Lao Sze Chuan Tony Hu has spots in Chinatown for Shanghainese food (Lao Shanghai) and the cuisine of Beijing (Lao Beijing), but neither draw the nightly lines of heat-seekers that this spot does. Hu uses plenty of Szechuan pepper, dried chiles, garlic and ginger to create flavors that are incredibly addictive. Our favorites are Chengdu dumplings, crispy Chinese eggplant with ground pork, twice-cooked pork, mapo tofu, Szechuan prawns and “chef’s special” dry chile chicken. Trust us or choose at random—either way you won’t be disappointed. 2172 S Archer Ave between Wentworth and Princeton Aves (312-326-5040). El: Red to Cermak/Chinatown. Bus: 18, 21, 62. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $10.
Chopal Kebab & Steak You’ll often find members of the local Indo-Pak community sitting on the ornate and brightly colored furniture here, discussing what appear to be important matters. They’re actually chatting about how incredible the food is: lentils rife with roasted garlic; lemon-kissed rapini; fiery chunks of chile chicken; and delicious, tender goat chops. Quell the heat with the amazing Chopal lassi, and refrain from bringing wine or beer out of respect for the devout Muslim staff and diners. 2242 W Devon Ave between Bell and Oakley Aves (773-338-4080). Bus: 49B, 155. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $7.
Uru-Swati Ask for the TOC translated menu, and you’ll find descriptions of the overwhelming options. Potatoes with mustard seed and cumin are perfect for the crispy, two-foot-long paper dosa; order it “masala” and get a smear of tangy chutney. Try the Swati samosa chaat, a smashed potato pocket drenched in silky yogurt, tamarind chutney and subtly spicy “salsa.” Not sure? Order anything and you’re bound to get fresh, flavorful, meat-free eats for a good price. 2629 W Devon Ave at Talman Ave (773-262-5280). Bus: 49B, 155. Lunch, dinner (closed Tue). Average main course: $6.
Restaurant La Casa Del Pueblo This restaurant—adjacent to La Casa Del Pueblo grocery store—looks less like a restaurant than it does a cafeteria in a Mexican retirement home. But you’re not here for the atmosphere—you’re here for the incredible, tender tamales. So get in line, and while you’re here, check out some other homestyle dishes, such as the tortas de camaron (fried shrimp patties) or chicharrónes en salsa verde (pork rinds soaked in a green-chile sauce). But beware the pico de gallo—it’s so green not from cilantro, but from jalapeño. 1834 S Blue Island Ave (312-421-4664). El: Pink to 18th. Bus: 9, 18, 21, 60. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Average main course: $7.
The Nile Unless you’re lucky enough to have a grandparent sitting at home frying up fresh batches of falafel, this may be the freshest Middle Eastern food you’ll find in Chicago. The refrigerated case is filled with rows of plump, glistening, marinated chicken and just-formed kefta kebabs waiting to be grilled to order. Freshly baked savory pies, bursting with spinach and big chunks of onion, sit on the counter. Behind that, a man drops falafel into a pool of bubbling oil. We don’t care who your grandma is—she’s not making anything like this. 3259 W 63rd St between Kedzie and Spaulding Aves (773-434-7218). Bus: 52, 63, 67. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $5.
Diner Grill There are no seats here—just stools. There’s barely a menu, either. The burgers are thin little things; but stacked up two or three on a bun, they’re exactly what you come to diners for: Food that’s hot, greasy, cheesy and cheap. Of course, you may be here for breakfast, in which case the bacon is extra-crispy and the pancakes are substantial enough to get you through the day. (But if, like most people here, you’re eating them in the middle of the night, that’s beside the point.) 1635 W Irving Park Rd at Paulina St (773-248-2030). El: Brown to Irving Park. Bus: 9, 80. Open 24 hours. Average main course: $6.