Abuelo's Mexican Grill | $
Brothers Angel and Hugo Gomez have transformed a grungy storefront across from the Damen Pink Line stop into a sparkling sandwich shop wallpapered with Latin American record jackets and National Geographic covers. Sopes, tacos, burritos and tortas are well conceived and delicious, demonstrating fine attention to detail. The chorizo sope is a beautiful construction, a soft masa platform topped with spicy meat and artfully mounded with colorful cabbage; shrimp in tacos are fried to tempura laciness, splashed with crema, and dabbed with not-too-hot-but-flavorful salsa. The menu is pan-Mexican: the Gomezes are from Cuernavaca, in central Mexico, and they serve cecina from their native Morelos as well as burritos in the flour tortillas of northern Mexico, dressed with the pickled red onions of southern Mexico. Entrees, served with griddled vegetables, have a lot of personality. A torta of marinated steak is griddled medium rare and juicy with sweet chile morron, and cochinita pibil yields cinnamon hints and more dimension than you'd expect. Afterward, tequila mousse and red velvet cupcakes. BYO. —David Hammond 2007 S. Damen, 312-733-0329. Breakfast, lunch: daily; dinner: Mon-Sat.
Carnitas Don Pedro | $
The Sunday-morning pork rush at Carnitas Don Pedro presents a trial of forbearance appropriate for the after-church crowd. First one must worm one's way between two counters and a handful of small tables to the back of the line, which may snake into the kitchen, where sturdy men are stirring giant brass vats of roiling pig parts with paddles. Whether you're in the line for a table or the line for takeout, you'll be inching forward through a scrum of customers, cooks, and waitresses. If you're taking out, you'll eventually return to the front of the store, where birria, barbacoa, menudo, brain tacos, and a piquant cactus salad are ordered on the right side; chicharrones, fresh chorizo, and mountains of glistening, steaming carnitas on the left. Specify meat, fat, offal, or some of each and the man with the long knife chops it, piles it high in a cardboard boat, wraps it tight in butcher paper, then hands you a sizable snack to help you fight the urge to break into the package on the way home. At $6.50 a pound, the well-seasoned carnitas here are among my favorites in the city—the high turnover ensures they're hot and juicy, and they come with a brilliantly flavored dark green salsa flecked with plenty of red chile. —Mike Sula 1113 W. 18th, 312-829-4757. Breakfast, lunch: daily.
Ciao Amore Ristorante | $$$
With most entrees between $16 and $22, Ciao Amore offers a high-value, high-quality dining experience, and is BYO with no corkage fee. Chef Cesar Pineda responded enthusiastically to our request to just bring whatever was looking good. A salad of green beans, mozzarella, oregano, and garlic dressed in balsamic had marvelously simple flavors. Ciao Amore's zuppa Barese—the chef's mother is a native of Bari—was a rich and substantial cream soup of hard-boiled egg, noodles, and potato. Vegan-friendly minestrone was more like a dense vegetable stew infused with roasted garlic, a savory take on a classic. Ethereal house-made gnocchi with cheese and pesto were draped in a fantastically lush spinach cream sauce. Osso buco had delicate texture and sturdy taste and, laid on a bed of cavatelli splashed with a light vegetable-studded tomato sauce, was beautifully balanced. —David Hammond 1134 W. 18th, 312-432-9090, ciaoamoreristorante.com. Lunch: Tue-Fri; dinner: Sun, Tue-Sat. Open late: Fri & Sat till 11.
DeColores | $$
At DeColores the taquitos de papa (tiny tacos filled with mashed potato then fried golden) are deliciously inventive—draped with sugar beets and chayote in a tomato citrus sauce, they're crunchy and colorful. Other appetizers, unfortunately, weren't nearly as enjoyable: the posole was vapid and the ceviche that we'd hoped would be dominated by the taste of fresh fish was instead overwhelmed by orange marinade. Still, I'm not damning the place with faint praise when I say the chips were very good; too often the bowl of fried tortillas is a throwaway item that doesn't get enough attention, but here they make an effort to make them fresh and crisp. Featuring some decent beef, the tampiqueña was probably the best of the entrees. The staff and servers are very simpatico, and they seem to draw a sizable local crowd. DeColores is billed as a galeria, and the walls are lined with Mexican-themed artwork. —David Hammond 1626 S. Halsted, 312-226-9886. Lunch: Thu-Sat; dinner: daily. Open late: Sat till 11.
