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Review: Pl-zen

A first look at Pilsen's newest bar

By Lisa Arnett, RedEye

November 23, 2012

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Review: Pl-zen
1519 W. 18th St. 312-733-0248
Rating: 2.5 (out of 4) Take it or leave it

Pilsen has long been known for its art galleries, taquerias and tortillerias, but as vintage shops and new restaurants have opened along its main drag of 18th Street, the neighborhood has become an increasingly bustling mash-up. The latest addition, Pl-zen, is a restaurant-bar hybrid championing all the loves of a locavore, from Chicago-brewed beer to whiskey distilled just north of the city's borders.

Cue the Simone's comparisons.
With its artsy decor, craft beer and upscale bar food with a Mexican accent, Pl-zen's formula sounds similar to Pilsen favorite Simone's Bar. In reality, they're far from twins. Pl-zen's food skews fancier, with dishes such as fig-pomegranate-pistachio salad and octopus braised with epazote, a Mexican herb. While Simone's is an eclectic playland designed to the hilt with repurposed pinball machines and science lab gadgets, Pl-zen looks almost stark. Plain wooden tables and chairs put all the focus on murals evoking the 'hood's industrial landscape. Considering these two bars are almost a mile away from each other, I doubt they'll really compete against each other.

The gang's all here.
On a recent Friday night, it seemed like everyone in Pilsen was checking out Pl-zen. While my friends and I ordered our first round of drinks, staffers hauled in extra tables and chairs through the front door to fit more people into the dining room, which is separated from the small bar in back with an awkward quazi-hallway with bathrooms. It makes the most of the narrow, garden-level space, but isn't the best for socializing.

The food is ambitious but doesn't always hit it home.
Calamari fried in beer batter (5 Vulture, a Oaxacan-style dark ale from local brewery 5 Rabbit Cerveceria, to be exact) with spicy giardiniera aioli ($10) was salty enough to drain the water glass of everyone at my table in a matter of minutes. A hunk of braised beef short rib was the better half of a dish piled with gummy butternut squash gnocchi ($19). Truffle-parmesan fries, a staple of the "upscale bar" concept, don't have much of either truffle oil or parmesan cheese ($5), but at least they're served in a heaping portion. On the bright side, the bison burger piled high with stout cheddar, bacon and crispy deep-fried onions ($15) is as indulgent as a dressed-up bar burger should be—and that means a lot for a neighborhood bar.

Why yes, I'll have another beer.
When it comes to drinks, Pl-zen fulfills all the unspoken requirements of a trendy new bar. Creative cocktails made with booze from boutique distilleries? Check. A beer list dense with craft picks from Midwest breweries? Done. Drinks such as Gutless (pear puree, basil, balsamic vinegar and white whiskey from Evanston-based Few Spirits) and Brunette (a tall foamy glass of lemon and guava juice, hibiscus concentrate and rum) disappointingly don't taste as good as they sound. Even at a wallet-friendly $8 a pop, I wouldn't order them again. That makes the awesome lineup of drafts, bottles and cans from Logan Square's Revolution, Ravenswood's Metropolitan and Ohio's Great Lakes and —all priced at a very reasonable $5-$6—even more enticing. Watch the chalkboard outside for killer specials. On the night I visited, it was $6 for a bottle of Lagunitas Brown Shugga ale and shot of Knob Creek bourbon—probably the best drink deal I've seen all year. I wasn't surprised when my server told us they were out of the stout by 10 p.m.

Bottom line
The food was hit or miss—and the cocktails I tried were just a miss—but Pl-zen is the kind of place I'd come just for the beer.

Reporters visit bars unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. lmarnett@tribune.com | @redeyeeats

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FAST FACTS ON PL-ZEN

Name: It's pronounced just like "Pilsen."

Location: A few blocks west of the 18th Street Pink Line station, right next door to Nuevo Leon.

Music: Everything from dubstep to Interpol.

Deals: Watch the bar's Facebook page, updated often with daily drink specials and new beer offerings.

Service: Servers were sunny and sweet—and apologetic when food and drinks arrived slowly due to a backed-up bar and kitchen.