenue). I've never met a kid who didn't love churros - and I'm sure that will go double for the churros served up by Xocoatl, a churro factory located on a side street not to far from the heart of Pilsen (with other locations throughout the city). At the counter, Xocoatl has a machine ready and waiting to pipe flavors like vanilla, chocolate and cream cheese into the middle of your churros. Xocoatl features a rotating list of special churros flavors of the day like apple, nutella, pineapple and dulce de leche too. Take it from us, the finished product smells and tastes amazing!

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2) Stores.

- Giron Books (1443 W. 18th Street). As you know from my previous post, I've been on the hunt for new foreign language bookstores to explore since Europa closed its doors back in September - and Giron Books in Pilsen is on my list of other bookstores to check out. The store is jammed back with Spanish-language books for children and adults alike, which will be sure to make for hours of fun looking through and selecting new books to enjoy together.

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- Ochoa Sporting Goods (1749 W. 18th Street). Our sons are big soccer fans and love to collect and wear jerseys from soccer teams around the world. As soon as we saw Ochoa Sporting Goods, we knew we had to go inside and check out their soccer jersey selection - and we were not disappointed! The store boasts several floors of sporting goods - and a great selection of soccer jerseys and gear. One of the owners who was there that day told us that Ochoa was the first Hispanic-owned soccer store to open in the U.S. - and he also filled us in on some of the history of the store, its soccer-playing and loving owners, and the neighborhood. It was well worth a trip in to pick out some jerseys and also get great insights into soccer and Pilsen overall.

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- Tortilleria Sabinas (1509 W. 18th Street). I love corn tortillas - the smell, the look and the taste. And, I love that you can buy them straight from a factory right in the heart of Pilsen at Tortilleria Sabinas. The general public is welcome to come in to look at the equipment they use to make and package tortillas and you can buy some to take home as well. On our visit there, we walked out with one pack of corn tortillas for .30 cents! We would have loved to buy more if had been heading right back to our car.

3) Cultural Institutions and Events.

- National Museum of Mexican Art (1852 W. 19th Street). The National Museum of Mexican Art, situated in Harrison Park just off of 18th Street, promotes the art and cultural of Mexico and its people around the world. I've always wanted to take my sons to their Family Sunday programs that take place each weekend from 12 - 2 p.m. (reservations are usually required). During that time, families can tour the galleries and create art together. (Admission to the museum is always free; there is a materials fee for some of the family programs.)

- Pilsen Open Studios, Sat., Oct. 20 and Sun., Oct. 21 (Pilsen's 18th Street Corridor). Each year Pilsen hosts an annual art walk that takes place in studios, galleries and cafes along the neighborhood's 18th Street corridor - and it's happening this weekend! Colibri Studio/Gallery, located at 2032 W. 18th Street, is the central location for maps, tours and information on the event.

- Murals (all over Pilsen's many buildings and in its alleyways). The murals found throughout Pilsen are simply amazing. We could not help but stop and enjoy each one we stumbled upon during our visit there.

I was struck by the beauty, colors and emotions of this mural we spotted in an alleyway.

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This mural reminded me of some of the art we saw during our recent trip to Paris.

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I know our sons will love to see this superhero-filled mural found on the side of a building right along 18th Street.

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Coming Back to Pilsen... With Our Sons

Our afternoon spent exploring Pilsen was an amazing one for us. It offered us a rare chance to duck in and out of stores, have in-depth conversations with people, and sample Mexican delicacies - without any interuptions from our sons! But, we can't wait to go back with them and experience it all together.

We know they'll enjoy all that we selected for them this past weekend, but I'm sure they'll also find a way to point out other new sights, sounds, places and experiences we totally overlooked. By doing it all together, we'll help open our collective eyes and minds to all that this wonderful neighborhood has to offer and helps us to establish amazing memories and traditions that we'll never forget.

We just hope our next visit will be on a day without rain, thunderstorms and tornado warnings like we had on our last visit. Although, I must admit, the puddles and leaves only helped to add to some of the neighborhood's unique art.

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Do you live in Pilsen or have you visited there lately? If yes, what are some of your favorite stores, restaurants, bakeries, galleries or studios to visit? I'd love to hear your suggestions!

If you like this story, you also should check out my family-friendly visit guides for other Chicago ethnic neighborhoods:

- Andersonville (Swedish neighborhood)
Greek Town (Greek neighborhood)
Little Italy (Italian neighborhood)

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