Eat a Lot, Pay a Little for Tasty Food in Chicago
By Megy Karydes
Words like frugal, value, and deal mean different things to different people. So at 10Best, we picked a few of our favorite places where you can eat a yummy meal without spending tons of cash. A few of our favorites include Superdawg Drive-In and Al's #1, which are low in cost and among the quintessential Chicago dining experiences. While places like this get high marks for personality, they also are high in calories. That's why we also included some healthier options on our best value list. After all, you can only eat so much deep-dish pizza, hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches before you crave something that doesn't come with a side order of fries.
Some of the best values in town -- and some of the best food in town -- is found at Chicago's many ethnic restaurants. Here, you can order delicious, authentic and inexpensive dishes similar to those you'd find in Vietnam, Thailand or Greece loaded with flavorful noodles, rice and meats. The unique spices of country's cuisine lets you try adventurous new dishes without coughing up a lot of money. Chicago also has some wallet-friendly Cajun restuarants that serve food which tastes like it was made in Louisiana. In Chicago, a cheap meal doesn't have to be a low-quality one.
Outstanding Mediterranean and Lebanese food consistently comes from the kitchen of this longtime Andersonville favorite. The large menu includes a mix of meat and vegetarian options (vegan options too). Roast lamb with couscous, Moroccan chicken with apricots, and Mediterranean eggplant are just a few of the goodies that await. The dining room's fireplace, high ceilings and large windows put diners at ease and provide a welcoming ambiance. It's more upscale than most Medterranean restaurants, yet doesn't boost the prices. Try the lunch buffet, which includes soups and endless thin-and-crispy pita bread, and allows you to sample a lot of different dishes. (773-784-8616)
9 The Original Gino's East of Chicago
Chicago-style pizza has won droves of ardent fans, and this restaurant is probably the downfall for most of them. Just try to resist the irresistible, deep-dish Chicago pizza with oozing cheese, rich sauce, and fresh toppings from its crisp, cornmeal-infused crust. The spacious dining room seats 500 but still the lines form, and people eagerly await what is considered the best pizza in the town (or maybe anywhere). The ambience is casual with graffiti-covered walls (no profanity!) and dark booths. But people don't come here for the environment; they come for the pizza. You can even take a frozen one home if you call ahead. (312-943-1124)
8 Opart Thai
Lincoln Square's local Thai community is thriving. Among popular restaurants sporting authentic menus, Opart Thai House maintains a long list of regulars after two decades. Couples and friends enjoy Opart's welcoming BYOB policy while sharing crunchy Rangoons and nursing a generous-portion of Bamee soup. The atmosphere is cozy enough for a date, but budget-friendly enough to bring kids or a large group. The restaurant's located directly across the street from the Brown Line's Western Avenue "L" stop, and in neighborhood also known for its German heritage. After eating, you can stroll up and down the shops and restaurants along Lincoln Avenue. ((773) 989-8517)
7 Heaven on Seven
Open for breakfast and lunch only, people who love spicy Cajun and Creole dishes take a shopping break to feast on some of the zestiest gumbo this side of the Mason-Dixon. Or, try red beans and rice, jambalaya, or a catfish po' boy. All the Louisiana-style classics are boldly flavored and expertly prepared. Choose your poison from the wall of fiery hot sauces if you're feeling brave. The huge menu also offers basic lunchtime fare like deli sandwiches and burgers if you aren't in the mood for spice. Either way, the place is full of color and bustling with activity. Cash only. Also a location in west suburban Naperville. (312-263-6443)
6 Sultan's Market
This budget-friendly and delicious Middle Eastern spot specializes in falafel sandwiches on warm pita bread. But you can't go wrong with any of their Middle Eastern offerings, including homemade masada chicken soup or the lamb or chicken shawerma. Or share a plate of hummus as an appetizer. You will smell the garlic and olive oil as soon as you walk into this the small, dark, family-run restaurant, decorated with hookahs and drapes. Look through the glass displays to see what you want. Then order at the cafeteria-styled counter and take your tray to any open table. Walk off your meal by exploring North Avenue's little shops and restaurants. Also a Lincoln Park location. (773-235-3072)
5 Lou Malnati's Pizzeria - River North
This old-school pizza shop knows a thing or two about pies, and locals swear by the place's deep-dish crust, which showcases all manner of toppings. Try the "Lou," named for the restaurant's founder. It includes fresh spinach, mushrooms, sliced tomatoes, and mozzarella, romano, and cheddar cheeses. The "Deluxe" is a great value: cheese sausage, mushrooms, onions, and green peppers. Remember, a slice of deep dish pizza is way more filling than it looks, so when ordering, keep in mind that two slices is enough for most adults. Leaving Chicago? No problem, pizzas can be shipped overnight to most US cities. (312-828-9800)
4 Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop
The warm pancakes they give you when you first sit down, will make your mouth water for the rest of the meal. Located in the suburb of Evanston, immediately north of Chicago, this restaurant offers casual-style Deep South fare in an authentic, down-home setting that includes old license plates, rusty aluminum signs, and even an old timey gas pump. The Southern menu includes such comfort food as fried green tomatoes, johnny cakes with honey butter, blackened catfish fillet, jambalaya, and, of course, well-stocked Louisana gumbo. Full bar. (847-733-9030)
3 Penny's Noodle Shop — Lincoln Park
As you would expect, Penny's specialty is noodles! And she sells a lot of them to the hip crowd that packs her Sheffield Avenue location every night. Though the fare is admittedly, "Thai for the American palette," regulars swear the soups and pad Thai are some of the best in town � for a bargain price. Penny's is extremely popular, so expect to wait for a table, and bring your own liquor since Penny's doesn't have a license. EL: Red Line to Belmont. There are also locations in Bucktown, Oak Park and Wrigleyville. (773-281-8448)
2 Superdawg Drive-In
Family-owned since 1948, this hot dog drive-in (or eat-in) is a local institution, not only for its great menu but for its enormous, roof-top wiener mascots. Don't call them hot dogs, though. They're Superdawgs. Served in a box with the trademark "Hiya!" phrase on the front, the supersized dogs are nestled in poppy-seed buns and done up with relish, pickle spears, hot peppers, and pickled tomatoes. They come with hot, salt-sprinkled fries crammed into the box. Other possibilities: burgers, chicken breast sandwiches, Polish sausages, fish sandwiches, and ice cream. A kitschy classic that absolutely lives up to the hype. (773-763-0660, 773-478-7800)
1 Al's #1
Spots to sample a Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich abound, but no place holds a candle to the Little Italy original, which has been around since the late 30s. Steak spiced with garlic and oregano, grilled onions and peppers and a soggy loaf of white bread roll; this is what a sandwich is supposed to be! And it's also probably why napkins were invented. In addition to the signature sandwich, they also offer hotdogs and burgers. Nobody comes here for the decor, or if they're counting calories. But they'll leave with a happy full feeling, and the quintesential Chicago dining experience. (312-226-4017)
About Megy Karydes
Megy Karydes has spent more than 20 years as a professional writer and most of her life in Chicago. While she’s traveled extensively internationally, visiting each of the 50 states is on her bucket list. An adventure seeker, she’s game for anything from mixed martial arts training to competing in obstacle course races. A self-proclaimed coffee snob and “greenie” who loves farmer-grown food and locally-grown craft beers & wine. She’s yet to find an outdoor beer garden she doesn’t like. Mixing writing and food/drink is her specialty, especially when it involves travel. Visit her musings on her insatiable appetite for life at www.WanderingTastes.com or www.KarydesConsulting.com.
Read more about Megy Karydes here.