When it comes to fancy-pants dining, Chicago has you covered—and then some. We have one of the world's most celebrated restaurants (hello, Alinea!) and a fine-dining scene that is constantly exciting us with innovative new offerings. But sometimes we're a bit strapped for cash—and, Chicago, you have us covered there, too, with cheap eats, killer dive bars, cash-only holes-in-the-wall and delivery/takeout spots where you can eat super well for supercheap. But not all cheap eating is created equal. We rounded up our favorite cheap eats that are as friendly to the wallet—$10 or less—as they are delightful to the taste buds. Check out these 15 top dishes, and our full list of 50 cheap eats.
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The best cheap eats in Chicago
The menu at Portillo's is long on fast-food staples. We're fans of the hot dog served in classic Chicago style with mustard, relish, celery salt, chopped onions, tomatoes, pickle and sport peppers on a sesame-seed bun. And we're definitely ordering the crinkle-cut french fries with the cheese sauce. Oh, hell, while we're here, we might as well get that chocolate-cake shake, too. ($3).
J.P. Graziano's has been selling meat since 1937 but its killer subs have only been on the menu since 2007. None of the sandwiches will set you back more than $10, but the Italian is our favorite: a bunch of meats—hot capicola, Volpi Genoa salami, hard salami and mortadella—plus provolone, tomato, lettuce, red wine vinegar and oregano on a long roll from D'amato's Bakery. ($7.25).
There are plenty of hyped burgers in the city, and one of the best comes from a cash-only spot in Lakeview. It's open almost all the time (it's only closed from 4am to 10:30am), so whenever you're looking for a crispy-edged patty with melty American cheese, LTO, ketchup, mustard and special sauce, you should be heading to Red Hot Ranch. ($5.43).
This spot is one of the gems of Albany Park, with cheaper-than-dirt (almost), delicious sushi of all kinds. Among our favorites are the rainbow roll (a steal at $5.95) and the tamago sushi ($1). Most pieces of sushi and sashimi are less than $2 each, with most rolls clocking in at under $8 (many below $5). And whatever your fish of choice, the rice is made well—sticky and light. More, please. ($1–$5.95).
Sometimes all you want is a single slice of deep-dish pizza. (Yes, even if you're a Chicago native.) The Art of Pizza has a variety of stuffed slices and thin-crust pizza, and—trust us on this one—you want the stuffed. We're keen on the vegetarian slice, with a shower of mushrooms, onion, green pepper, tomato, broccoli and spinach; the melty mozzarella, the buttery crust and the oregano-flaked sauce really kick it over the edge. ($3.95).
Pretty much everything you can get at Sultan's Market is cheap and delicious, but a solid option is the salad bar, where you can pick and choose from 30 items for a piddling $6 per pound. It isn't your typical salad bar; this one's stocked to the brim with pita bread, hummus, baba ghanoush, stuffed grape leaves, marinated artichokes and more exciting options. For something a little warmer, grab one of the baked pies—we like both the egg and cheese and the spinach pies, each a hearty bite for the price. (Salad bar $6/lb, $2/pie).
We love these fluffy, sweet pancakes with vanilla butter (bonus points: they're gluten-free, and you won't even notice). A word to the wise: Dip your pancakes in the maple syrup before drizzling it atop the stack to gauge how much you want; we prefer our pancakes here as cupcakey as possible, with almost no syrup. ($10).
Farmers' market regulars know Gayle's grilled cheese sandwiches from her regular appearances at Logan Square, Green City, SOAR and Daley Plaza markets. But now Gayle Voss has a brick-and-mortar location in the Pedway at Block 37. We're fans of the classic grilled cheese ($6), with Prairie Pure Butterkäse cheese and crispy sourdough bread from Bennison's Bakery. It's melty and creamy, just like mama used to make. Order it with a side of the tomato pesto soup.
The Budlong serves Nashville-style hot chicken at locations around the city, each with dinners built to satisfy those looking for a taste of the South. The best-value dinners are "the smalls," with two pieces of white or dark chicken each. You can pick your seasoning—we like the "classic," with just enough heat for us to feel it, but not too much burn. The dish comes with two sides, but don't skip the flaky, buttery-as-hell biscuit. ($9).
With three locations across the Chicagoland area (Chinatown, the Loop and Naperville), this authentic chainlet has a bunch of affordable dishes, but the bang-for-your-buck award goes to the chicken fried rice. It may not sound adventurous, but damn if it isn't tasty with fluffy rice, veggies and a stir-fried egg; and you'll be eating it for three days. ($8.95).
We're pretty sure there's nothing you won't love from Tac Quick, whether you're looking at the official menu or the not-so-secret "secret menu," but we like the pad see ew, one of the best versions of the dish in the city. With your choice of meat cooked with stir-fried wide rice noodles, broccoli, egg and sweet soy sauce, it could probably serve for multiple meals, but we can't seem to drop our fork. ($7.95).
Father-son duo Robert Adams Sr. and Jr. have moved their Honey 1 BBQ from the Northwest Side to Bronzeville, but they're still churning out delicious house-smoked meats with Arkansas flair (Adams Sr. hails from the Southern state). Particularly drool-inducing: the spot's spicy-hot links and tender rib tips slathered in a sticky barbecue sauce. The meal comes in a variety of sizes, but the mini is enough to serve one person. Fries and bread help soak up excess sauce. ($6.50).
Sidecar at LR has you covered when you start to feel the hunger pangs after a long postwork craft-beer session. Just mosey on over from your booth in the back, and order the chili mac at the inside walk-up window. It's chili, "lunch-lady style," with ground beef and kidney beans mixed into a great mac and cheese that combines campanelle pasta, curd cheese sauce and bread crumbs. It's creamy, spicy and damn hearty. ($8).
Ramen Misoya opened nearly a year ago in River North, bringing the ultimate miso education to Chicago. Here you learn about both gold and silver miso broth, the base of the ramen. Order a "normal" ramen bowl for less than $10 with silver or gold miso, but we like gold the best—the broth is thicker, with a heartier and meatier taste. With a nice bite, the noodles pull the ramen dish together into a warm bowl perfect for a chilly afternoon. ($9.70).
Carnitas are served by the pound at Carnitas Uruapan (and you'll see plenty of people lining up to get pounds to take home and dress up themselves), but you can also grab tacos to eat at the restaurant. A large handful of carnitas with your choice of the cut is set on top of two corn tortillas and served with salsa for just $2.75. Order chicharrones for a crispy side if you have room. Head to the Pilsen stop early, though; the carnitas start to sell out in the afternoon. ($2.75).