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Interesting cheap eats in chicago?


paulraphael
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I'm visiting family in Chicago, and my cousin who's an executive chef from Wisconsin is here. We're both broke bastards, but interested in grabbing a bite. Any thoughts?

Cheap, interesting and close to downtown...it's one of those classic "You can only have two of the three," situations.

I think your best bet might be to head to Pilsen (Nuevo Leon, Don Pedro Carnitas) or Chinatown (start with any of the Lao places, but Sze Chuan is my favorite).

True rye and true bourbon wake delight like any great wine...dignify man as possessing a palate that responds to them and ennoble his soul as shimmering with the response.

DeVoto, The Hour

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Hot Doug's is extremely inconvenient to downtown Chicago, so it will take you a while to get there as well as a long wait once you do. Fortunately, there are quite a few excellent choices right in and near the downtown area, that don't cost an arm and a leg and don't require extensive waits. For example (click on restaurant names below for links to their websites)...

Deep-dish pizza - This local specialty is delicious and you won't find it back home. The single-crust "pizza in the pan" is one variety, and some of the best places to get it downtown include the original locations of Uno and Due in River North, Lou Malnati's in River North and the South Loop, and Pizano's in River North and the Loop. If you'd like to try the double-crust "stuffed" pizza, you can find it at Giordano's in River North and in several locations in the Loop. Wherever you go, you can phone ahead with your order to avoid waiting 30-45 minutes while seated for your pizza to bake.

Provincial Mexican - This is another type of food that is found in numerous places in Chicago, but is not available most other places this side of the border. Both of Rick Bayless's restaurants, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in River North, are moderately-priced at lunch. For dinner, Frontera Grill is the moderately-priced option. There are other such restaurants; my personal favorite is Mundial Cocina Mestiza in Pilsen, a couple miles from downtown and right near the 18th Street stop on the el (CTA Pink Line). If you go there, don't miss the steamed mussels slathered with strips of bacon and poblanos.

Contemporary American - Yes, such restaurants are often expensive, but there are bargains to be had. For example, you can have lunch at Blackbird in the West Loop for a fraction of the price of dinner. And Cafe des Architectes, under the stewardship of Chef Martial Noguier and IMO the very best food of any of our casual fine dining restaurants, offers their three-course "neighborhood friends" $29 dinner menu on Sundays through Tuesdays.

French Bistro - Another category that is overlooked for bargain dining. La Sardine in the West Loop lets you pick any three-course dinner from the menu for $25 on Tuesdays (but it won't cost you all that much more on the other nights of the week).

Greek - Walk to Halsted Street and Greek Town, and take your pick of places like Santorini, Greek Islands, etc.

Chinese - Take the CTA Red Line south 3 miles to the Cermak/Chinatown stop, and walk to Double Li or Lao Sze Chuan.

Thai - Take the el (CTA North Line) to the Sheridan Road stop and TAC Quick.

Jewish Deli - Steve's Deli is in River North.

Chicago-style Hot Dogs and Italian Beef - These two specialties are both available at two places just a block away from each other in River North, Portillo's and Al's Beef.

Breakfast - Go to Bongo Room in the South Loop or Wicker Park for their exquisite pancakes and egg dishes. Some of my favorites include the pretzel pancakes with white chocolate sauce, and blueberry pancakes with almond panna cotta cream. Tip: The standard portion size of three pancakes is HUGE. It doesn't say so on the menu, but you can order a 1/3 or 2/3 portion size at a reduced price - perfect not only for the smaller appetite, but for those who want to try more than one dish.

Sunday Brunch - The best bargain in Sunday brunches is at David Burke's Primehouse in River North, where they serve their "American dim sum brunch". Served as roughly 22 dishes in 8 courses (two selected from rolling carts, six prepared to order), with unlimited seconds, for $35. All-you-can-drink drinks (bloody marys and margaritas, IIRC) are another $10.

Enjoy!

Edited by nsxtasy (log)
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nsxtasy's list is a good jumping off point for some discussion. I guess 'cheap' is in the eye of the beholder, but I don't necessarily consider cabbing anywhere 'cheap'...especially when the EL is so efficient.

