Pilsen has something for everyone. While originally filled with immigrants from Germany and the Czech Republic, today’s neighborhood has been shaped by Mexican and Mexican-American families that have called Pilsen home for generations. So whether you want a giant plate of carnitas and chicharron, conchas and fruit-filled empanadas, or some mole that might change your life, you’ll find it all here. And if a Vietnamese tasting menu sounds ideal to you, well, that’s an option as well. Here are 16 of our favorite restaurants in the neighborhood.
Panadería Nuevo Leon
Panaderia Nuevo Leon has been a neighborhood favorite for almost 50 years, but the intoxicating smell of freshly baked bread that hits you as soon as you walk by is just the beginning. Stop in and pick up a tray, a set of tongs, and browse the overwhelming selection of pastries to pick out your two or 20 favorites. This family-owned spot carries a wide variety of Mexican pan dulce, and your tray is sure to be full of fresh cookies, conchas, fruit-filled empanadas, and more by the end of your tour around the bakery. If you’re looking for something savory to take home, they also sell a dozen flavors of homemade tortillas like spinach, chile de arbol, and black bean jalapeño.
This might be the best spot in Pilsen for mole. In fact, La Esperanza won the 2021 People’s Choice Award at Mole de Mayo, a summer event that gives local Pilsen cooks and restaurants a chance to highlight their best recipes, with two winners crowned at the end of the fest. The owner, Rosita Camarena, takes influence from her mother’s cooking and uses chiles imported directly from Mexico in everything from their chilaquiles de mole for breakfast to her classic lunchtime chicken mole. Their extensive menu also caters to vegans with a section devoted to plant-based chorizo, enchiladas, and quesadillas. Note: They’re also BYOB.
Our appreciation for 5 Rabanitos grows every time we come here - and we come here a lot. This Mexican restaurant has a long menu filled with delicious food. We like the tacos, anything from the huge vegetarian menu, the short ribs in mole manchamanteles, the torta ahogada, enchiladas - basically everything. Come on a weeknight for a casual date night, or on the weekend with a group of friends so you can share the entire menu.
It’s hard to definitively classify the food at S.K.Y., but everything is excellent. You can expect things like lobster dumplings in a buttery lemongrass broth, foie gras bibimbap, and hot and sour duck confit. The space has an industrial feel, with exposed ductwork and brick, and plays the kind of low-key indie rock music that will make you feel like you’re at a chill house party.
HaiSous serves Vietnamese food in a nicely designed modern space with really friendly service. You’re here for things like papaya salad, crispy chicken wings, and mussels in a fantastic coconut broth. Along with ordering a la carte, they also offer a $65 and a $40 family-style tasting menu. And if that isn’t enough for you, they even have Cà Phê Dá - Dang Good Wings, their cute cafe next door.
The giant display of chicharron by the door is a good indicator of how you should be ordering at Don Pedro - the carnitas, chicharron (clearly), and brain tacos are all excellent - get the mixed plate so you can sample a bunch of stuff. There’s always a line, and there are only a few tables inside, so plan on stopping by for a quick lunch or dinner.
Dusek’s is in Thalia Hall, and the food on their recently revamped menu is still good. Order the schnitzel, the roast chicken, or the oysters. Then go next door to Tack Room, where there’s live music on the weekends - both places are owned by the same people.
If La Luna’s bright orange facade isn’t enough to catch your attention, then the quesabirria or horchata espresso martinis should do the trick. This Latina-owned restaurant serves classic Mexican dishes like enchiladas, flautas, and carne asada, but also does a Sunday brunch with things like an excellent chihuahua cheese and egg-topped chorizo breakfast sandwich, which goes great with any of their micheladas. You can also stop by for Happy Hour from Tuesday-Thursday with $10 margaritas and $3 tacos - you might even catch some live music.
As if you needed another reason to enjoy a cocktail and some live music in the neighborhood, Pilsen Yards is here. This place rebranded from the former Monnie Burke’s and transformed into an expansive spot for Mexican street food like carrots al pastor and pina colada ceviche, along with plenty of cocktails to choose from. Their indoor/outdoor patio is a great place to spend a night out with a few drinks and listen to their live vinyl DJ sets that happen every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. But if you feel like having a drink with someone without having to yell over whatever music is being spun, head to The Alderman, the small bar located in the back of the restaurant.
Birrieria Reyes de Ocotlan
Birrieria Zaragoza, in Archer Heights, is our favorite place for goat tacos in Chicago. But this spot is a close second. The beef tacos are a solid order, too, but you’re mostly here for the goat (which also comes in stew form). Just come with cash - they don’t take credit cards.
An upbeat spot with a stage and live music throughout the week - plus some solid barbecue. Try to get here early, before the rib tips run out, and make sure you also order the brisket chili that comes with mac and cheese in it. Just don’t count on actually doing any dancing. If you eat the appropriate amount of barbecue, you’ll probably want to go home and sleep instead.
Kristoffer's Café & Bakery
Tres leches cake is all the rage at this place, and it absolutely lives up to the hype. This place is mainly a bakery, but you can also sit down with some coffee and a sweet snack from the short menu. It’s perfect if you like cake and need to get some work done - just don’t think you’ll be the only one with that idea, since there’s wifi and plenty of available outlets.
Even though it’s only been around since 2012, PI-zen is big on being a part of the neighborhood - it’s even named after the city in the Czech Republic that Pilsen’s name came from. There’s a mix of everything on the menu, from bone marrow to tacos to some fantastic burgers, and it’s a great spot for a weeknight meal or casual date.
Cafe Jumping Bean
Cafe Jumping Bean is a neighborhood institution that’s been around since 1994. It’s colorful, with lots of local artwork, and a popular spot for coffee, pastries, and sandwiches. Come here to study or before work for a grab-and-go breakfast. And when you do, try their Mexican hot chocolate and a mollete, Mexican bolillo bread sliced open and topped with refried beans, cheese, salsa, and avocado. Their second location, ‘L’ Cafecito, is hidden right under the Damen Pink Line station and is a quick, walk-up-only spot for coffee if you’re looking for an iced horchata before catching the train.
You might have noticed that Pilsen has a lot of great carnitas spots and Carnitas Uruapan is another one of them. It’s been around since 1975, is consistently busy, and there are no signs it’s slowing down anytime soon. Eating a whole plate of carnitas here is likely to slow you down, though. In a good way.