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The predominantly Mexican Pilsen neighborhood was once predominantly Czech. Across Chicago, says Juana Guzman of Pilsen's National Museum of Mexican Art, "food is an important cultural anchor." (Tim Klein)

Chicago Eats

From curried catfish to baba ghanouj, Chicago serves up what may be the finest ethnic cuisine going

The cultural heart of Chicago's widely dispersed Mexican community is Pilsen, an older neighborhood close to Maxwell Street that was once dominated by Czechs who worked in the city's mills and sweatshops. Many of its solid, artfully embellished buildings look as if they might have been transported brick by brick from old Bohemia, but the area's fiercely colored murals are an unmistakably Mexican declaration of cultural pride and political consciousness.

"Pilsen has a long history of advocacy," said Juana Guzman, vice president of the National Museum of Mexican Art, as we passed the 16th Street Viaduct, the scene of deadly clashes between police and striking railroad workers in 1877. The museum, too, sees itself as activist. "Yes, we're interested in arts programming and artistic displays, but we're also interested in being at the table when there are critical issues impacting our community, such as gentrification," Guzman said. "What brings us all together, of course, is arts and culture—and a big part of that is food."

We drove to La Condesa restaurant, on South Ashland Avenue, not far from the White Sox ballpark. What does it mean to support the White Sox versus the Cubs, I asked. "War!" Guzman shot back, laughing. "Sox fans are blue-collar, Cubs fans are yuppies." And La Condesa was the real deal, she promised. "It's the kind of place where the community and politicians come to meet: people who work in the factories, business people, the alderman. It's more full-service than a lot of places—they have parking, they take credit cards. But they make all their food fresh, and it's well done."

All true, I quickly learned. The tortilla chips were right out of the oven. The guacamole had a creamy, buttery texture. With a dollop of salsa and a few drops of lime, it was a deep experience. Guzman is more of a purist. "To me, nothing is more wonderful than the natural state of a Mexican avocado," she said. "A little salt, and you're in heaven."

As I gorged on green, out came a huge bowl of ceviche—citrus-marinated shrimp in a mildly hot red sauce with fresh cilantro. This was getting serious.

I carved into a juicy slice of cecina estilo guerrero—a marinated skirt steak pounded very thin—and Guzman had pollo en mole negro, chicken covered with mole sauce—a complex, sweet-smoky blend of red ancho chili, chocolate and pureed nuts and spices—all washed down by tall fountain glasses of horchata (rice milk) and agua de jamaica, a cranberry-like iced tea made from the sepals of hibiscus flowers. Buen provecho! Or, as we say another way, bon appétit!

Pop quiz: Which of the following ancient peoples is not only not extinct, but today comprises a worldwide community 3.5 million strong, with around 400,000 in the United States and some 80,000 in the Chicago area?
a) the Hittites
b) the Phoenicians
c) the Assyrians
d) the Babylonians

If you flub this question, take heart from the fact that not one of my well-informed New York City friends correctly answered (c)—the Assyrians, proud descendants of the folks who wrote their grocery lists in cuneiform. After repeated massacres in their native Iraq between the world wars, many members of this Christian minority—who continue to speak a form of Aramaic rooted in biblical times—fled to the United States.

I zeroed in on an Assyrian restaurant, Mataam al-Mataam, in Albany Park, on the North Side. With me were Evelyn Thompson, well-known for her ethnic grocery tours of Chicago, and her equally food-loving husband, Dan Tong, a photographer and former neuroscientist. When we arrived, we learned that Mataam had just relocated and was not yet officially open, but it was filled with men drinking coffee and pulling up chairs to watch an Oscar De La Hoya welterweight bout on a ginormous flat-screen TV. The owner, Kamel Botres, greeted us warmly, told a few stories—he's one of seven brothers who all spell their last name differently—and suggested we dine next-door at his cousin's place, George's Kabab Grill.

There we feasted on fresh baba ghanouj with black olives and paprika; a plate of torshi, or pickled vegetables; two soups—white lima bean and okra-tomato; charbroiled lamb shish kebab and spiced ground beef kefta kebab sprinkled with (nonpoisonous) sumac, each accompanied by heaps of perfectly done basmati rice served with parsley and lemon—and, best of all, masgouf, a curry-flavored grilled catfish smothered in tomatoes and onions.

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