Hot Doug's is extremely inconvenient to downtown Chicago, so it will take you a while to get there as well as a long wait once you do.

The lines have been completely insane lately, to the point of the line not being worth it unless you've never been and won't be back to Chicago anytime soon.

Deep-dish pizza

Personally, while it's one of the things Chicago is known for, I wouldn't send a chef from the region to a Chicago-style pizza place. To me, it's a novelty more than anything. If a chef friend asked me for recommendation on pizza in Chicago, I'd send them to Coalfire on Grand and Racine. It's $15 per pizza which (depending on your appetite) might not serve more than one, so I wouldn't call it cheap.

Provincial Mexican

Frontera and Topolo are fine restaurants, but cheap they are not. I've eaten at both numerous times, and Topolo never fails to wow me, but even at lunch I end up with around $50/pp. That said, I've never had a meal at Frontera after which I hadn't wished I'd either gone to Topolo or a neighborhood taqueria. For what it is, it's overpriced. Bayless's true talent is in the room next door, and you can get what's on offer at Frontera much cheaper elsewhere in the city. The imminent opening of Xoco, could change the equation entirely. Supposedly their final city inspection is today, which would put opening by the end of the month certainly in sight. I don't want to know what the wait is going to be like, or how likely they are to run out of cochinita pibil, but I will let you know as soon as I do.

I agree that Pilsen holds some amazing bargains, and is too close to the city to ignore.

Contemporary American

French Bistro

I wouldn't put Blackbird and cheap in the same sentence (oops, I just did), however you may be able to put together a somewhat cheap snack next door at Avec.

Lots of upcharges to be wary of in the bistro scene as well, but you can have a meal that seems like a bargain if you get lucky and go on the right night. I like Kiki's in River North.

Greek

Like Mike Myers said, I believe all Greek food is based on a dare, so despite long residence in the city, I have nothing to add here.

Chinese

Completely agreed.

Thai

Thai can be great in Chicago, particularly in the far North as you mention, but also farther South, particularly Hyde Park. I've yet to find reliable Thai anywhere near downtown.

Jewish Deli

Sad to report that my favorite, Eppy's in Streeterville has closed, but their Loop location is still open, as far as I know.

Chicago-style Hot Dogs and Italian Beef

Agreed, worth experiencing for the experience, but getting close to the same novelty factor as the pizza.

Breakfast

Sunday Brunch

Bongo Room is good, but can get very crowded on weekends, and is quite expensive for what it is. Original Pancake House is a better bang for your buck, imo, but can also have quite a line. I'm forever grateful to breakfast/brunch places that take reservations, particularly on Opentable. In that regard, I'd like to mention Big Jones in Andersonville. They do some great Southern favorites and a decent selection of brunch cocktails.

True rye and true bourbon wake delight like any great wine...dignify man as possessing a palate that responds to them and ennoble his soul as shimmering with the response.

DeVoto, The Hour

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I'd also add Indian to the list. While the best is up on Devon at places like Bhabi's Kitchen, there are several all you can eat buffets in the city that offer great value. I particularly like Gaylord, just off the North end of the Mag Mile and Klay Oven in River North.

True rye and true bourbon wake delight like any great wine...dignify man as possessing a palate that responds to them and ennoble his soul as shimmering with the response.

DeVoto, The Hour

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Personally, while it's one of the things Chicago is known for, I wouldn't send a chef from the region to a Chicago-style pizza place.  To me, it's a novelty more than anything.  If a chef friend asked me for recommendation on pizza in Chicago, I'd send them to Coalfire on Grand and Racine.

I think Chicago-style deep-dish pizza is FABULOUS, a true treat whenever I have it. Also, the deep-dish varieties are unlike anything you are likely to find elsewhere. Coalfire, like other varieties of thin crust, is similar to what you can find in just about any big dining city. When in Rome, do what the Romans do. When in Chicago, there's one absolute "must try" local specialty, and that's deep-dish pizza. Even for chefs.

Frontera and Topolo are fine restaurants, but cheap they are not.  I've eaten at both numerous times, and Topolo never fails to wow me, but even at lunch I end up with around $50/pp.

