If you’re a Chicago native, you’ve probably heard of Pilsen. Pilsen is apart of the Lower West Side community of Chicago and home to many hot spots including Dusek’s, Cafe Jumping Bean and Simone’s to name a few. Before the influx of trendy restaurants, bars and taquerias, there were multiple shifts in immigration starting in the 19th century inhabited by Czech immigrants who named the district Plzeň (fourth largest city in Czech Republic) and smaller ethnic groups including Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats, Austrians as well as Polish and Lithuanian immigrants. Latinos became the majority in 1970 surpassing the Slavic population and Pilsen continued to serve as a point of entry for Mexican immigrants and artists. Pilsen has become one of the largest Mexican neighborhoods in Chicago and still upholds the beauty of traditional Mexican culture today.
Gallivanting down a street in Pilsen, you can’t help but to be in awe of the neighborhood’s art appreciation. You can find large colorful murals on every corner. So there’s no surprise being in awe can cause you to pass up hidden gems like Del Toro (2133 S. Halsted St.) – a neighborhood tequila bar and Mexican restaurant. It may be hard at first glance to spot the small black sign printed with the restaurant’s logo outside of building, but the long lines bursting out of the doors past 5pm Tuesday – Friday can’t go unnoticed. After spotting Del Toro last July on Thrillist’s list of “The Best Margaritas In Chicago” and periodically in the neighborhood visiting my parents who live only a few blocks away in University Village, I’m pretty sure the universe destined me to give this place a try.
This Wednesday my friend Tara and I were instantly greeted with a warm smile and a firm handshake by co-owner Andres “Andy” Garcia. Owners Andy and Everardo Garcia were born and raised in Pilsen and raised in a traditional Mexican family. The Garcia’s are keeping it all in the family as Del Toro’s neighbor F&R liquors is family owned, supplying premium liquors to the tequila bar. As we were seated, I prepared my tastebuds for some good ol’ comfort food from what Andy described as, “A lot of the dishes we serve reminds me of my childhood growing up and the comfort food my family used to make me.” I was honored to share his nostalgia.
Round 1: “Damn these margs are good!”
My favorite thing to ask an owner or a waiter(tress) at a restaurant is, “What’s the most popular cocktail ordered here?” I believe in the people and word of mouth is powerful. Del Toro is known for their 19+ flavors of signature margaritas including rotational seasonal margs like Watermelon, Granada and Melon. You can also build your own margarita or go with one of the Latin Classics.
Tara and I ordered the Sandla (Blanco, watermelon, lime, cointreau, simple syrup, habanero syrup, chile piquin), Piña (Blanco, pineapple, lime, cointreau, simple syrup) and La Cazuela (Reposado, lemon & lime, orange, pink grapefruit, habanero syrup, squirt, chile piquin) all infused with their house made tequila trailed with a Tajin salt rim. All were delicious and a perfect summer palette. My absolute favorite was the La Cazuela (the booziest) and Andy said the Pepino (Blanco, cucumber, lime juice, jalapeño, simple syrup, cointreau, chile piquin) is one of his favorite’s and one of the many “go to’s” for diners.
Round 2: Chef Ricardo’s Favorites
A young chef came out of the back kitchen with a huge smile on his face, in a black uniform, holding a white plate of shrimp and white fish ceviche with a side of chips and guacamole. Ricardo is Del Toro’s head chef and you can find him passionately cheffing up delicious Mexican comfort food every Tuesday- Friday. He wanted to make sure we captured the essence of authentic Mexican culture and that we did. Both ceviches were perfect starters before delving into the main course. If you’re a seafood addict like me, ceviche sounds as good as freshly baked cookies right out of the oven. Moral of the story is both ceviches were amazing! But hands down, the shrimp ceviche were Tara and my favorite. If you’re looking to order the ceviche, it’s served only Wednesday – Friday so get it while you can!
Next up, Chorizo Quesadillas! Ricardo brought out a plate of mini quesadillas oozing out queso, black beans and chorizo, paired with salsa verde (green) and salsa roja (red) for dipping options. Don’t be fooled, the green salsa is much hotter than the red. These light bites are perfect for sharing. You can find these under the Antojitos (appetizers) section of the menu.
Creeping into the main course, Ricardo brought out the jalapeño Hamburguesa Del Toro Burger he raved about that was a favorite of his and a popular item on the menu. Not going to lie, at first I was skeptical trying a hamburger at a Mexican restaurant because I automatically thought of the classic American burger. But Tara and I left our trust in Ricardo’s hands. The Del Toro Burger consists of ground Black Angus beef patties stuffed with Chihuahua cheese, topped with romaine lettuce, tomato and drizzled with chipotle crema. To my surprise, this was unbelievably delicious. The tenderness of the black angus and the kick of the jalapeño was a perfect marriage to my tastebuds. The burger reminded me of a high end Torta and the chipotle crema was a perfect finish to cool down all of the flavors swirling in my mouth. The habanero Hamburguesa is spicier than the jalapeño if that’s your thing. I would order this again..and again..and again.
As we were approaching the end of what seemed like a never ending round of main courses, we couldn’t order dessert without getting tacos – a staple within Mexican cuisine. Ricardo brought out a plate of Del Toro’s popular Carne Asada (Skirt steak with pico de gallo), Pollo Asada (Grilled chicken with romaine lettuce and tomato), Pescado (Grilled tilapia, flour tortilla and pico de gallo) and Camaron (Grilled shrimp, flour tortilla and pico de gallo) tacos. If you choose to get tacos, you have to order each one separately – which is great because you get to try an assortment of different flavors. By far all of these were amazing, especially the Carne Asada and Camaron. Tara and I even had left-overs which tasted even better the next day for breakfast (don’t judge).
Round 3: “Wait, you serve Tres Leches?!”
We were border line reaching a food coma, but Andy insisted we try their dessert. Being a foodie, I couldn’t say no. I almost lost it when Andy mentioned they serve tres leches from a neighborhood bakery and a Pilsen favorite – Kristoffer’s Cafe & Bakery. I’ve ordered tres leches from this bakery many of times while in the neighborhood and it’s so good! Kristoffer’s also supplies Del Toro with their famous Chocolate Flan Cake (Chocolate cake topped with flan). Tara and I went with Kristoffer’s Tres Leches (3G’s Añejo tequila with Mexican pecan eggnog liqueur). We topped off our tequila infused tres leches taking sips from our mini Cereal RumChata shooters which tasted like spiked chocolate cereal after eating Cocoa Puffs. You can order the RumChata Cereal shooters as full size margaritas which I highly recommend at the end of your meal for dessert. So. damn. good.
A big thank you to Andy and Ricardo for your hospitality! If you see either of these guys when you head to Del Toro, greet them with a hi and they’ll be happy to drop some suggestions off the menu.
*DEL TORO PROVIDED ALL FOOD COMPLIMENTARY. ALL OPINIONS ARE MY OWN.