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Lunch recs during a two-day visit

My fiancee and I are travelling across the country from NYC to Seattle in early October, and stopping for about two days in Chicago.

We plan to have dinner at Frontera Grill on one night, but need advice for two lunches, and a more affordable dinner on the second night; budget is an issue.

I have been treated to a wealth of info on this site and that LTHF board, but I'm having trouble narrowing it down for a short stay: Greektown (Greek Islands, Rodity's)? What we outsiders view as more quintessential chicago fare (Jim's Original, beef sandwiches, etc)? The handful of Thai spots I have heard so much about (TAC, Sticky Rice, Spoon)? Taquierias and carnitas spots in Pilsen (numerous)?

I am tempted to ditch Greektown for cost concerns, but maybe we should experience the vibe there. PErhaps a solid cheap lunch can be had there (all I have heard of are the aforementioned sit-down places). Similarly, should we ditch Frontera, and go for the atmosphere of Pilsen and a cheaper spot?

Are the thai spots really all that, compared to what we might get in new york or seattle? I am overlooking the slavic or e. europeans scene? I hear talk of an obscure indo-chinese scene also.

I would appreciate help with this difficult question.

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  1. I would not scrub your plans for dinner at Frontera. You don't say what days of the week you're coming - Frontera is closed on Mondays, and can be incredibly crowded on Fridays and Saturdays. Several tips: go when they first open (at 5:30, I think), or go and be prepared to wait (some people say the predictions of 2-hour wait times are bogus, a way to thin the crowd, and if you agree to the wait, you may be seated earlier), or consider eating at the bar (they have several tables in the back, but you can also eat at the bar itself).

    Greektown would then be a nice, inexpensive lunch option. Also, our Vietnamese neighborhood, with it's commercial heart centered on Argyle Street, is a great lunch destination. It's easily accessible on the "Red Line" L train - just get off at the Argyle stop and you're right there. There are many recs on this board for good places to have pho.

    Or - go north on the Red Line, transfer at Fullerton or Belmont to the Brown Line, and get off at Western. You are now just a short walk from a great Thai place - Spoon Thai. Ask for the translated Thai menu for some unusual dishes that you won't find just everywhere.

    A cheap dinner? - that would be Greektown, in my book. You could do Thai or Vietnamese if you didn't choose those for lunch. That might be a good idea - go for Italian Beef and Chicago pizza for your lunches, then an ethnic neighborhood place for dinner. Just be sure to check on whether they're BYOB or not.

    1. Yes, what days will you be here, where are you staying, and what else do you plan to do besides eat? (not that other activities are necessary!) And you'll have a car, right?

      I agree with Akatonbo that you should go to Frontera. If you had more time it would be fun to also go to the neighborhood Mexican places, but there's other stuff you want to try. Frontera is slightly cheaper at lunchtime, by the way (just to complicate your options further).

      I also think one of the Thai places should be on your list. Have you looked at Erik M's website for his menu translations? (http://www.silapaahaan.com/) And perhaps you saw on LTH Dave Feldman's reports on going to TAC and Spoon recently, where he says the high points of the meals there surpassed anything at NYC Thai restaurants. If you go to Spoon, as Akatonbo suggests above, you might enjoy having a beer beforehand at the Huettenbar, 4721 N. Lincoln. Lincoln Square used to be a solidly German neighborhood, and there are still some shops, etc.

      In Greektown you can hold costs down by sharing an assortment of appetizers. My favorite place is Santorini, and I would definitely recommend including the grilled octopus appetizer in what you order.

      I think I would recommend skipping Vietnamese as one of the meal options for your stay, even though there are many good and inexpensive spots here. You'll surely find a lot of Vietnamese food in Seattle, and you might as well spend your time in Chicago on the food you won't see as much out there.

      So perhaps for your other cheap lunch you could hit Jim's Original for a polish, and then drive over to Al's Italian Beef on Taylor Street (less than a mile away) and split a sandwich there? (Unfortunately Mario's, the Italian ice stand across from Al's, will close for the season on Sept 17.) Or maybe a combo of rib tips and hot links at one of our BBQ places? Honey One on Western south of Fullerton would be the easiest for you to get to.

      enjoy your stay and we'd love to hear where you end up.

