In the midst of the vibrant, predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood of Pilsen sits a little shrine of creature comforts and diversions known as Café Mestizo. One block from the 18th Street stop on the Blue Line (which, as the site of several exquisite murals, is a destination in itself), this “Cultural, Urban Coffee Shop” provides a homey oasis for Pilsen’s college students, families, and musicians. Warm lighting and comfy armchairs make the café undeniably cozy, but it’s the friendly air between regular customers, employees, and newcomers that makes it feel like home.
I walked in starving and headed straight for the menu. A black-framed photograph of one of Chicago’s immigration rallies sat prominently on the counter, as did a small selection of independent comic books. I ordered the “Tamales Oaxaqueños”—the menu also contains a variety of sandwiches, pitas, and veggie burgers—and my Aztec woolen hat–wearing server asked me to have a seat. My table was decorated with covers of Blondie, The Cure, and Duran Duran albums and colorfully painted skulls. The young couple to my left was sitting at a table that also happened to be a functioning Pacman arcade game.
My tamale arrived quickly and was larger than my face. It was wrapped in a huge banana leaf and came with a small salad and a few slices of juicy cantaloupe. It was moister and meatier than any tamale I’d ever tasted. I was happy with my choice of meal, but selecting a drink proved to be much more difficult. Café Mestizo has an excellent variety of American and Mexican coffees, teas, and cocoas. It may be the only café in the city selling horchata (a sweet Mexican rice water drink) in smoothie form. I chose the Cocoa Azteca, made with gourmet Mexican chocolate and topped with thick whipped cream and cinnamon. It was delicious and helped me to feel even more comfy as I people-watched from my table.
Musicians began to arrive and set up for the open mic that is held every Wednesday evening. A high school–aged girl entered the café, greeted all of the employees with hugs, and proceeded to curl up in one of the armchairs with a well worn novel. Two little boys laughed contentedly while following an employee around. It seemed that people were drawn to the café for myriad reasons. Some were doing their homework, some having dinner with their families. One full-bearded man with a dreamcatcher necklace came in to examine the café’s display of Native American and Mexican jewelry. Others came to make use of the free wi-fi Internet access. As the evening progressed, the crowd became younger and more energetic, presumably awaiting the start of the open mic.
Everyone was so friendly that I decided to introduce myself to someone. I spotted a young, tattooed server and started a conversation. His name was Bobby and he informed me that he had lived in Pilsen his entire life and was overjoyed that a place like Café Mestizo exists in his neighborhood. He said that Pilsen is becoming more diverse and lively, and while some despise the change, he is ecstatic about it. “The punk scene is huge and there are open studios and festivals all the time!” he said with a grin. He asserted that Café Mestizo has become a gathering place for the artsy and impassioned youth of Pilsen, as well as the city in general, and said that he encourages anyone to attend the neo-Jazz sessions held every Sunday and the poetry slams held on the third Monday of every month.
Café Mestizo is a great place to eat well, enjoy live music, get some homework done and make a friend. I’m sure I’ll be there again and again.