The Hungry Chef’s Guide to Chicago’s Best Cheap Eats
15 chefs dish on their favorite places to dine on a budget
Ask any chef why Chicago has the best dining scene in the country and they’ll tell you it’s a combination of exceptional taste both high and low.
This is about the latter.
Because ask those same chefs where to find the best cheap eats in town, and they’ll give you more recs than you can shake a Portillo’s hot dog at.
Don’t believe us? We just talked to 15 of ‘em.
In other news, we know where we’re having lunch from now until October.
Alex Placencia, Executive Chef, Fat Baby Tacos (Opening May 2017)
“Our entire team loves Rubi’s at Maxwell Street Market. The market is only open on Sundays from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and there’s usually a 30-minute line, but it’s absolutely worth the wait. The taco stand is a family-run business which we admire, and the energy of the space is electric. I always order the carne or lengua (tongue) tacos. Most of the tacos are only $3, so it definitely falls into the cheap eats category. I always look forward to heading there on Sundays!”
Aaron Lirette, Executive Chef, GreenRiver
“There’s a place by my house called Rootstock — an awesome wine bar with a kitchen that stays open until 1 a.m. They have a fantastic burger made with single-farm ground beef and topped with pickled jalapeños, lettuce and their version of special sauce. It comes with a green salad, but I usually get fries. Shake Shack has an excellent burger, too, so I’ll get a double with everything on it, plus the crinkle cut fries with cheese sauce. And then there’s Village Pizza, which is open until 4 a.m. and is the kind of place you don’t show up sober, but they do have giant slices of pizza.”
Josh Kulp, Chef/Owner, Honey Butter Fried Chicken
“El Asadero all the way — they do steak tacos right. Well-seasoned, seared hard on the grill and served simply with cilantro and onion and a fiery salsa verde. It’s affordable, too, coming in at just $2.43.”
Abraham Conlon, Chef/Partner, Fat Rice
“Cafe Orchid been open for a while and has always had consistent and delicious Turkish food. The restaurant is also BYOB and has great vegetarian selections. There’s also Birrieria Zaragoza, a great, high-quality family restaurant with delicious Mexican food and handmade tortillas. It is located near Midway airport, so if anyone is ever flying in from Midway, I would happily volunteer to pick them up in trade for a quesadilla. Grill Master has huge chicken and beef kabobs. I love their fresh avocado salads and extremely satisfying Kyrgyzstani soups. Plus, they are open really late, so it’s perfect for a late night out. Then there’s Don Pedro Carnitas. It’s an amazing OG spot for carnitas in Pilsen. Get there early, because it fills up fast! Don’t miss out on the goat head soup, brain tacos and nopales salads on the weekends.”
Ben Lustbader, Chef/Partner, Giant
“For a delicious al pastor burrito, I head to L’Patron. They use great tortillas and the crispy pork edges can’t be beat. When I’m shopping at the Joong Boo Market in Avondale, I always hit up the food stand outside for their kimchi dumplings. And for a great lunch — or snack if you’re really hungry — you can’t go wrong with the Italian Sub or Veggie Italian Sub (marinated eggplant) at Bari. Don’t forget to ask for the spicy giardiniera.”
Brian Enyart and Jennifer Jones, Chefs/Partners, Dos Urban Cantina
“We really love the Cubano at Cafecito. It’s the best Cubano sandwich we have found in the city. The kitchen staff is fast and everyone is always really friendly there. We also like to stop into Old Jerusalem for the falafel sandwich when we are in Old Town. It’s a ton of food for the price and is so delicious. They even have fresh-pressed apple and carrot juice there!”
Sarah Grueneberg, Chef/Partner, Monteverde Restaurant & Pastificio
“I love all the salsas and the avocado on everything at Cemitas Puebla. The Fulton Market location is close enough to Monterverde, so we can pick it up before heading into work. My favorite sandwich is the Milanese, because who doesn’t love a fried cutlet? Don’t miss the chicharron quesadilla, which has an awesome crispy texture. Get the lamb cumin flatbreads at Xi’an Cuisine. Put on a few drops of Chinese black vinegar. Heaven! Also a must is the hand-stretched noodles with black vinegar, soy and hot oil. They cook a lot of northern Chinese offal dishes. Try them! Last time I was there, we had chilled noodles with tripe that were delicious.”