Delicias Mexicanas | $
For eight years, Guerrero-born Blanca Diaz sold Mexican hot dogs from her cart at 26th and Saint Louis, attracting a devoted neighborhood following. The street food, whose origins are disputed, consists of a hot dog wrapped in bacon and griddled, allowing the juiciness of the bacon to saturate the wiener. Toppings vary regionally, but Diaz's con todo gets grilled onion, both grilled and pickled jalapeños, tomatoes, mayo, mustard, and . . . ketchup. That's right—ketchup, the one condiment that's anathema to defenders of the traditional Chicago-style hot dog. At Diaz's brick-and-mortar place in Little Village the hot dog con tocino has pride of place at the top of the menu. Other offerings include tacos (including al pastor, cecina, and barbacoa), tortas, burritos, sopes, and soups, among them a killer posole available on weekends in red, green, or white versions. Though alcohol is prohibited at Delicias Mexicanas, its late-night hours and breakfast offerings (huevos, chilaquiles) make it a good candidate for a final stop after last call. —David Hammond 4148 W. 26th, 773-522-5009. Breakfast, lunch, dinner: daily. Open late: Fri-Sun till 3, other nights till midnight.
Kristoffer's Cafe & Bakery | $
Lactose intolerants, consider yourselves warned. The tastiest dessert at this Pilsen cafe is the traditional tres leches cake made with whole, condensed, and evaporated milk; no less than Rick Bayless says it's among the best he's ever had. Owners Carlos and Cristina Chavarria offer the classic vanilla rendition as well as a bouquet of variations, all startlingly moist. Cristina does the baking, a craft she learned while apprenticing at her sister's small home-based bakery in Guanajuato, Mexico. The tres leches recipe is her sister's, but Cristina's favorite dessert, flan with cheese, is her own creation. Made with cream cheese, it has an almost fluffy texture, like flan-flavored cheesecake. Besides breakfast, desserts, and Intelligentsia coffee, the menu offers standard sandwiches and salads, plus a couple of ethnic dishes. Tamales come in two forms: Mayan (wrapped in wet green banana leaves and filled with potatoes and chicken) and Mexican (bundled in the usual corn husks). —Anne Ford 1733 S. Halsted, 312-829-4150, kristofferscafe.com. Mon 7:30 AM-3 PM, Tue-Fri 7:30 AM-5 PM, Sat-Sun 8 AM-4 PM.
Nightwood | $$$
It's a testament to the Lula talent trust of Jason Hammel, Amalea Tshilds, and chef Jason Vincent, in tandem with designer Kevin Heisner, that Nightwood is a lot more than just Lula south. Heisner's sleek design, simultaneously spare and luxe, sets the tone, from the clean cubism of the outdoor patio to the surprisingly comfortable modern squiggles of the chairs. The main dining room is both warm and airy, its dark walnut and iron tones set off by light-colored ceiling beams and floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides. Behind it, a long counter runs the length of the open kitchen, where the kitchen crew, clad in casual gray T-shirts, tends the wood-fired grill that anchors the ever-changing menu. The simple yet sophisticated seasonal food mirrors the elegant surroundings. On my first visit I went with a party of five, so we managed to eat our way through half of that night's handwritten list. Some standouts included delicate grilled Wisconsin trout, half a juicy roast chicken complemented by peppery mustard greens, devastating pork belly, and a duck potpie whose rich flavors were teased out with a restrained, confident hand. There's a roster of creative house cocktails and craft beers, though Pabst Blue Ribbon ("Wisconsin, lager" also makes the cut. The extensive wine list is weighted toward sustainable and/or biodynamic small producers and, like the menu and the restaurant design, demonstrates an abundance of taste, consideration, and savvy planning. —Martha Bayne 2119 S. Halsted, 312-526-3385, nightwoodrestaurant.com. Dinner: Mon-Sat; Sun brunch. Open late: Mon-Sat till 11.
Nuevo Leon | $$
They serve a heap o' flour tortillas and meat in the northerly Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, and since 1962 this restaurant has done a fine job of doing the same. Tacos de sabinas are house-made white tortillas with a soft, crepelike consistency—they seem to melt around strips of seasoned steak. Frijoles con chorizo is a densely textured accompaniment worth every calorie. Carne a la tampiqueña is the classic skirt steak—with beans, enchilada, and guacamole, steak's soul mate. We really liked the guisado de puerco in salsa roja, a piquant stew with slow-cooked, chile-sauce-saturated pork. Pig also makes an appearance in tangy tamales. If you come earlier in the day, consider ordering some of the renowned breakfast chilaquiles or machacado con huevo (seasoned steak in egg). You can BYO, or for a couple bucks get a cup of foamy, cinnamony Mexican cocoa. Cash only. —David Hammond 1515 W. 18th, 312-421-1517, nuevoleonrestaurant.com. Breakfast, lunch, dinner: daily. Open late: Mon-Sat till midnight, Sun till 11.
