Growing up in Michigan, I’ve made quite a few trips to the Windy City. As a girl, my parents took me to Navy Pier, the infamous American Girl Place and to Shedd Aquarium too many times to count. I’ve been up and down the Magnificent Mile for shopping trips with my sister and mother and attended concerts at the House of Blues with friends.
I cosidered myself a relative expert on the city; at least as much of as an outsider can be. I knew how to navigate the “EL”, I could hail a taxi with the best of them and I felt confident and at home walking around the streets.
All that changed the last time I visited my beloved Windy City. My boyfriend and I were going to drive down for the weekend because he had some law internship interviews scheduled. He’s a big culture buff and wanted to experience some of the ethnic neighborhoods during this visit. I thought it was an excellent idea, considering I had never really explored the outer edges of Chicago.
We were staying right by Chinatown, so the first night we decided to explore that. We stumbled into a Chinese bakery and found a marvelous little restaurant for dinner, where I filled myself up on Lo Mein.
We were hooked on exploring more of Chicago, so after talking to one of our cab drivers about different the neighborhoods and communities close to us, we decided to check out Pilsen. Ivan was really into this idea, because Pilsen has a large latino population. I was promised that we’d find a Mexican joint for lunch, so I was game.
Pilsen was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It was vibrant, yet gritty, something I’ve heard about Chicago, but never really seen first hand. This wasn’t the tourist side of Chicago; this was a place where people actually lived. The latino influence was evident everywhere; in the music that hummed from the shops, in the smells that wafted from the bakeries, on the murals that coated the old brick buildings. Pilsen was absolutely alive and I was loving it.
We decided to stop into Carnitas Uruapan for lunch. Oh sweet jesus, these carnitas. I’ve always been a big fan of Mexican food. When given the opportunity to pick a restaurant, 9 times out of 10, I’ll pick a Mexican one. Before Carnitas Uruapan, I had never truly experienced actual Mexican cuisine. My stomach will never respond to other Mexican restaurants the same way again.
Let me tell you a little bit about Carnitas Uruapan. You buy food the meat by the pound. They bring you this delicious, flavorful, juicy meat to your table along with some fresh and warm tortillas and you go to town. You begin assembling your carnita. Meat, sauce, Tortilla. It’s that simple. But,trust me, it’s divine.
After the fact, I discovered that they were featured on the Food Network’s Top 5 Restaurants: Best Tacos.
*update 7/17/15 – I also recently saw them on an episode of Taco Trip on the Cooking Channel
After stuffing myself with life-changing carnitas, we went for a much needed walk. I of course, immediately found a bakery. How could you pass up on all of these delicious, lovely “sweetbreads”? Clearly, I couldn’t. So I bought some. Obviously.
We continued our walk and ended up in the middle of a street festival. It was a fundraiser for a catholic school and they had rows upon rows of delicious homemade treats. Because I had already stuffed myself, I said no to the food, but Ivan insisted that I try Horchata. Have you ever had horchata? If not, you should fix that. Right now. It’s this Mexican drink that is made from rice, milk, vanilla and cinnamon. At least thats what I think it is. I am not an expert by any means. I just know that it was fantastic.
After the festival, we had to call it a day. We still had the 4+ hour drive back to East Lansing ahead of us.
I’ll leave you with this final thought. Doing the tourist thing is great. Going to all the famous sights and restaurants is a lot of fun. But next time you go somewhere, talk to a local. See where they eat, where they shop, where they spend their time. I guarantee you will have a more authentic experience and it will probably be cheaper too.