It was our dining Bible when my husband was in dental school in Chicago: The Good But Cheap Chicago Restaurant Guide. Because of TGBCCRG, we ate out frequently, even with little money and a baby-then-toddler. Many were ethnic – Bohemian restaurants where roast pork or half-duck dinners (including soup and dessert) cost $7.50; Italian joints in the deteriorating neighborhood between U of I’s medical and Circle campuses, where Mama cooked, and the front door was kept locked.
Our favorite was a miniscule Lithuanian, Tulpe. Filled (and filling) dumpling-esque dishes dominated. Some were round, some cylindrical, stuffed with meat, cheese or potato; all were topped with bacon, fried onions and sour cream. They were delicious but that wasn’t the only reason we loved Tulpe: On our first visit, the waitress wanted to show the cooks our redheaded 6-month-old; ever after, the cooks played with Anne in the kitchen while we ate. It was impossible to spend more than $10 for two – with leftovers.
Three decades later, Chicago’s dining scene has exploded. Many “foodies” – even in New York and L.A. – think Chicago currently has America’s most exciting restaurant scene. Much of that buzz is about high-end, high-priced establishments.
But there are also lots of moderately-priced – some downright cheap – places that make Chicago a top dining destination. If you’re in Chicago and don’t want to spend a bundle, you can eat cheap at fast-food chains, have a mediocre, moderately-priced meal at tourist joints….or you can eat extraordinary food that’s extraordinarily inexpensive. Here’s just a sampling. It’s not a comprehensive list – not even a comprehensive list of my own favorites. Some are old; others new. Some are ultra-casual; others sophisticated. A good source for restaurants in all price ranges is Time Out Chicago magazine. Each week’s print edition lists a rotating selection. TOC also publishes a yearly guide; that information, and updates, can be found online at www.timeoutchicago. Food blogs such as Chowhound (www.chowhound.com) and LTH Forum, www.lthforum.com are also useful.
Al’s #1 Italian Beef, 1079 W. Taylor. There are many Chicago beef stands, but this is not only the oldest (1938), in my opinion, it’s the best. The beef is great by itself, but even better paired with Italian sausage in the “combo.” Either way, do what Chicagoans do and get it dipped – the entire sandwich, including bread, dunked in au jus – and then topped with giardinara (a spicy hot pepper relish). It’s an absolutely scrumptious mess – bring a bib or wear something washable. Al’s is an especially good summer destination because across the street is….
Mario’s Italian Lemonade, 1068 W. Taylor. This tiny stand, decorated with lights made from old Chlorox bottles, is just a kid compared to Al’s: it opened in 1954. Mario’s uses only fresh lemons – peels included. There are flavorings; the best are made with chunks of fresh fruit such as cantaloupe, watermelon or strawberry. There’s nothing more refreshing on a hot, humid summer day.
Hot Doug’s, 3324 N. California. Lots of Windy City spots serve classic Chicago-style hot dogs, and Hot Doug’s version is as good as any. But it’s the other items on the menu that put Hot Doug’s a notch above. The only downside is that there’s likely to be a line stretching around the block – sometimes even if it’s raining or snowing. That’s because Chicagoans know that when they finally belly up to the counter to place their order, they’ll find dogs ranging from Chicago classic, to upscale dogs made with such things as chicken, cognac and cranberries, or foie gras and Sauternes duck sausage dogs topped with truffle aioli. On Fridays and Saturdays, the lines are even longer, because that’s when duck fat fries are available. The most expensive dog on the menu, that foie gras/duck sausage/truffle concoction, is only $9; the duck fat fries cost $3.50.
XOXO, 449 N. Clark. Want to eat the food of one of America’s most famous, most honored celebrity chefs for less than you’d pay at Olive Garden? Host of numerous PBS series, winner of the James Beard Foundation 1995 Best American Chef award, Winner of the Top Chef Master’s contest, sustainable food advocate Rick Bayless’s newest venture, XOXO, is next door to his other restaurants, Topolobampo (Mexican haute cuisine), Frontera Grill (more traditional and moderately-priced). XOXO (TOC’s 2010 Best New Restaurant) serves breakfast empanadas, made-to-order churros (Mexican doughnuts) and several varieties of hot chocolate from freshly roasted, ground-in-house cacao beans. At lunch, tortas (sandwiches) are served, and after 3 p.m., caldos, meal-in-a bowl soups. Many ingredients are locally and/or sustainably grown. Like Hot Doug’s, there’s often a line.
Avec, 615 W. Randolph. Like XOXO, Avec is next door to its pricier big sister, Blackbird, the offspring of top Chicago chef, Paul Kahan. Avec’s chef, Koran Grieveson, has become well-known on her own, though, (2008 Food and Wine Best New Chef) for her rustic Mediterranean cuisine. Though there are some higher-priced items, most of the menu is small plates meant to be shared – bacon-wrapped chorizo-stuffed dates in tomato/pepper sauce, house-made sausages, and seasonal specialties. Communal tables, and a bar line the narrow, stylishly bare-wood space; the crowd (and there’s always a crowd) is stylish, too.
One reason Chicago has so many affordable-yet-exceptional restaurants is their liberal BYO licensing laws. Not only do the restaurants avoid insurance and inventory expense, customers save by not having to pay restaurant liquor markups. The next two restaurants are BYO.
Urban Belly, 3053 N. California. You’d probably drive right past the small undistinguished strip mall where Urban Belly is located unless you knew it was there. But its exterior is deceiving. Inside, Urban Belly mixes coolly Zen-like décor with order-at-the counter service. Chef/owner Bill Kim is one of a growing number of chefs de cuisine who’ve left high-end restaurants to start their own more casual establishments. The outside may be obscure, but Kim’s sophisticated Asian cooking has Chicagoans beating a path to the door with creations like lamb and brandy or Asian squash and bacon dumplings, soba noodles with Bay scallops and oyster mushroom, and rice bowls with organic pea shoots and Thai basil.
Jam, 937 N. Damen. Like Kim, chef/owner Jeffery Mauro is a veteran of some of Chicago’s best restaurants, including Charlie Trotter’s and North Pond. Jam is his first solo venture (albeit with a business partner). The décor is modern, with an open kitchen and gorgeously lacy wall sconces; there’s a sculpture garden with fountain for warm weather seating.
Jam opened nine months ago, serving only breakfast and lunch; and immediately began making a name. I’ve never thought of breakfast as cutting-edge, but what else to call malted-custard French toast with rhubarb and lime-leaf cream? Or an egg sandwich with pork cheeks, housemade green apple ketchup, and ricotta? Or savory buckwheat crępes with braised lamb, Asian pear and hazelnut-sage glaze?
Mauro started serving dinner three weeks ago. Like breakfast and lunch, it’s innovative and affordable. My daughter and I recently had the tasting menu which included: Asparagus soup with crisped proscuitto, and Meyer lemon, Foie gras tortellini with English pea purée and melted onions, Escolar (a Gulf fish) with ricotta, pineapple gnocchi, pineapple Asian basil and pecan emulsion
Duck breast with braised red cabbage and duck confit pierogi, Malted chocolate mini-doughnuts with malt crystals, chocolate mousse and banana jam.
The cost? An incredibly low $25.
Mauro says there are still kinks to be worked out in the dinner service and he’s right: service was professional, but slow, and additional lighting is needed in the garden for nighttime dining. There are no kinks in the food, though. Cutting edge is only as good as it tastes, and so far, everything I’ve had at Jam has passed the test with flying colors.
It’s agonizing to have to stop here because there are so many more – and so many more to discover. I’d love to hear about your Chicago good-but-cheap favorites, too!
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.