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Cheap Eats challenge

Can you eat all 50 dishes in our Cheap Eats issue?

A taco from the Taco Joint is among the best cheap food in Chicago.

There are hefty empanadas, generous salads and crispy flatbreads on Bodega N. 5’s menu, where everything costs $5 (until 5pm, when pricier items from upstairs sibling Mercat a la Planxa sneak onto the menu). But for our Lincoln, we’re taking the humble turkey sandwich. It starts with a soft herb focaccia, which gets piled with thin slices of turkey, fat slabs of bacon and slices of Mahón (a sharp cow’s-milk cheese from Spain), and is finished with a honey-Dijon aioli. Packaged with a side of cheddar-dusted chips, it’s a lunch that’ll keep you full until happy hour, at a price not even Potbelly can match. 634 S Michigan Ave (312-542-3605).—David Tamarkin

La Casa del Pueblo is a basic Mexican grocery store, and Restaurant La Casa del Pueblo is the basic cafeteria next to it. But there is nothing basic about this spot’s tamales. About half as thick as most tamales, and twice as tender, these also have a more pronounced corn flavor than many competitors. And their slight stature (and even smaller price) means you can eat enough of them to put the mucho, and then some, in mucho gusto. 1834 S Blue Island Ave (312-421-4664). $1 each or $10 for a dozen.—DT

Deta, the sassy cook who used to run Deta’s Cafe, is no longer at the helm of the shop she started. And her loyal gang of Eastern European regulars, who used to spend their days here smoking and talking? They’re gone, too. But the burek—the café’s signature item—remains. Delicate, flaky pastry dough is filled with spinach, potatoes, beef or cheese—or a combination thereof—and wrapped into a Frisbee-size coil. It’s best attacked with a fork—or two forks and a friend, if you don’t want to slip into an afternoon food coma. 7555 N Ridge Blvd (773-973-1505). $7.—DT

There are several reasons Pizza Art Cafe, a tiny BYOB on the Northwest Side, has a cult following, not the least of which is the lack of a corkage fee. But our No. 1 reason for loving the place is the 14-inch marinara pizza, a simple thin-crust pie topped with just tomato sauce and garlic (no cheese!) for $7.95. Diners looking for something more substantial can get the pie on thick focaccia for $9.95. But anybody looking for a cheaper pizza will have to go to a supermarket’s frozen aisle. 4658 N Rockwell Ave (773-539-0645).—DT

Thin, translucent strands of tofu are soaked in a lemongrass marinade and piled onto a baked-that-day baguette to make Nhu Lan Bakery’s tofu xa ót chay banh mi, served wrapped in wax paper to aid eating on the go. (Picnic, anyone?) Garnished with cilantro and pickled carrots, it’s an explosion of flavor that other banh mi can’t match, at about half the price. 2612 W Lawrence Ave (773-878-9898). $3.50.—Marissa Conrad

The “small” bowl of lentil soup at the cozy Austrian Bakery is about the size of Au Bon Pain’s large—and the flavorful, fiber-rich meal will leave you so satiated, you may be tempted to leave behind the slices of bread that come tucked on the side. Don’t. Whether poppy seed, buttercrust or hearty rye variety bergsteigerbrot (all are options; all are baked in-house), this is the kind of loaf that reminds you why you could never go on Atkins. 2523 N Clark St (773-244-9922). $3.25.—MC

Drop into Argo Georgian Bakery to try a hachapuri, a savory bread round fired in an ancient-looking hearth. It’s stuffed with enough farmer cheese (a soft white cheese often used in blintzes), mozzarella and feta to make it big enough for two. 2812 W Devon Ave (773-764-6322). $2.60.—Julia Kramer

The single-serving mushroom-kale pie at Bridgeport’s Pleasant House Bakery is a steal for the quality of its parts. Bakery owners and husband-and-wife team Art Jackson and Chelsea Kalberloh Jackson source nearly every ingredient locally—sometimes even as local as their own backyard, where they grow the kale. 934 W 31st St (773-523-7437). $6.95.—JK

Menudo may be the hangover cure of champions, but the last thing we want to do after a night spent tangling with tequila is stare down a bowl of steaming stomach lining. Give us carne en su jugo anytime, especially from Birrieria de la Torre, where “beef in its juices” is a two-serving bowl of smoky broth studded with plump Great Northern navy beans, bacon, radish coins, avocado, bits of charred beef and caramelized knob onions, with housemade corn tortillas alongside for dunking. 6724 S Pulaski Rd (773-767-6075). $8.50.—HS

The cooks at hidden Avondale gem El Guanaco stuff pupusas—El Salvador’s signature masa pockets (picture a thick tortilla)—with a combination of a dozen fillings before tossing them on the griddle to crisp up golden-brown. Squash (listed as ayote) and its blossoms (loroco) combine for a fine vegetarian version, but we’re partial to the combo of refried beans and pork rinds (chicharrón). At two bucks a pop, you can afford to get both. 3802 W Diversey Ave (773-394-5470). $2.—HS