Fabio Viviani, Chef/Partner, Siena Tavern
“When I have some free time to get a bite to eat, one of my favorite places is Pork & Mindy’s, my friend Jeff Mauro’s spot. Let me tell you, the man gets it right when making sandwiches — the Bao to the Pork sandwich is a must-try. You really get a monster sandwich for what you pay. When I take my wife out, I like to go to La Scarola, an old school eatery with Italian-inspired dishes. And last but not least, I love to take the family out to Walker Bros. The Original Pancake House out in the suburbs. For less than $10, they make the best potato pancakes — I get it with extra sour cream!”
Andrea Williams, Executive Chef, ZED451
“My favorite cheap eats is my neighborhood bistro, Hutch. They are in a small spot on the corner of Clark and School, which is walking distance from my house. The food and drink menu changes seasonally so I never get bored. The dining room is small and cozy and the bar is full of regulars on Tuesdays when I go for Happy Hour. Mondays there is a discounted $10 entree off their regular menu and Tuesdays (my fav!) is the steak and fries for $12. If you’re industry every day is happy hour for you. Ask for Maura at the bar, she is one of the best bartenders in the city!”
Zachary Walrath, Chef de Cuisine, The Florentine
“Aloha Eats on Clark St. in Lincoln Park does Hawaiian food right. Get the Chicken Katsu with macaroni salad and rice. Also they have Spam Katsu as well which is breaded fried spam. Another place for cheap eats is Cookies & Carnitas in Edgewater. You might recognize the name because they have a booth at the Green City Market. Their storefront offers tacos and pizza, but the sandwiches and cookies are where it’s at. The pork belly carnitas sandwich is amazing: fried crispy pork belly, a nice vinegary slaw, hot sauce and a ciabatta bun really make for a quality, yet cheap sandwich. On your way out get any one of their XL cookies. I happen to like the triple chocolate cookie, but you really can’t go wrong with any of them. Also, they do a massive ice cream sandwich with their huge cookies great for a summertime treat!”
Brian Fisher, Executive Chef, Entente
“I live right above Aberdeen Tap and you can’t go wrong with the buffalo wings and Miller High Life combo. In Chinatown, Three Happiness and Phoenix are my top picks. Order soup dumplings and chicken feet (don’t be afraid of the chicken feet, they are delicious). I also love Bun Bo Hue at Nha Hang Viet Nam on Argyle.”
Danny Grant, Executive Chef, Maple & Ash
“Without a doubt Taco Veloz on Chicago Ave. They have all my favorite things: burritos, tequila, cold Coronas and karaoke! Their staff is friendly and always greets me with a hug and a kiss making me feel like I’m at home and well cared for. It’s a perfect way to end a long night/week and disconnect from the city.”
Gene & Jude’s
Dino Tsaknis, Executive Chef, Primehouse
“Growing up in Chicago, as soon as we were able to drive we always went to Gene & Jude’s for cheap eats. We’d go there to start the day or late at night. For basically $8 you get two dogs, fries, plus a pop. When I was a starving and broke college student I went there, when I was a starving and broke cook I went there, and even now as a fattened and slightly less broke chef I still go there. It’s a comforting no-frills hot dog with choice of topping: mustard, onion, relish, sport peppers, that’s it, and that’s all you need!”
Nicole Bayani, Chef, Presidio
“Raymond’s Tacos and Hamburgers #2 sells a pretty straightforward Chicago taco, but they put American cheese in between the two tortillas. It sounds disgusting, but it gets all melty and is a perfect at 4 a.m. The counter faces the flat top and it’s awesome to watch the cooks, they’re very good at their jobs. I love Korean BBQ and in my opinion Cho Sun Ok is the best place for quality and value. It’s fun to get a bunch of people together and share everything, plus it’s BYOB. The service is efficient/borderline rude, but that’s all part of the experience.”