Great, Cheap and Unique
Some of us San Francisco folks are coming out to Chicago for eight days and are looking for food unique to the area. The best deep dish pizza is the obvious question...but what other treasures would make us never want to come back to S.F. My instincts tell me that more upscale restaurants would not be that different than here and our pockets are not that deep. We're staying near Grant Park, but would be willing to travel to the furthest corners for some sort of great ethnic food other than Mexican, India/Pakistan or any Asian Cuisine.
Regarding pizza, there are a lot of threads on this. There are three styles of pizza in Chicago: stuffed, deep dish, and thin. Stuffed means there is a bottom crust, topped with cheese and optional fillings (I like spinach), topped with another thin layer of dough, and finally topped with tomato sauce and cheese. Deep dish is a thick crust with toppings. Thin is ... regular thin crust pizza.
Most places that do deep dish also do stuffed and thin, and vice versa. There are many places that do thin but not the other two. Within the thin category there are some that resemble east coast pizza and others that have a slightly thicker crust. So, pizza isn't so simple here.
My favorites are Pequod's, Lou Malnattis, and Art of Pizza. If you search for earlier threads you'll get other recs and lively debates.
Then there is the "Chicago style" fast foods, like hot dogs and Italian Beef. These are good, esp if you grew up with them. Again, do a search and you'll get a lively debate on the best of .... My rec is to go to Wiener's Circle for a Chicago style hot dog. They have great fries and it's in a pretty fun neighborhood.
Ethnic food. So you're going to rule out Mexican and Asian cuisines. What else did you have in mind? There are a lot of Eastern European places in town. There are many South and Central American places, including Puerto Rican, but I couldn't tell you one that is great off the top of my head.
There are many great Southern European places also, especially Greek. Greektown is not far from your hotel (though you'd probably want to take a cab). Search for Greek on this board and, again, you'll get a lively debate about which is best. My opinion is that any of the major Greek places on Halsted will serve you an excellent meal. My experience in the Bay Area was that it is severely lacking in Greek food.
See, for example, http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...
There are many Italian places, but the Bay Area has a great scene also.
Finally, you might want to reconsider Mexican. I lived in the Bay Area for a while and didn't find many great Mexican places. Chicago has both corner Mexican places (which are probably similar to what you might find in the Bay Area) and very innovative, gourmet Mexican places. My favorite is Salpicon. Other's like Rick Bayless' Topolombapo and Frontera Grill. Again, these have been discussed many times on this board, so you'll get a lot of opinions if you search here and on lthforum.com.
Chicago has more Polish people than any city but Warsaw so this is a great city for eating Polish food, which often comes in the form of a "Polish smorgasbord". I recommend The Red Apple, 3123 N Milwaukee, phone 773-588-5781. You will find a very extensive buffet of homecooked food, constantly replentished by nice Polish kitchen ladies, all-you-can-eat for less than $10: at least a dozen meats, potatoes, sauerkraut, pierogies, potato pancakes, and dozens of other things. To get there from Grant Park walk west to State Street and north to the northeast corner of State and Madison (across Madison from the wrought iron Art Nouveau door of Carson Pirie Scott) and take the #56 Milwaukee bus. Ask the driver to call Hamlin Street (a 20-minute ride). This will let you off right in front of The Red Apple. If you're looking for a delicious ethnic bargain, you won't be sorry you went. PS This strip of Milwaukee is very Polish. Don't miss Avondale Liquors, where you can buy "Polish Cherry", a liqueur.
OR if you would prefer Indian/Pakistani food, take the Red Line subway (which runs under State Street) toward Howard. Get off at Loyola. Emerge from the station; right there in front of McDonald's is a bus stop where you will wait for the #155 Devon bus. Ask the driver to call Western Avenue (a ten-minute ride but not a nice walk). When you get off you will be surrounded by Indian and Pakistani restaurants, all very inexpensive and most offering a lunch buffet for about $8. Walk west on Devon. Also browse the shops selling saris, jewelry, religious artifacts, and very interesting groceries (many spices sell for $2 per pound bag).