Ristorante al Teatro | $$
This dramatic spot in Pilsen's landmark Thalia Hall lives up to its name, with ornate tin ceilings, gleaming woodwork, glowing chandeliers, and painted stage drapes framing the mouth of the wood-burning oven. Slightly puffy and thin crusted, the pizzas come with 20 topping combos ranging from a simple margherita to the al Teatro, baby shrimp and prosecco bechamel on sauteed spinach. But our pizza rustica rated little applause: the crust was standard for its type, and the mix of filetto di pomodoro (fresh tomato pulp), partially caramelized onions, asparagus, mozzarella, and barely there shaved grana and oregano lacked pizzazz. We preferred an opener of tender grilled squid, tossed with a few arugula leaves, and a well-seasoned (if salty) secondo, galletto al Teatro, a small but mostly moist roasted half chicken with garlic, lemon, asparagus, and fancily cut potatoes. Tortelloni alla boscaiola, one of several handmade pastas, consisted of three large, flat mushroom-filled packets in an unapologetically rich cream sauce. Owner Dominick Geraci is also behind Ukrainian Village's Caffe Gelato, and not surprisingly the many gelati—24 flavors—are the best desserts. The wine list is small but offers quite a few bottles for less than $30, and there's a new outdoor patio. On Sundays from 11 AM to 3 PM there's a $10 all-you-can-eat brunch buffet featuring an omelet station, chilaquiles, fajitas, a pasta of the day, and more, plus $5 mimosas, $6 Bloody Marys, and $7 Micheladas. —Anne Spiselman 1227 W. 18th, 312-784-9100, alteatro.us. Lunch: Tue-Sat; dinner: Sun, Tue-Sat. Sun brunch. Open late: Fri & Sat till midnight.
Sabas Vega Carnitas Restaurant | $
Family owned since 1966, this former butcher shop now specializes in carnitas. Shimmering with fat, the drop-dead-gorgeous piggy bits are available seven days a week, but weekends are when Sabas Vega shines. Crowds line up starting at 6 AM for weekend-only treats of birria de chivo, tender goat accented with chile; barbacoa made exclusively from cheek meat and tender as a dying lover's last words; menudo, the perfect cure for that wild Saturday night; and cabecitas de chivo, steamed goat head. Rice and beans shine with flavor and glisten with lard, cactus salad is a flavorful counterpoint, and there's a full range of aguas frescas and soda, American and Mexican. The tables are comfortable and the waitresses efficient, and occasionally some strolling mariachis make the rounds. On the weekends—especially for those interested in the specials—I suggest arriving well before 9 AM. —Gary Wiviott 1808 S. Ashland, 312-666-5180. Breakfast, lunch: daily.
Simone's | $
Like it or not, hipsters have descended on Pilsen. Fortunately, people of all stripes can coexist at this funky tavern furbished largely with recycled materials—pinball machine wall hangings, wood and repurposed chem-lab tables from the old Westinghouse High School. A good part of the appeal is the drinks menu, which includes both microbrews and seasonal specialty cocktails. The pub grub-style menu offers above-average bites like potentially addictive black-bean-and-banana empanadas with cranberry aioli. White pizza topped with potato and rosemary is a tasty alternative. And not to be overlooked is the homey, house-made tomato soup, lightly pureed and topped with fresh basil and a house-made Parmesan crisp. A burger with jalapeño and guac and a grilled chicken sandwich slathered with salsa mayo nod to the neighborhood. For dessert there's tres leches cake in multiple flavors from Kristoffer's Cafe & Bakery. A performance space and a gallery featuring local art keeps the vibe eclectic. —Jennifer Olvera 960 W. 18th, 312-666-8601, simonesbar.com. Lunch, dinner: daily. Open late: Sat till 3, other nights till 2.
Skylark | $
My gawd, behold the Skylark Burger: big and juicy, topped with a dollop of tangy slaw, cheddar cheese, and beer-battered onion rings, and accompanied by an ample portion of supercrispy seasoned tater tots. These people know how to accessorize some grilled meat. The big bowl of mac 'n' cheese is worthy too. Rotating specials include a panko-crusted chicken breast with portobello mushroom gravy, mashed potatoes, and a side salad and Friday's regular fish-and-chips. This is better than bar food—it's great food that happens to be served in a bar. Cash only. —Susannah J. Felts 2149 S. Halsted, 312-948-5275, skylarkchicago.com. Dinner: daily. Open late: Sat till 3, other nights till 2.
Take Me Out | $
This little Pilsen storefront is the spawn of the Albany Park Chinese-Korean restaurant Great Sea, home of the dangerously habit-forming chicken wings known as "hot and saucys." I've long believed these chicken lollipops—frenched, battered, deep-fried, and slathered with a sweet, dark, oily chile sauce—could make for a profitable franchise all by themselves. So, apparently, did daughter of the house Karen Lim, whose menu is focused on "hotties," as she calls them. But her wings aren't exact replicas of her parents' masterworks. For one, they aren't frenched, which makes them messier and more difficult to eat. For another, at Great Sea the radius and ulna segments of the wing are discarded, but not here. Lim admitted to me that these measures save her thousands of dollars in labor, and if that's what it takes for her to make it, I don't mind so much. Sauces are available in mild, medium, and hot, and I didn't like it that the heat at the highest level is weaker than the default sauce at the mothership. Still, this is progress. BYO. —Mike Sula 1502 W. 18th, 312-929-2509, takemeoutchinese.com. Lunch, dinner: Sun, Tue-Sat.