Humboldt Park’s new food truck Isla De Café takes advantage of its Park District permit to pull espressos and toast sandwiches to order inside its Airstream frame (both no-nos on a roving rig). For the mallorca, the smiley crew stuffs ham and Muenster cheese between sweet, eggy bread then presses it, panino-style, to perfection. Served with chips, it’s a lunch we’d pedal after if the truck ever decides to get up and go. Luis Munoz Marin Dr between Humboldt Blvd and Kedzie Ave. $3.75.—HS

Hailing from the Mexican state of Jalisco, birria seems like a simple goat dish but is actually a time-consuming art, particularly the tatemada style done at Birrieria Zaragoza. The tender meat is first roasted and then sloshed with a goat consommé to add depth. With fresh salsas—always a fairly spicy tomato; sometimes a bright green serrano—cilantro and onions, it’s dinner. With the open kitchen and handmade corn tortillas, it’s dinner and a show. 4852 S Pulaski Rd (773-523-3700). $6.99.—HS

Breakfast doesn’t get simpler than an order of chilaquiles at Pilsen institution Nuevo Leon: (1) Scramble diced red and green peppers, onion and chorizo (the latter by request) into eggs, then toss into a mess of hot-from-the-fryer tortilla chips. (2) Place a scoop of rice on one side and lard-rich pinto beans on the other. (3) Ignore “breakfast hours” and serve to grateful diners morning, noon and night. 1515 W 18th St (312-421-1517). $6.—HS

The premise of an Indian chaat house is to sit, have a snack, sip some chai and emerge rejuvenated. But when we hit Devon’s popular chain Sukhadia’s, we can’t help but make a meal of it. It’s the thali that does us in: a $7 vegetarian assortment of daily specials assembled on a Styrofoam tray, the compartments separating fragrant cumin-laced vegetables, fluffy rice and potent pickles. You’ll also be handed a poofy stack of freshly fried puri bread. Dip those in the steaming cup of kadhi, a subtly sweet broth of yogurt and chickpea flour, and good luck leaving rejuvenated. 2559 W Devon Ave (773-338-5400).—HS

These days, a 20-year-old establishment qualifies as a veteran. Which makes Troha’s Chicken & Shrimp House, staring down nearly a century of tradition built upon a constantly roiling fryer, practically ancient. Plump shrimp, meaty scallops, catfish fillets, pork tenderloins, chicken wings…they’re all fried in oil, then tossed on a plate with slaw, fries and a pickle for combo dinners ringing in at $8–$9. 4151 W 26th St (773-521-7847).—HS

If we’ve told you once, we’ve told you a thousand times: Uncle John’s is the place for barbecue on the South Side. Not only is Mack Sevier the master of the Chicago-style, plexiglass-encased aquarium smoker and the harbinger of a new dawn for hot links (thanks to the dose of sage and red chili flakes), but the man does not skimp on combo plates. Order the “medium” rib tips and links, and you’ll leave wondering just what this guy considers a “large.” 337 E 69th St (773-892-1233). $8.75.—HS

Allende is one of those restaurants we hit after a few too many margaritas—but unlike some other late-night haunts, it’s just as good in the light of day. Oozing with chihuahua cheese, the quesadilla is the best bang for your buck (plus 25 cents). 2408 N Lincoln Ave (773-477-7114). $1.25.—MC

In Chinatown, the two-item lunch combo at Spring World has lured loyalists for years, increasing in price by only a dollar in almost a decade. When you’re getting tea, rice, hot-and-sour soup and your pick of two classics (we like the kung pao chicken and the “mixed trio,” a tangle of chili oil–slicked glass noodles with vegetable shards—typically carrots, bean sprouts and scallions), the dollar raise still seems like a steal. 2109 S China Pl (312-326-9966). $4.95.—HS

There are cheaper tacos in town than those at Taco Joint. But whereas traditional taqueria tacos are small with scant filling, Taco Joint piles its housemade corn tortillas until plump with less-expected combinations of meats and salsas. The $3 birria taco, a rich and savory combination of lamb and pork offset by a salsa made from two kinds of spicy chilis, is our first pick. But to save a dollar a pop, the tinga—shredded chicken with crunchy cabbage and avocado sauce ($2)—is certainly no sacrifice. Order two or three for a solid dinner for less than $10. 1969 N Halsted St (312-951-2457).—DT

Go ahead, ogle the fried fish sandwich at Hagen’s Fish Market, a Northwest Side fishmonger, smoker and grocery. The filet of fresh, greaseless Alaskan pollock cannot be contained by the hamburger bun, flapping out to the sides with a display of bravado rarely seen among Filet-O-Fish. 5635 W Montrose Ave (773-283-1944). $3.70.—JK

The El Llano/Brasa Roja clan has built a mini empire on its rotisserie chicken, with four locations churning out a few hundred juicy, charcoal-fired birds a week. For $6.95, you can score a half-chicken dinner with boiled potatoes, a cornmeal arepa and caramelized sweet plantains, and taste the secret to success for yourself. for locations.—HS