19 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
Photo By: Tyllie Barbosa
Photo By: Jason Little
Photo By: Anthony Soave
Photo By: Nick Kindelsperger
Photo By: Monica Kass Rogers
Photo By: John Towner
Photo By: Nick Murway ©Nick Murway 2014
Best Cheap Eats in Chicago
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.
Muffuletta at Rosie’s Sidekick
Technically we’re cheating here, as the cost ($12.95) exceeds our cap of $10, however, the UFO-sized circle of sesame seed-studded bread overflowing with sliced-to-order mortadella, salami, capicola, and olive salad at Rosie's Sidekick is so massive, it will feed two people. If you’ve ever had the original muffuletta at Central Grocery in New Orleans, you’ll appreciate the version from Rosie’s (ask them to hold the balsamic drizzle), which is best held for a few hours before eating, so the briny olive oil juice soaks in to the bread and marinates it.
Pork Gyro at Piggie Smalls
Often when people are scarfing down a gyro, they are doing it on the run or after a night of debauchery. Occasionally, though, a gyro is thoughtfully crafted to deserve proper recognition, thanks to whole cuts of freshly butchered meat, salted, cured and marinated carefully, then carved off a flame-roasted spit. Enter Jimmy Bannos Jr. and his Piggie Smalls with the throwback gyro, a much closer cousin to the turkish doner kebab than the commodity food-service gyro. The pork gyro ($7.99) in particular is incredibly juicy. Dripping in a creamy tzatziki, the gyros richness is cut with onion and tomato and tangy banana peppers.
Beignets at Ina Mae Tavern
These golden freshly fried beignets ($7) arrive at the table at Ina Mae Tavern covered in what feels like a kilo of confectioner’s sugar. In fact, you might have to do some exploration with your fork just to confirm there are in fact doughnuts below the sugar blizzard. There are. And when you bite in to those beignets, you inhale a yeasty perfume and regard the delightful contrast of the crisp exterior and the bubbly soft threads of the interior. You might even convince yourself they’re better than the ones served at New Orleans’ famous Café du Monde
Bao at Wow Bao
King Ranch Casserole at Texican
Chef Kim Dalton’s mother was Korean and her dad a Swedish-Irish Bostonian, so naturally she decided to open a Tex-Mex restaurant in Chicago. Mexican night was popular at her critically acclaimed but short-lived restaurant Dodo, so she took it to the next level with a full-fledged Mexican-skewing spot. Instead of serving some fake chain-like vision of Tex-Mex, her fare, like the King Ranch casserole ($8.50), a Mexican-lasagna of sorts, is rooted in authentic ingredients like El Milagro corn tortillas layered and tangy crema slathered over tender slivers of chicken enrobed in bubbly broiled cheddar cheese.
Carmelized Onion and Parmesan Empanada at 5411 Empanadas
Cemita Milanesa at Cemitas Puebla
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.
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
Secret Chicken Sandwich at Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken
The Mr. G Sub at J.P. Graziano Grocery & Sub Shop
Fried Chicken at Crisp
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
More About: Honey #1 BBQ
Banh Mi at Nhu Lan Bakery
More About: Nhu Lan Bakery