DeColores Mexican Restaurant is the worst-kept culinary secret in Pilsen. Shortly after the eatery opened, reviewers began to shout the praises of its family-style Mexican dishes; Chicago magazine even placed DeColores on its 2010 list of the Best New Restaurants, lauding the guacamole as “reason enough for a trip to Pilsen.” The restaurant continued its meteoric rise by earning Bib Gourmand awards in the Michelin Guide Chicago in 2011, 2012, and 2013.
The Reyes family members behind DeColores Mexican Restaurant choose to keep the menu humble, basing many of the dishes on closely guarded family recipes that span generations. Made from a blend of 20 ingredients plied from Aunt Alicia, the menu’s rich, chocolate-based mole won the People’s Choice award at Pilsen’s 2012 Mole de Mayo festival and cook-off. The homestyle flavors of the tampiqueña—grilled skirt steak served with a queso chihuahua enchilada—managed to catch Chicago magazine’s attention yet again, earning a place on the publication’s 2010 list of its 30 Favorite Mexican Dishes in Chicago.
Not every dish comes from the Reyes recipe book, though. The restaurant regularly invites neighborhood residents to submit their own interpretations of traditional Mexican staples, honoring any standouts with spots on the menu. This vibrant community spirit radiates from DeColores’ very walls, which routinely change to accommodate new pieces of Mexican-themed works by area painters. Further supporting the artists of Pilsen, the sound system plays recordings of local musicians between dramatic readings of the restaurant’s reservation policy.
Salud's extensive selection of 100% agave tequilas recast the cactusy libation as something to be sipped and savored, pairing its earthy flavors with a menu of fresh, upscale Mexican-American cuisine. While discussing flavor-notes from the more than 75 tequilas, nosh on savory antojitos such as a trio of original, pineapple, and chipotle pumpkin-flavored guacamoles ($12), or dip chorizo-stuffed cremini mushrooms into a chipotle ranch sauce ($8). Temper the urge to crunch on unyielding flatware with a plate of Salud nachos ($8), then move on to heartier fare including tacos topped with grilled skirt steak ($9), slow-roasted pork belly ($7.50), or sautéed shrimp ($9), each with their own flavor-specific suite of accompaniments. Those craving meatier mouthfuls can sink teeth into burger-like tortas layered with delectable accessories such as salsa and jalapeño bacon to outfit palates in savory style ($9–$11).
In addition to subtle, 2-ounce pours of blancos, oak-aged reposados, and sage-like anejos, Salud proffers selections of fine cervezas, non-tequila liquors such as rum and cachaca, and mixed beverages such as mojitos ($9–$9.50) or a suite of margaritas ($8–$10). Regular events provide chef Jose Gonzalez a chance to craft special-tasting menus highlighting the beverages' unique effects on taste buds, which range from making them tingle to inspiring exuberant recitations of Keats' Ode to a Nightingale. As the night moves on, ditch the smooth comfort of a booth for the free-flailing expressionism of light dancing within the chic, dimly lit space.
If the weather outside is even barely tolerable, chances are the patio at Big Star is packed. Twinkling globe lights and tinny announcements of orders ready at the walk-up window waft over the patio's metal tables, which serve as perfect perches to people-watch while sampling the simple menu of innovative tacos. Executive Chef Paul Kahan—of avec, Blackbird, the Violet Hour, and other Chicago mainstays—riffs on Mexican street food with al pastor tacos topped with pineapple, beer-battered tilapia tacos with cabbage, and queso fundido with housemade chorizo. Scores of whiskeys and bourbons, which are handpicked by staffers during trips to Kentucky, are poured as the $3 shot of the day, or stirred into specialty cocktails such as the Five and Dimer with drams of allspice, apple cider, honey, and lime. An equally comprehensive collection of tequilas and mezcals adds bite to drinks such as the Big Star margarita, which mixes Lunazul Blanco tequila, Vida mezcal, Marie Brizard orange curacao, and lime. Throughout the year in the main dining room—whose concrete and metal evoke the space's former life as an auto shop—patrons clamor around the rough-hewn wooden bar, spin on stools, or pile into simple wooden booths.
Today, Tecalitlan Restaurant has enough space to seat 140 people. But it wasn't always that big?before it was a villa-themed eatery with hand-carved chairs, exposed brick walls, and mounted steer horns, it only had seven tables. That was back in 1973, when the Garcia family first opened the place. It would expand slowly but surely over the years, just like the surrounding Ukrainian Village neighborhood or a hot-air balloon inflated by a bike pump. As it grew, it gathered followers of all stripes: friends from down the street, CitySearch readers, and star athletes such as Bobby Simmons, Alexi Ramirez, and John Lucas among other NFL, NBA, and MLB players.
Loyal patrons still visit for the bowls of home-made chips and salsa, as well as glasses of 3G margaritas and sizzling platters of tacos, fajitas, and burritos. In fact, Tecalitlan burritos, which the Chicagoist named one of the nine best burritos in Chicago, have become such a fan favorite that diners have been known to mail them to out-of-state friends and family.
Sustainable, farm-fresh ingredients transformed into Mexican small plates. That’s what separates Chilam Balam from other tapas restaurants. It’s also what garnered owner Soraya Rendon’s creation—fortified by the talents of executive chef Natalie Oswald—the highly coveted Bib Gourmand award from the 2013 Michelin Guide. Tucked a few steps below ground on Broadway Avenue, this cozy BYOB Lakeview retreat cultivates ingredients exclusively from farms in Illinois and Wisconsin, all in an effort to preserve the earth and nurture the local community. The seasonal menu changes every month or so, but may herald items such as fried-squash risotto, roasted lobster over purple potatoes, and crispy flautas stuffed with chicken thighs and drizzled with chipotle sauce. No matter what Chef Oswald serves, customers get to enjoy it amid the warmth of vibrant yellow and orange walls, juxtaposed by exposed brick and sleek black tables.
Every four–six weeks, Cemitas Puebla's owner and chef, Tony Anteliz, sends a family member to Mexico to gather ingredients such as chipotle peppers and giant cinnamon sticks. He relies on time-tested family recipes honed in Puebla, Mexico to assemble these imported ingredients into sandwiches, tacos, and salsas that have been praised in the Chicago Tribune and on WTTW 11’s Check, Please!. Food Network's Diners, Drive-ins and Dives highlighted the restaurant’s signature cemita sandwich: sesame-seed-bread laden with fresh oaxaca cheese, papalo—a fragrant herb grown in Tony's mother's garden—house-stewed chipotles, and a choice of meats such as breaded pork and carne asada. Inspired by Lebanese shawarmas, tacos arabes begin with layers of pork shoulder and onion skewered on a rotisserie. The stack of meat rotates as slowly as a ferris wheel being ridden by a herd of elephants before a member of the open-air-kitchen staff shaves off tender meat and tucks it into pita-like tortillas.