Huh? You must be getting alcohol to drink, and maybe more than one. Because at both Frontera and Topo, the main entrees at lunch are $15-17, and the light entrees at Frontera are $10-15. Even if you splurge and get dessert, you're still nowhere near $50, not even with tax/tip, unless you run up the bar bill.

I wouldn't put Blackbird and cheap in the same sentence (oops, I just did), however you may be able to put together a somewhat cheap snack next door at Avec.

I recommended Blackbird for lunch, where its prices are very similar to Frontera Grill - $15-17 for main entrees, $10-15 for light entrees; they also have a $22 3-course prix fixe menu. For a finer dining experience, that is cheap, beyond question. Avec is not open for lunch (and FWIW has not impressed me, neither for its food, nor its no-reservation policy and lengthy waits, nor its uncomfortable seating).

Lots of upcharges to be wary of in the bistro scene as well, but you can have a meal that seems like a bargain if you get lucky and go on the right night.

There are a lot of good French bistros. Last time I ate at La Sardine, I had the mussels meuniere, the sweetbreads, and the chocolate souffle, and everything was wonderful. It was a Tuesday, so all that was $25; it would have been $40 on any other night, which still isn't bad. As is becoming fairly common at many restaurants in this economy, La Sardine also has a limited, bargain-priced 3-course menu ($27.50) on other nights. Yes, Kiki's is good too, and so is Mon Ami Gabi, and so too are many others around town.

Bongo Room is good, but can get very crowded on weekends, and is quite expensive for what it is.  Original Pancake House is a better bang for your buck, imo, but can also have quite a line.  I'm forever grateful to breakfast/brunch places that take reservations, particularly on Opentable.  In that regard, I'd like to mention Big Jones in Andersonville.  They do some great Southern favorites and a decent selection of brunch cocktails.

Bongo Room charges around $4 for a very large pancake topped with a creative sauce, and $7 for two of them; those 1/3 or 2/3 portion sizes are very reasonably priced. Waiting times are primarily a problem only on Sundays, and to a lesser extent on Saturdays.

The other real gem of the Chicago breakfast scene is not just the Original Pancake House (which is a national franchise although locations away from Chicago vary in quality and consistency), but specifically the six OPH locations in our north and northwest suburbs run as the Walker Brothers. They take the OPH menu, including the huge puffed-up cinnamony apple pancake, and elevate it to fine art, adding original stained glass and elaborate woodwork at their locations.

I've had the a la carte Sunday brunch at Big Jones in Andersonville, and it's pretty good, particularly the beignets, but not noteworthy in any way. If I'm going to be that far north (and Andersonville is not that close to downtown, especially since it's a good half mile walk from the nearest el stop), I'd instead go to M. Henry, just a few blocks up Clark Street from Big Jones. M. Henry is similar to Bongo Room, a place specializing in breakfast (and which unfortunately does not take reservations, so waiting times can be lengthy on Sundays). Their specialties are a bit broader than just pancakes (although I love their "bliss cakes") and also include egg dishes and a great bread pudding. But I agree with you that the brunch scene on Sundays can be murder at the ultra-popular places that don't take reservations. Thank goodness for Opentable, which makes it so easy to find out which places are open and take reservations! (David Burke's Primehouse, which I mentioned for their American dim sum brunch and is also better known as a steakhouse, accepts reservations on Opentable.)

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The other real gem of the Chicago breakfast scene is not just the Original Pancake House (which is a national franchise although locations away from Chicago vary in quality and consistency), but specifically the six OPH locations in our north and northwest suburbs run as the Walker Brothers.  They take the OPH menu, including the huge puffed-up cinnamony apple pancake, and elevate it to fine art, adding original stained glass and elaborate woodwork at their locations.

The operative words in this paragraph being those in parentheses. I live in the Detroit area (Chicago, however, was where I went to school, and I love it there), and the OPHs in this area have basically caused me to almost swear off of all high-end breakfast places, period. There are exceptions (Frittata in Clawson, MI and Pancake Pantry in Nashville, TN among them), but OPH seems to think that they're some kind of nirvana for breakfast, when in fact they can't do the basics, such as eggs and bacon, correctly. And they charge a metric *ton* for them, too.

