Chicago's Best Cheap Eats

Track down Chicago's best food bargains, from breakfast through late-night snacks.
By: Guest Blogger

Photo by: Nick Murway ©Nick Murway 2014

Nick Murway, Nick Murway 2014

By Michael Nagrant

Chicago has many top-notch high-end restaurants. But the Windy City dining scene isn’t built on opulence alone. For every caviar-filled mother-of-pearl spoon or seared lobe of foie gras on offer, there’s probably a hundred superlative (under $10) cheap eats just as satisfying. Here’s a guide to a few of the best.

Check out the full gallery for the best cheap Chicago eats.

Not much is better than fried chicken or doughnuts, except of course when you combine the two for a fried chicken doughnut sandwich ($6.96; pictured above). That’s just what the geniuses behind killer maple-bacon-topped crullers and pistachio-crusted, Meyer-lemon-glazed cake doughnuts did. It’s not on the menu, but if you ask for the secret fried chicken doughnut sandwich, you’ll get a buttermilk-and-pickle-brined, flaky fried chicken breast slathered with lustrous housemade aioli on a sugar-crusted, old-fashioned doughnut, the very epitome of drunk food. It's so tasty, though, you don’t have to be remotely soused to enjoy it.

Photo by: Anthony Soave

Anthony Soave

5411 Empanadas (named after the international area code for Buenos Aires, Argentina) was one of Chicago’s pioneering food trucks; they're now up to three brick-and-mortar locations and counting. The flaky baked hand pies ($2.50) come in fancy flavors like Malbec-wine-soaked beef; blue cheese, mushroom and thyme; and bacon, date and goat cheese. But the vegetarian option with golden ribbons of caramelized onion and salty buttery Parmesan might be the best — it tastes like a Latin pot pie riff on a French onion soup.

Photo by: Tyllie Barbosa

Tyllie Barbosa

We have catered parties with these simple Asian dumplings ($1.89) alone and we keep a frozen six-pack of Wow Bao’s namesake bao at both work and home to avert hunger. What started with a single kiosk — operated by restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You — has become an empire (with forthcoming locations at the University of Vermont and Kent State University). The slightly steamed sweet yeast buns are stuffed with eight different flavors, including teriyaki chicken, spicy Mongolian beef and Thai curry chicken. Though we love the Asian flavors, we can’t live without the coconut custard dessert bun.

Photo by: Monica Kass Rogers

Monica Kass Rogers

This is one exception to the $10 cutoff, as the namesake Furious Ramen (so named because you should consume it quickly before it cools down) clocks in at $12.25 (though the restaurant also serves three excellent ramens under $10). The combo of apple chile-spiked “furious” sauce, garlic relish, runny poached egg, marinated mushrooms, tender chashu pork belly and silky shards of white pepper chicken soaked with a soulful spicy miso broth is the best ramen in the city.

Food is subjective. If you think something is the best, someone else is likely to have an objection. This rule does not apply to the apple fritter ($3.19) at Old Fashioned Donuts, though. Anyone who eats this agrees: It’s the best ever. As the restaurant name suggests, this place does things the old way, deep-frying freshly proofed real apple chunk-stuffed dough, then ladling gooey icing on top. The resulting fritter is roughly the size of a pro baseball catcher’s mitt, and puffs of cinnamon perfume with every bite.

For more top Windy City bargain bites, including tacos, pot pies and hot dogs, check out the full gallery. Then tell us: What’s your favorite low-cost craving? 

Ramen photo courtesy of Monica Kass Rogers
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