Friday, September 3, 2010

Culinary Tour of Chicago's Little Village

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Chicago is always full of so many surprises and treasures. Just when you think you know all about the city and have a good grasp of where to go for various types of eats, you find out about another place to check out. Well, over the past weekend, I hosted a culinary tour and taco crawl for friends and shared with them a few hidden gems in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago. If you are looking for seriously authentic, affordable and amazing Mexican eats, here's a neighborhood you'll need to visit...


Bounded by Western, Ogden, Kostner and I-55, the Chicago neighborhood of Little Village is known for its prosperous shopping areas that attract visitors and residents from all over Chicago. The neighborhood has such a strong hispanic population/influence that it's also known in Chicago as La Villita.

Over a thousand businesses make their home in Little Village which, despite its name, is actually one of the larger communities in Chicago. It's a very community- conscious part of the city, focused on a commitment its residents, their families and businesses. The Little Village Chamber of Commerce is a vital part of the community it serves, working hard to promote and extoll the virtues of La Villita.

We had a decent sized group of 18 folks. Our plan was to order a taco or small bites at each stop to pace ourselves. Our tour at taco crawl started at La Kermes, a large yet quaint restaurant. The minute you go in, you're welcomed by warm servers who speak little English, but you feel cozy nonetheless. Here, many of us had a taco from their menu. I ordered a typical carne asada (steak) to start off with and it was delicious! You could really taste the steak and the fresh accompaniments really made it tasty. This overflowing-with-goodness steak taco was $1.50...

Next stop on our tour was La Milagra, a popular company that makes tortilla products. Their products can be found all over Chicagoland and this location we visited is one of a few that makes tortillas in house. One side of the building  is a retail store and tortilla factory/distribution center.   Here is a picture of an employee pouring in fresh corn into a hopper which turns it into a mash that will eventually be formed into tortillas...

The other half of the building is a cafeteria style restaurant. Steam tables line one side of the restaurant featuring daily specials. A large grill for meats  and large griddle for warming up tortillas can be seen from the window on one side of the restaurant...

However, the one thing that caught my eye were the various sweet and savory tamales offered,  each for $1. I decided to try a sweet tamale, namely the pineapple and pecan. It was delicious and the texture and flavor was similar to a sweet corncake with some toasted pecans for additional flavor and texture...

Next up, a stop at El Pollo Feliz. This restaurant is quite hidden in a strip mall. Despite the fairly obnoxious signage, it gets lost among other storefronts since it's tucked away behind a large parking lot. This is a place you don't go for ambiance or atmosphere... this is a place to get yourself some ridiculously good (and cheap!) chicken dinners.

Our group stuck with our plan to order tacos once again. Here, I got a little more adventurous and ordered a beef tongue taco ($1.50). If you haven't had one before, I'd recommend it. It may not sound appealing, but the meat is extremely tender and has a strong flavor of beef...

And if you're a fan of Coca-Cola, here's a place to try Mexican Coca-Cola ($2,50), which is sweetened with cane sugar and not corn syrup, which the US version has...

By this point, our group was ready for some sweets to indulge in so our next stop on the tour was one we were excited about. La Baguette Bakery is popular throughout Chicagoland. Their Mexican pastries are sold all over the area in various grocery stores, neighborhood markets and is especially well known within the Latin community for their special occasion cakes. The minute we walked in, we were greeted with the sweet smells and drool worthy sights of sweets. There were cases of ridiculously delicious looking cakes, various tres leches dessert cups, tarts, pastries and confections...

You can't miss the rows upon rows of various cookies, cupakes, muffins, doughnuts and Mexican pastries and breads as well. Up against the back of the bakery were walls of various breads, all made in house.

As for prices, most everything were less than $1.00... a total bargain!

We most certainly got a sugar rush after visiting the bakery. By then, we also hit our taco wall and were pretty full despite only stopping in at 3 places to eat. We decided to skip the 2 other taquerias on our tour route and headed straight to our final destination, Mi Tierra Restaurant...

I've been in my share of restaurants but hands down, this restaurant is the most colorful and lively place I've been in a long, long time. I'll let the pictures I took of parts of the restaurant speak for themselves...

Aside from the colorful decor, we came right in time to enjoy the mariachi band that was playing. I especially loved listening to the band while sipping away on a mango margarita (the first alcoholic drink I've had in 10 months - yes!!)...

One thing our group really enjoyed is how the restaurant had a grand presentation to celebrate birthdays. There were quite a few folks that came into the restaurant to celebrate with family and friends. This is not the place where you can expect disgruntled waitstaff to come by your table and mumble a weak and lame 'happy birthday' song that lacks any enthusiasm. Oh no... these celebrants were presented with a large mini cake topped with a giant sparkler candle and were given a big cowboy hat to wear. Not only that, all celebrants were asked to join in a big 'Happy Birthday' parade carrying large, long balloons. The celebrants were lined up and the balloons were used to make a little canopy for all of them to walk under.... all while the mariachi band sang. Now that's the way a restaurant should celebrate birthdays!

All in all, it was a fabulous tour full of culture and culinary eats! I'm looking forward to next month when I host another neighborhood taste tour of my favorite city...

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