For a while, there have been murmurs that Pilsen could be the new (insert hip neighborhood here), which is about as annoying as when people predict what will be the "new doughnut." Pl-zen is the strongest push for gentrification I've seen in Pilsen since Nightwood, and not just because Pl-zen's name is the phonetic spelling of the neighborhood, beating customers over the head with neighborhood love. The food is very thoughtful, highly unique, and ultimately, memorable. This is particularly true of the brunch menu, chock full of interesting options rarely found elsewhere in Chicago.
The seemingly simple items at Pl-zen are actually quite complex, like the pancakes ($7) with Cabin Fever whiskey-glazed bananas and the "apple pie" oatmeal ($6) with apple jelly and dark honey. Then there's the breakfast doughnuts ($5). Dusted in cinnamon-sugar, I'm pretty sure they're deep-fried in my childhood dreams, because they taste like the fried dough I grew up eating at state fairs in New England. What I did not grow up eating was strawberry-Pinot Grigio sauce, served alongside the munchkin-sized doughnut holes. Unlike the amorphous blobs that doughnut holes can sometimes be, these are crackly and golden brown, with a tender and puffy interior.
Now let's talk about the brunch hot dog ($10) . This thing looks like a Fear Factor challenge designed by Guy Fieri. It's a jalapeño smoked beef sausage wrapped in duck bacon, stuffed inside a pretzel roll, and topped with crispy poblano rings and a poached egg. Oh and it's served with giardiniera and polenta-crusted potatoes.
I'm assuming that in some drunken stupor, someone in the kitchen created this dish on a dare, and despite sounding like Michelle Obama's worst nightmare, it's actually a fantastic dish. It's an aggressive, unruly hodgepodge, but it's a harmonious hodgepodge nonetheless. I really enjoyed the onion ring-esque poblano rings, and the crispy, slightly sweet duck bacon was a nice touch on the smoky sausage. Forget about eating this with your hands, unless of course you're Guy Fieri.
The signature Pl-zen skillet ($13) tastes like something a cowboy would cook while traversing the Sonoran Desert. Skirt steak, grilled cactus, serrano peppers, pickled red onions, radishes, tomatillo sauce, and hash browns are all sizzled together and topped with two eggs and slivers of avocado. This is the type of burly grub I'd expect from a diner near the Grand Canyon, but Pl-zen does cowboy cookery proud, serving up a sunny plate of breakfast fare with ingredients not commonly found on brunch plates (looking at you, nopales). This is savory brunch fare at its most supreme. I only wished I had a lasso handy to go hogtie a vagabond afterwards.
I'm not sure when or if Pilsen will become the "new Logan Square," but I do know that with more places opening like Pl-zen, I will be visiting the neighborhood more often. Maybe next time I'll eat something that doesn't make me feel like Takeru Kobayashi.
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