Sure, they might have a nice setup, but at the prices they charge, they'd *better*...they can *afford* to. Too bad the food wouldn't be acceptable at 1/3 of their prices.

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I'm visiting family in Chicago, and my cousin who's an executive chef from Wisconsin is here. We're both broke bastards, but interested in grabbing a bite. Any thoughts?

Cheap, interesting and close to downtown...it's one of those classic "You can only have two of the three," situations.

I think your best bet might be to head to Pilsen (Nuevo Leon, Don Pedro Carnitas) or Chinatown (start with any of the Lao places, but Sze Chuan is my favorite).

Nuevo Leon was awesome!! I actually think I liked it better than Frontera Grill!!

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Nuevo Leon was awesome!!  I actually think I liked it better than Frontera Grill!!

To me, they are two entirely different kinds of places. Nuevo Leon is an inexpensive restaurant specializing in conventional Mexican cuisine (enchiladas, carne asada, etc), similar to the Mexican food you can find in any city in the country. Frontera Grill (as well as Topolobampo next door and Mundial Cocina Mestiza, which is just down the street from Nuevo Leon) specializes in dishes from regions throughout Mexico, dishes you're not likely to find north of the border, except in Chicago and Los Angeles. All of these are good at what they do. Nuevo Leon is significantly less expensive than the others, although lunch is an excellent deal at all of these places. It just depends on what you're looking for - the lowest price possible, or the creativity of dishes you probably won't find elsewhere.

Additional Chicago-area restaurants featuring the less common provincial Mexican cuisine include:

Flamingo's in suburban Mount Prospect

Mixteco Grill on the north side

Fonda del Mar in Logan Square

FDM in North Center

Los Moles in Logan Square

Tepatulco in Lincoln Park

Real Tenochtitlan in Logan Square

Amelia's on the south side

Salpicon in Old Town

Adobo Grill in Old Town and Wicker Park

Fuego in Logan Square and suburban Arlington Heights

Xni-Pec in suburban Cicero

Sol de Mexico on the northwest side

as well as the previously-mentioned

Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in River North

Mundial Cocina Mestiza in Pilsen

For those who have not yet tried some of these provincial cuisines, I encourage you to check out the sample menus on their websites to get a better idea of their dishes. And there is quite a bit of variation within this group, too. Some of them specialize in cuisine from one particular region (e.g. Oaxaca for Los Moles, Yucatan for Xni-Pec) while others offer cuisine from multiple regions around Mexico. Together, they constitute one of the ways in which Chicago's culinary scene offers an incredibly high level of diversity and quality.

Edited by nsxtasy (log)
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Nuevo Leon is an inexpensive restaurant specializing in conventional Mexican cuisine (enchiladas, carne asada, etc), similar to the Mexican food you can find in any city in the country. 

Really? I just moved to Brooklyn from Chicago, and I'd give my left arm to have anything resembling a Nuevo Leon around here!

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The operative words in this paragraph being those in parentheses.  I live in the Detroit area (Chicago, however, was where I went to school, and I love it there), and the OPHs in this area have basically caused me to almost swear off of all high-end breakfast places, period.  There are exceptions (Frittata in Clawson, MI and Pancake Pantry in Nashville, TN among them), but OPH seems to think that they're some kind of nirvana for breakfast, when in fact they can't do the basics, such as eggs and bacon, correctly.  And they charge a metric *ton* for them, too.

I've eaten at Original Pancake House restaurants in approximately ten different states around the country. In some of them, including the Chicago area (and, as previously mentioned, especially the Walker Brothers locations), the quality is absolutely top notch. In others, the food is mediocre; even the same dishes ordered at different locations can come out differently. In addition to Chicago, off the top of my head I can recall good experiences at OPH locations in Ohio, Georgia, and Indiana, whereas I've had mediocre to dreadful experiences at OPH locations in Milwaukee, San Jose, and Portland, Oregon (ironically at the "original Original"). Incidentally, one of the reasons that Walker Brothers is the only franchisee permitted to place its own name on their OPH locations is because of their consistently high level of quality.

