15 Best Cheap Eats in Chicago
Track down the Windy City's best food bargains, from breakfast through late night.
Photo By: Nick Murway ©Nick Murway 2014
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Photo By: Nick Kindelsperger
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Photo By: Monica Kass Rogers
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Photo By: Nick Murway ©Nick Murway 2014
Best Cheap Eats in Chicago
Alinea, Grace, Topolobampo, Spiaggia, 42 Grams, Moto and El Ideas: You could eat a different high-end prix fixe meal every night of the week and blow baller amounts of money in Chicago. But the Windy City dining scene isn’t built on opulence alone. The diversity and depth of taquerias, noodle joints, hamburger shacks, BBQ joints and hot dog huts is foundational to our standing as a premiere dining destination. 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.
Cheeseburger at Au Cheval
For the last couple of years, the wait outside Au Cheval in Chicago’s West Loop could last up to three hours. Most waiting were in search of a legendary burger dubbed one of the nation’s best, though their patience would also be rewarded with maybe the best hash browns, larded with duck heart gravy, and mille-feuille, anywhere. To combat the lengthy waits, owner Brendan Sodikoff opened a spinoff, a tiny shack aptly named Small Cheval, which serves only the burger ($9.95 with cheese, $8.95 without), fries, shakes and some choice cocktails. The lines are a bit shorter, but the medium-rare burger — dripping with Kraft cheese and an artery-delighting slather of housemade Dijon mustard-spiked aioli — is still just as great. It’s the backyard burger your dad would make if he’d trained at The Culinary Institute of America.
Carmelized Onion and Parmesan Empanada at 5411 Empanadas
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.
Cemita Milanesa at Cemitas Puebla
Imagine a thinly pounded, crispy-fried pork loin slathered with a pineapple chipotle sauce, oozing with melted mozzarella-like Oaxacan cheese and served in a crusty, house-baked sesame-studded roll. It’s like a Mexican torta met an Italian parmigiana sandwich. Cemitas Puebla's owner, Tony Anteliz Jr., designed the sandwich ($7.95) based on his nostalgia for the cemitas he ate on childhood visits to his father’s hometown of Puebla, Oaxaca.
More About: Cemitas Puebla
Carne Asada Tacos at Taqueria El Asadero
There are hundreds of steak taco options in Chicago, but most of them stem from sad-looking remnants that have been over-steaming for indefinite periods in the warm corner of a grill. But not at El Asadero. The carne asada tacos ($2.25) are so popular that the guys behind the counter are constantly caramelizing a fresh whole skirt steak on the grill, letting it rest, then slicing hunks of well-seasoned smoky meat off the side of beef. They spritz the sliced-to-order meat with fresh lime before swaddling it in a warm corn tortilla and sprinkling it with a shower of sharp onion and zesty cilantro.
Bao at Wow Bao
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 steamed, slightly sweet yeast buns are stuffed with eight different flavors, including teriyaki chicken, spicy Mongolian beef and Thai curry chicken. Though we love the savory flavors, we can’t live without the coconut custard dessert bun.
Hot Dog at Superdawg
Capone, Sears — err, Willis — Tower, deep-dish pizza, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. Chicago was built on icons, though many of those culinary icons now trade on nostalgia, rather than flavor. One true exception is Superdawg. This old-school drive-in featuring statues of hot dog mascots Maurie and Flaurie, carhops, thick cement shakes and fabulous golden crinkle-cut fries has plenty of history on offer. But they also serve up one of the best salad dogs in town. The namesake Superdawg ($5.75, with fries) is a thick, snappy beef frank — a superior departure from the typical Vienna dog served elsewhere. It bears the mustard, neon-green relish, onions and sport peppers — and a pickle — present on all great Chicago-style dogs, but it also comes with a secret weapon, a spicy, tangy pickled green tomato you’ll wish they sold by the jar.
More About: Superdawg Drive-In
Ramen at Furious Spoon Ramen
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.
Pot Pie at Pleasant House Bakery
There’s no reason to settle for frozen pot pies when you can stop by this Bridgeport gem, where Art and Chelsea Jackson whip up flaky, buttery pastry stuffed with thick hunks of all-natural beef, carrots, vegetables and herbs grown in their own local farm plot, all drizzled with a comforting ale gravy ($7.95). Though the meat is excellent, the mushroom and kale pie, mixed with scallions and a white wine, herb and Parmesan sauce, is pretty soul-satisfying.
Apple Fritter at Old Fashioned Donuts
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.
Secret Chicken Sandwich at Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken
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). 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.
The Mr. G Sub at J.P. Graziano Grocery & Sub Shop
From Fontano’s Subs in Little Italy to Bari Grocery in River West to the Riviera deli on the Northwest Side, Chicago is home to many killer Italian subs. While they’re all great, they’re also pretty similar, give or take minor differences in bread or a few slices of meat. Fourth-generation owner Jim Graziano also makes a mean basic Italian sub, but his Mr. G ($9.25) stands out with innovative additions. The resulting sub features a salad of Roman-style artichokes, basil, red-wine-vinegar-dressed lettuce and a housemade tangy, funky truffle-mustard vinaigrette. The filling includes provolone, prosciutto, Genoa salami and hot soppressata, sliced and dressed on the crusty Italian white bun in that order every time. If a cook messes up the order of cheese and meat, Graziano makes him or her start the sandwich over.
Fried Chicken at Crisp
These cracklin’ pieces of rice flour-coated, pressure-fried chicken ($8.95 for a half bird) would make the most-Southern grandma weep with jealousy. But add in a glistening sweet soy, ginger, garlic coating and a toss of crisp scallions and you’ve got something so addictive and satisfying that it surpasses anything the colonel has ever made.
Smoked Brisket at Small’s Smoke Shack
Despite its Midwestern location, Chicago is a serious barbecue town; until recently, the epicenter of that movement was Smoque in Irving Park. Smoque still holds the throne, but Small’s Smoke Shack, which mashes up Korean, Filipino and Mexican flavors, is a fast up-and-comer, making some of the meanest, juiciest hickory-smoked brisket in town. The brisket ($9.50, with house-cut fries), topped off with a drizzle of lime-y, chile-spiked “tiger cry” sauce, a helping of pickled cucumber and carrot — aka “not slaw” — and sandwiched between thick planks of grilled Texas toast, makes a serious claim to the crown for Chicago’s best brisket.
Photo courtesy of Smalls Smoke Shake
Rib Tips and Links at Honey #1 BBQ
Owner Robert Adams Sr. is a virtuoso of Chicago-style aquarium smoker barbecue. The aquarium smoker is a big glass box that holds meat and requires precise manual attention to a stoking of the firebox with proper amounts of hickory woods. While Adams makes a mean full-slab rib, it’s his rib tips — the meaty rib ends — that are some of the most-flavorful meat candy cuts you should try. Featuring a crispy bark and a tender pink smoke-ringed interior, a smattering of fries, a healthy dollop of honeyed BBQ sauce and a couple of slices of white bread, the Mini Combo is one of most-delightful ways to spend $6.50 in the city.
More About: Honey #1 BBQ
Banh Mi at Nhu Lan Bakery
If you’re craving a Philly cheesesteak but dreading the waistline destruction it'll bring, we suggest the vegan lemongrass tofu banh mi here. They say you get what you pay for, but $4.95 at this restaurant gets you much more than you'd expect: a hot baguette straight out of the oven topped with soy- and lemongrass-marinated tofu that tastes exactly like thinly sliced steak. A refreshing topping of fiery jalapeno, cilantro, crisp carrot and jicama foils the richly marinated tofu.
More About: Nhu Lan Bakery