Hidden Gems of Chicago

“Don’t playa hate. Just stay awake.”

Don't Playa Hate Just Stay Awake Messages Chicago Graffiti
Don’t Playa Hate Just Stay Awake

That was the first thing I saw when stepping off Chicago’s pink like at Damen Avenue. Spray-painted in blue on the side of someone’s house next to what appeared to be someone’s graffiti artist name, I instantly pulled my camera out. A rest in peace memo was a dour addition to the bright scribbles.

Just stay awake.

Those three words kept replaying in my mind.

A hot, muggy day in July, my itinerary called for the exploration of Chicago’s Mexican American neighborhood, known as Pilsen. The Pilsen murals, colorful public art distinguishing the neighborhood’s Mexican culture and creativity from other areas was one of the main draws for me. The National Museum of Mexican Art also drew me to the area.

One of the best parts about exploring Pilsen was the lack of tourists. I walked by a large park full of groups of friends and families celebrating the long weekend. There were soccer games, palm readings, bar-be-cues, yoga, and food carts selling everything from chicharrónes to tropical fruits doused with chile. The humid, summer air was thick, but there was nowhere in Chicago I felt more compelled to explore by foot than Pilsen.

hidden gems of chicago, street art, murals,Rahmaan Statik
Villa & Zapata by artist, Rahmaan Statik Barnes

Upon exiting the museum’s air-conditioned doors, my stomach grumbled, signaling lunchtime. I quickly “Googled” something within a mile and a half of our current location. My heart had something else in mind. Ironic, no? Heart using its mind – the struggle between head and heart? Okay, maybe I’m reaching, but during a portion of my stroll, I came across, “heart” written in beautiful script on the sidewalk. Smashed pizza on a sidewalk wasn’t the only theme of the weekend. My heart must have been signaling the Universe with its lust for the unknown, off the beaten path experience.

Chicago Sidewalk, Pilsen Neighborhood, heart
Following My heart, Chicago Sidewalk, Pilsen Neighborhood

The Way to My Heart is through My Stomach

I stumbled upon Xoctli, on the corner of Paulina Street and Cermak Road. It was a quaint hole in the wall, mom and pop, small lot where English was not spoken. I quickly had to channel my inner Peruvian traveler when ordering my arroz con camarones (rice with shrimp). I threw in some Spanglish where needed. Stylishly decorated in the kind of bright, colorful décor you may expect from a Mexican restaurant and a plethora of plant life, I had a feeling my lunch was going to be very, very good.

Perhaps the highlight of the experience was walking across the street to the liquor store to purchase a beer to go with the michelada that I ordered. Hence the giant, handwritten BYOB signs in all of the windows. The meal was stellar. In fact, I’d go as far to say it was one of the best meals I had while in Chicago. And I ate some great damn food over four days! Rick Bayless’s shrimp cocktail at Xoco was legit but didn’t stand a chance up against Xoctli’s rice with shrimp.

Hidden Gems of Chicago Mexican Restaurants
Arroz con Camarones at Xoctli

With thirty reviews on Google, Xoctli yields four and a half stars. Known as El Chubasco on Yelp, they garner the same amount of well-deserved stars! Pretty impressive. Did I mention how delicious the salsa was? After skimming a few of the reviews on Yelp, I discovered I’m not the only one who thinks highly of their salsa. It was spicy – just the way I like it! Pair that with the warm, tortilla chips that came to the table and one doesn’t need much else.

Hidden Gems of Chicago in the Form of Hot, Fried Dough + Sugar

After dinner, I wanted churros. I knew Xurro, churro factory, was nearby the hidden gem of a Mexican restaurant. I ordered one plain and one stuffed with chocolate. Xurro is a non-pretentious, small café with adorable sidewalk seating and a few two-person tables inside. It was quite a hot day and even hotter inside, so I took my yummy churros outdoors before deciding walking the four and a half miles back to the hotel was the best method of return.

I had been walking all day. After all, what were a few more miles? It was a fantastic decision, though I think my feet may disagree. A few fabulous murals, the sun setting against a downtown Chicago skyline, and some smashed pizza on a sidewalk later, we made our way back to rest our tired limbs and prepare for the next day’s walk-a-thon!

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