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. $3.19.
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 $12, 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. $8.25.
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 4 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. $5.20.
The titular meat is 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 less than $3. 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 per taco.
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 and the tamago sushi. Most pieces of sushi and sashimi are less than $2 each, with many rolls clocking in at under $8 (many below $5). And whatever your fish of choice, the rice is made well—sticky and light. $1–$5.95.
If it's wrong to order a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as a grown adult, we don't want to be right. Two thick slices of flaky house-made brioche are sealed together with swaths of peanut butter and tangy apricot jam. This simple yet upgraded classic will slingshot you back to your lunchbox-toting days. $8.
This no-frills Back of the Yards restaurant slings a first-class beef jibarito that’s accessorized with cheese, tomato, grilled onions and lettuce. But the star of the show is the plantain “bun,” which is expertly seasoned and fried to crispy-chewy perfection. $6.95.
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. $4.22.
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, either. This one's stocked to the brim with pita bread, hummus, baba ghanoush, stuffed grape leaves, marinated artichokes and more exciting options. Just be sure to stop by the ATM: This place is cash-only. $6 per pound.
Father-son duo Robert Adams Sr. and Jr. 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.
Curtis Rund introduced Chicagoans to Northwest Indiana-style burgers through his Roscoe Village restaurant—and thank God for that. This little-known delicacy is all about the smashed patty, which results in crispy, caramelized edges that extend well past the bun. The beef is topped with a slice of American cheese, mayo-based Region sauce, relish and raw onion. Most surprising of all, it makes us want to visit Indiana. $8.95.
If you consider yourself a taco enthusiast, add this low-key Avondale joint to your list and treat yourself to an order of tacos al pastor. Juicy and slightly charred, the meat is wrapped in two tortillas and sprinkled with raw onions and cilantro (as it should be). Three is enough to satisfy your craving. $2.50 each.
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. Get the most bang for your buck by ordering a quarter pound of white or dark meat, which is served with Texas toast and sweet Budlong pickles. You can pick your seasoning—we like the "classic," with just enough heat for us to feel it, but not too much burn. $9.
Like many of the menu items at this Chengdu-homaging restaurant, these supple pork dumplings swim in a searing, bright-red oil made from dried chilies and numbing Sichuan peppercorns. A slow burn will haunt your lips long after the meal ends. $6.
The crown jewel of Lito’s empanada lineup is stuffed with spicy chorizo, potato, and melty mozzarella and Muenster cheeses, which glue everything together. Pair it with the in-house sweet sauce, a mayo-based creation that tames the heat. $3.25.
Farmers' market regulars know Gayle's grilled cheese sandwiches from her regular appearances at Logan Square, Green City, SOAR and Daley Plaza markets. But Gayle Voss also has a brick-and-mortar location in the Pedway at Block 37. We're fans of the Sweetie Pie sandwich with Prairie Pure Swiss cheese, fresh raspberry jam and crunchy pecans. It's melty and creamy, just like mama used to make. $10.
This coma-inducing sando should get you through lunch and dinner. A flaky bun is stacked with crispy eggplant medallions, fried chicken, gooey mozzarella, serrano chilies and spicy mayo. It's a messy good time that can easily be shared or kept to yourself (we're not judging). $10.