Ethnicity and economy combine well in Chicago---but you MUST get out of downtown to sample this excellent chemistry.
If you are staying near Grant Park there isn't a lot of chowish interest right near by, unfortunately. Will you have a car? With or without a car, in eight days you can visit a lot of places. By the way, I agree with the other posters that you shouldn't necessarily rule out certain cuisines at the outset.
Mexican: There are more Mexicans in Chicago than there are in the Bay Area, and Mexican food here is great. Go to one of the upscale Mexican places if your budget allows; also sample street food at the Sunday morning "Maxwell Street" Market (now on Canal St at Roosevelt). Or check out the places Antonius and I listed for one of your SF board colleagues last year:
One place that's not in one of the usual Mexican neighborhoods that you might find interesting is Taqueria Puebla, on North Ave near Pulaski. Try a cemita there, and also a taco arabe, both specialties of the city of Puebla.
Thai: Chicago has excellent Thai food at, for example, Spoon, Sticky Rice, and TAC Quick. Translations of the Thai menus can be found on Erik M's website:
Puerto Rican: have a jibarito sandwich (invented in Chicago) and pollo chon roast chicken at Papa's Cache Sabroso (Division west of Western). Lechon (roast pork) is available on Saturdays (the restaurant is closed on Sunday).
As mentioned above, Devon Ave is great for Indian and Pakistani food; it also has Israeli, Afghan, and a Georgian bakery. It's a fun street to walk along.
I agree with Darren that Greektown would be a good destination for you. My favorite place is Santorini; Venus, which serves Cypriot food, would also be interesting (e.g. halloumi saganaki).
Besides Polish, Czech, Ukrainian and Lithuanian would also be possible. Let us know if you want suggestions for such places.
Maybe BBQ? Check out the reviews of Honey One here and on lthforum.com. Besides ribs, a very Chicago thing to order at a BBQ place is a combo of rib tips and hot links.
Laschet's Inn on Irving Park is a very good German restaurant. Get the hackepeter (raw beef) appetizer.
As Darren mentioned, another food item typical of Chicago is an Italian Beef sandwich. Try the version at Al's on Taylor Street (get it with hot peppers), and have an Italian ice at Mario's stand across the street afterward.
Have fun, and it'd be great to hear what you try.
p.s. just two further comments, since you're looking for cheap chow and have shallow pockets: first, you may experience the pleasant sensation of "reverse sticker shock" here in Chicago. For example, I see from reading the SF board lately that a full slab of ribs in Berkeley or Oakland might run you $28 to $32. At a rib place here the price would be more like $14 to $18.
Second, if you guys are carless during your stay, get passes for the CTA buses and el trains/subways. 7 day passes with unlimited rides are $20; passes for shorter time periods are also available.
And use the CTA trip planner to figure out how to get to all the chow-rich neighborhoods of the city:
Dogs: Since Chicago appears to built on meat and it's debatable cousin the hot dog, I think you would do well to check out Hot Doug's on California. It's a bit of a haul from Grant Park but this place is pretty unique...an inexpensive gourmet hot dog palace. I few weeks ago I think their special was pheasant sausage or some such, and they have many other unique and standard varieties.
I'm afraid I can't recommend the Weiner's Circle, except for the attitude. The dog's are charred, which is OK, but I differ with Darren on my experience with the fries- I've found them terribly greasy with oil that often tastes as if it hasn't been changed recently. The place is a hoot for the generally abusive (to customers) atmosphere.
Pizza: Lou Malnati's and, downtown, Pizzeria Uno for deep dish. I have given up on finding true NY-style thin (flat and foldable) pizza here, but Piece on North is a pretty great place. Fresh ingredients, excellent (thin) pies and a uniquely odd hippie-boho meets Big 10 sports bar atmosphere.