Because lunch should be easy, and not a Go-Fish-style war of attrition (“Chipotle?” “Go fish. How ‘bout Potbelly’s?” “Go fish.”), we present our expertly curated, highly subjective Secret Lunch Guide, cataloguing all the most underappreciated midday meals in one local neighborhood. Up today: Wicker Park.
It would be fairly easy to phone it in on a list of crowd-pleasing lunch spots in too-trendy-for-its-own-good Wicker Park.
But you’ll find no Big Stars or Dove’s Luncheonettes here. Nor any Urbanbellies or Chevals of any size — mainly because you already know them.
Instead, we’ve dug up a few hidden gems, some quiet newcomers and others that have fed WP-ers for years, sans fanfare. Dig in.
Photo: Americano 2211
This cordially bright eatery opened quietly in the former Birchwood Kitchen space this spring with rightfully large shoes to fill. And fill them it did, with instant classics like fragrant shakshuka with soft-cooked eggs served alongside fat griddled bread for sopping (menu here). Also a pastry case of fresh-baked sweets that would make any café in Europe flush. Make the most of warmer days with a scoop of housemade ice cream (espresso ice cream with red wine cherries and crushed amaretti, anyone?) on the ivy-coated back patio.
En Hakkore 2.0
The second installment of Bucktown’s beloved bibimbap joint arrived last month in the short-lived Mondo Meatball space with a tightly focused menu of sushi burritos and Korean snacks. Ideal for a quick, casual lunch. Expect nori-wrapped burritos packed with al dente sushi rice and refreshing fillers like white tuna ceviche, avocado and cukes, or our favorite: crispy fried soft shell crab with eel sauce, mayo and asparagus. You could stop there, but why do that when there’s kimchi waffle fries?
This divey biker-friendly bar/resto is one of the neighborhood's last remaining gems. Loud music. Solid beer list. And, gasp, a mostly vegetarian menu heavy on the comfort food. Breakfast goes till 3 p.m. every day. All of which might sound ordinary but is far from it. Consider the Diablos — a Tex-Mexy hug of a dish featuring fried eggs and jack cheese (or vegan seitan chorizo and tofu) with hand-pressed corn tostadas, sweet-hot chipotle sauce, black beans, pico and brown rice. Add avocado? Why, yes we will. And we’ll have it outside, in arguably one of the city’s best beer gardens.
Maybe your last memory of eating Picante is a fuzzy 2 a.m. last call, but this mini mustard-yellow taqueria with the oft-curt staff turns out a tasty 15-minute lunch for the sober, too. Take your paper-bag lunch to the picnic table out front and shovel in a few tacos of the charred steak or crunchy chicharrones variety. Burrito is always a good go-to as well. Any of that ring a bell? No? No judgment.
This cash-only, counter-service Mediterranean spot lives squarely in don’t-mess-with-a-good-thing territory for a reason. Hummus-smeared, warm pita pockets stuffed with crisp-fried falafel and tabuli or Jeruselem salad will only set you back $3.75. Hit the self-serve tahini and shug station and load up on your condiments. Then take it outside to patio and watch North Ave. hustle by.
This low-key BYO spot has been slinging sinus-clearing curries and killer pineapple fried rice on a quiet stretch of North Ave. for years, and it’s still one of the best wallet-friendly lunches in the neighborhood. Crab Rangoon? Yep. Also the mouth-numbing yet subtly sweet yellow curry brimming with whole basil leaves, bamboo shoots, sweet potato and hunks of tender beef — which is like an $8.95 ticket to Thailand.
Pork & Mindy's
Don’t be deterred by the Food Network-ish touches permeating this fast-casual sandwich spot from network star (and executive chef) Jeff Mauro. “Sangwiches” and walls lined with branded sauces bearing Mauro’s mug notwithstanding, the guy makes a mean sandwich. Take the unassuming chicken salad roll, with mulberry smoked chicken and candied pecans tucked into a buttered roll and capped with minced giardiniera. It’s got hints of a Chicago classic.
Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya
This airy table-service ramen spot makes for an equally good business lunch or midday date, as long as you don’t mind slurping with abandon in front of present company. Don’t be overwhelmed by the menu. Start with some crispy chicken karaage and allow the servers to guide you to bowls like the spicy ramen, wherein meaty pork loin and spring-y noodles soak up a chili-laced broth flavor-blasted with roasted pork bone. If you aren’t rushing back to work, might we suggest chasing said ramen with a palate-cleansing pour of umeshi, a plummy, fruit-derived summer sipper?
Because what kind of respectable Chicago lunch guide neglects Italian Beef? This no-fuss offshoot of the family-run Harwood Heights joint does right by the stalwart Chicago sandwich, layering juicy, tender beef and homemade sweet or hot (celery-heavy fresh giard with textural crunch — aka the kind you want) on a Gonnella roll that remains mystically sogless post-jus dunk. Or give yourself a break from the overplayed decadent burger trend with the “just gimme the burger” version: juicy griddled beef, melted orange cheese and a soft bun.