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Re: Mexican

I just ate a Salpicon a few weeks ago for the first time in a long time. It was very, very good. I was also at Adobo Grill a couple of months ago, and I really wasn't nuts about it. The table side guac was a highlight (as it always is there), but none of the other flavors were terribly exciting. I'm also a big fan of Sol de Mexico, but haven't been there in a while.

-Josh

Now blogging at http://jesteinf.wordpress.com/

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I haven't eaten there in a couple of years, but I'd recommend the Café at Fox & Obel for breakfast or lunch. Has anyone been there more recently?

"There is no sincerer love than the love of food."  -George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman, Act 1

 

Gene Weingarten, writing in the Washington Post about online news stories and the accompanying readers' comments: "I basically like 'comments,' though they can seem a little jarring: spit-flecked rants that are appended to a product that at least tries for a measure of objectivity and dignity. It's as though when you order a sirloin steak, it comes with a side of maggots."

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I haven't eaten there in a couple of years, but I'd recommend the Café at Fox & Obel for breakfast or lunch. Has anyone been there more recently?

Kerry Beal, Prasantrin(and her mom), myself and another eGulleter ate here last year during the Heartland Gathering. My sandwich was very good( and huge), but it didnt scream " Chicago" to me( if that makes any sense). I wouldnt seek the cafe out, but if you're in the hood and starving, its a good choice.

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I haven't eaten there in a couple of years, but I'd recommend the Café at Fox & Obel for breakfast or lunch. Has anyone been there more recently?

It's about two blocks from my office, so it used to be a once-a-week visit. Sadly, there's generally too long a wait for the food, or some sort of drama associated with a visit nowadays. The crowd there is rather esoteric, and generally takes several minutes to order with various special requests. I actually saw someone attempting to pay in Euro once. Nowadays, I'll head over to Pastoral on Lake if I want to wait 15-30 minutes for a sandwich. They aren't completely off my radar, but I make it there about once a month, usually for the soba noodle salad.

I get the impression they've suffered a bit lately. They were supposed to be an anchor tenant of the redevelopment of the Carson's store, but pulled out of that development on State Street. That was probably the first external sign that something might be up.

Edited by KD1191 (log)

True rye and true bourbon wake delight like any great wine...dignify man as possessing a palate that responds to them and ennoble his soul as shimmering with the response.

DeVoto, The Hour

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I haven't eaten there in a couple of years, but I'd recommend the Café at Fox & Obel for breakfast or lunch. Has anyone been there more recently?

Kerry Beal, Prasantrin(and her mom), myself and another eGulleter ate here last year during the Heartland Gathering. My sandwich was very good( and huge), but it didnt scream " Chicago" to me( if that makes any sense). I wouldnt seek the cafe out, but if you're in the hood and starving, its a good choice.

I see you've been laying off the hallucinogens. That's good.

"There is no sincerer love than the love of food."  -George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman, Act 1

 

Gene Weingarten, writing in the Washington Post about online news stories and the accompanying readers' comments: "I basically like 'comments,' though they can seem a little jarring: spit-flecked rants that are appended to a product that at least tries for a measure of objectivity and dignity. It's as though when you order a sirloin steak, it comes with a side of maggots."

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There are other such restaurants; my personal favorite is Mundial Cocina Mestiza in Pilsen, a couple miles from downtown and right near the 18th Street stop on the el (CTA Pink Line). If you go there, don't miss the steamed mussels slathered with strips of bacon and poblanos.

Have you been recently? Today's TastingTable update about Zebda, a Mediterranean-Middle Eastern deli near Albany Park, includes the following, "most everything in the shop is made by Katie Garcia (formerly the chef of Pilsen's Mundial Cocina Mestiza)."

True rye and true bourbon wake delight like any great wine...dignify man as possessing a palate that responds to them and ennoble his soul as shimmering with the response.

DeVoto, The Hour

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There are other such restaurants; my personal favorite is Mundial Cocina Mestiza in Pilsen, a couple miles from downtown and right near the 18th Street stop on the el (CTA Pink Line). If you go there, don't miss the steamed mussels slathered with strips of bacon and poblanos.

Have you been recently?

My most recent visit (when I had the mussels) was a few months ago, which was after the original partners split up (I think some went on to start Amelia's in the Stockyards), and it was as good as ever.

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