The city and the city (especially Little Village)

One of the best things about journalism school has been realizing how little of Chicago I had seen or even known to seek out before I started learning how to report and find stories. My first quarter was spent tramping up and down Lawrence Avenue in Albany Park, on the city’s northwest side, which is less than two miles from where I live but which I’d only been to for its incredible eating (notably Noon O Kabab, which, if you like Persian food is a must-visit in this town). Even though I’ve lived here since 2002, my Chicago experience had really been limited to enclaves and bubbles like Hyde Park, Lakeview, Wicker Park and bits of Uptown.

Due south of Albany Park, with all the same cross streets, is La Villita, Little Village. I’m working on a feature story about the Chicago Youth Boxing Club, which is an incredible organization full of beyond incredible people. Just south of the church where CYBC lives in the basement is 26th Street. “Oh, you have to see it,” I was told by source after source. “Go eat at Nuevo Leon, it’s the best.”

My interview began at 9, and the gym itself was closed on the weekend, so once the interview was done, it seemed like a good idea to get a feel for the neighborhood. I didn’t know what to expect — I really had no exposure to Little Village beyond what people involved with CYBC had told me, plus one thread in the community gang resistance documentary The Interrupters.

“People only hear about the bad stuff, the gang stuff,” people told me over and over again. “Which means people outside La Villita don’t know what an incredible neighborhood it is and what good people live here.”

Now that I’ve been there a little bit (a very little bit), that’s a damn shame. Because they’re right: Little Village is truly something else.

The Little Village Arch, 26th and Albany
The Little Village Arch, 26th and Albany
The murals all over are incredible. I’m a huge fan of street art, and La Villita more than supplies.
“Dedicated to my friend Fabian Torres, RIP”
This whole store was like this. I can’t even imagine being a little kid and seeing these windows. It looks like a movie about princesses.
Just inside the Little Village Arch
The women at the bottom right are looking at these huge beaten copper pots for sale. 26th Street is stuffed to the gills with street vendors, in addition to all the brick-and-mortar stores.
I am a sucker for going up on rooftops. This is the view from La Villita Community Church, where the Chicago Youth Boxing Club lives.
I am a sucker for going up on rooftops. This is the view from La Villita Community Church, where the Chicago Youth Boxing Club lives.

I wanted to end with this shot of the skyline, which I love, but I can’t go without talking about how incredible Nuevo Leon was. The interior is completely covered with beautiful murals, which is not even getting into the paper decorations hanging from the ceiling or the fountain filled with paper flowers or the mariachi music (I think it was mariachi music? I’m super ignorant about what would or wouldn’t constitute the genre). Everything smelled really good (including the coconut-scented hand soap in the bathrooms), but let me talk about the food that you get even before you order.

Appetizers at Nuevo Leon, compliments of the house
Appetizers at Nuevo Leon, compliments of the house

Four different salsas, each more delicious than the next. Pickled vegetables (green peppers, carrots, cauliflower). A tiny pork-and-bean burrito. And then you order. (I had the chicken flautas, which were tiny and perfect and, along with the four salsas and the rice and black beans, the perfect amount of food.) And then, to top it off, a little bowl of rice pudding. My stomach was so happy.

So, all in all, I would highly, highly recommend it —  the food, and the neighborhood, and the experience of going someplace you never knew you didn’t know about.

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