The Run Down
We’re headed to Pilsen for this guide and doing a neighborhood walkabout to catch some of the sights and sounds of the area. The neighborhood is constantly changing and if you haven’t been here in awhile, then you’ll probably find something new the next time you visit. On the docket today is a Vietnamese coffee, a community bookshop, a local artist shop, a massive plate of deep-fried carnitas, and finally some churros to end the day. Here are the details.
1. Egg Coffee @ Ca Phe Da
2. Read a Book @ Pilsen Community Book Shop
3. Buy Art @ Pilsen Outpost
4. Carnitas @ Carnitas Uruapan
5. Churros @ Xurro
1. Ca Phe Da
We’re starting the day at a Ca Phe Da, one of the many new places popping up in the neighborhood. It’s a small cafe serving French/Vietnamese pastries, banh mi sandwiches, and Vietnamese iced coffee. It’s owned by Chicago chef extraordinaire, Thai Dang, who also owns HaiSous, the formal Vietnamese eatery right next door.
When you walk inside you’ll find a cozy spot with 5 long tables and stools along the bar. For folks looking for a new place to get some work done late into the night, Ca Phe Da is open until midnight on Monday through Saturday.Now back to why we’re here. The coffee. Ca Phe Da literally translates to “iced coffee” in English and so expectations are high for this place. If you’ve never had a traditional Vietnamese iced coffee before, it’s usually made by pouring coffee grounds into a metal coffee filter. That filter is placed over a glass cup and then hot water is poured over the filter, which causes coffee to slowly drip to the bottom of the cup. You then mix in condensed milk and have yourself a party. It’s very easy to make so you can probably get a good one at any Vietnamese restaurant you go to — including at Ca Phe Da.
What most places don’t have, however, is this coffee egg custard concoction (pictured below) called “Ca Phe Trung,” which translates to “Egg Coffee.” The egg coffee comes straight from the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam where it’s been a popular cafe drink since the 1950s. It’s Vietnamese coffee with a foamy egg custard sitting on top. To drink this, whisk everything together and then enjoy this velvety smooth and sweet drink.Even though we’re going to get food later, while you’re here, you can try one of their banh mi sandwiches for the full Vietnamese street food and drink experience.
2. Pilsen Community Book Shop
Right across the street from Ca Phe Da is the Pilsen Community Book Shop. This is not any old shop, but one where the mission is to directly support Pilsen students through literacy programs and book donations.
For all you book lovers out there, this place will feel like heaven to you. The walls are lined from floor to ceiling with a constantly changing inventory of books. You’ll find new releases and dusty classics donated by folks in Chicago and beyond. A children’s section is located in the back if you’re bringing little ones along for this neighborhood tour.
3. Pilsen Outpost
Pilsen has a vibrant artist community and a lot of the work from the community can be found at Pilsen Outpost. It’s one part artist gallery, one part retail space, and another part event venue. For original and local works of art, this is the place to visit.
The picture below reminds me of somebody but not sure who.
On the day we visited, the staff was preparing for an artist showcase event the next day. They always have an interesting mix of pop-up shows, workshops, and exhibitions they host in their space. Keep a lookout on their Facebook page for interesting events like that.
Unlike most art galleries, you don’t need to drop big stacks of cash to support a local artist. There are lots of prints, handmade goods, and street wear for purchase.
4. Carnitas Uruapan
If you didn’t have a snack at Ca Phe Da, then you’ve probably worked up an appetite at this point. Lucky for us, the next stop is quite possibly one of the best known carnitas spots in Chicago. We’re at Carnitas Uruapan, which is about a 10 minute walk from Pilsen Outpost.
This tiny spot has been serving the neighborhood for over 40 years and they’ve been using that time to perfect the hell out of frying some melt-in-your-mouth pork. On the weekends, you can expect a line out the door, so if you can try to time your visit at an off-peak hour, you might save yourself a bit of grief.
For most carnitas places, you’ll order by the pound. If you’re not super experienced ordering this type of cuisine, Carnitas Uruapan makes it a little easier and has options to order per taco instead of per pound. Here are some notes to keep in mind when you visit.
– The best deal is their value meal deal for $7.50. It comes with a 1/2 pound of carnitas, beans, chiccarrones, a tacos dorados (fried taco), and a bunch of tortillas. It makes about 6 tacos and will fill up 2 people.
– In addition to your order, you’ll get a smorgasbord of fresh salsa, peppers, lime, onion, and cilantro top off your tacos.
– They only open until 5pm on weekdays and 6pm on weekends.
We end the day with dessert, and a proper send off is a visit to Xurro for some churros. They have a few locations in Pilsen and in the Greater Chicago area, but we’re lucky because this one is right across from Carnitas Uruapan.
After filling up on pork, waddle across the street for some sugary goodness.
You can get this churros plain or with a mix of different fillings. For me, the vanilla filling churro tops them all. These delicious and airy treats are $1.50 a piece. A dozen, however, is only $12. That comes out to $1 a piece. If my math checks out, I’m pretty sure you’re losing money if you don’t buy a dozen.