      1. wow, thanks so much for the early tips.

        Unfortunately, I think I will be arriving there on Monday midday, so Frontera could be tough, unless we do a tuesday night and leave wednesday morning. What do you think about a Frontera lunch?

        Any thoughts on visiting Pilsen/Little Village? For atmosphere or food.

        1 Reply
        1. re: equinoise

          You can do lunch at Topolobampo (Rick Bayless' other restaurant, co-located with Frontera), as well. Prices are much more reasonable than at dinner - had a memorable lunch there during the summer when we visited Chicago.

        2. A great place for lunch in Greektown is the Artopolis Bakery, particularly if it's a nice day and you can sit in the open window watching time go by. Altho limited in menu, it's probably the most European of the Greektown establishments, which tend to be cooky-cutter Chicago-Greek in both menu and ambience (altho usually an interesting experience for the first-timer). Here's the Artopolis website:

          1. Don't skip Greektown. Definitely try Greek Islands. The food quality is fantastic and the prices are quite reasonable. Rodity's has a few notable dishes like Spanakopita, homemade gyros (a major treat, delicious but a little greasy), egg lemon soup, navy bean soup, potato garlic spread, etc., but Greek Islands is better. Everything is great here. Free Valet Parking!

            Forget the Thai restuarants since you have many in New York.

            Definitely try Hot Dougs for a new spin on the Chicago Style Dog. This hot dog joint offers the tradional Chicago Dog, the Chicago Polish Sausage as well as the new generation of hot dogs...buffalo dogs, duck fat fries, elk dogs, chicken dogs, etc, etc....too many to list.

            For excellent Mexican food, try Pancho Pistolas on 31st street just east of Halsted in the Bridgeport neighborhood. Great carne asada (skirt steak), fajitas, tamales, etc.

            For the very best steak burrito and steak taco, try El Asadero on Montrose Avenue at Lincoln.

            I totally agree that you should try some of our great eastern european places like;
            LUNCH on weekends only / dinner every day:
            Resi's Bier Stube on Irving Park Road will transform you to another place. It's a fantastic German Pub with tons of amazing German Beer, German Food, a great local crowd, and of course a German Syle Bier Garden. Then walk west to O'Donnonvans for a drink at a Traditional Irish Pub with a great outdoor patio. Ask for Heather or Jonnie and tell them that Alex sent you. Food is so so.

            Reza's for Persian Food is great. I prefer the original location in the Andersonville neiborhood. Great food, atmosphere and neighborhood. Great lunch buffet and weekend bruch. Afterwards stop at the Hopleaf for an incredible Belgian Beer selection. Great Belgian Bar Food as well. This is one of the best pubs anywhere.

            Wishbone in Greektown on west Washington for Southern, Cajun, and Mexican inspired breakfast and lunch. Great place and dirt cheap!
            Ina's on west Randolph street for gourmet breakfast. Try the Heavenly Hots pancakes...my gosh are these unbelievable!

            1. I agree with jbw that Artopolis is a very nice spot.


              For Pilsen, it really depends on what you are looking for. For a big sit-down restaurant with a lot of different things on the menu, I'd recommend Nuevo Leon (18th between Laflin and Ashland). It's norteƱo in style, though, so it will not have the moles, etc. (typical of central and southern Mexico) that you'd find at Frontera. I like the atmosphere there very much -- lots of families, a mix of all ethnicities, maybe a table full of cops or firemen -- everyone goes to Nuevo Leon.

              If the Bombon bakery across the street is open, save room for a dessert from there (e.g. mini tres leches cake).

              Pilsen also has a lot of small places specializing in one particular thing, such as carnitas or birria. Here is a link to a post listing a number of possibilities:

              You could maybe hit a couple of places, sharing a small order of carnitas, etc. Note though that a number of these smaller places in Pilsen are only open during the day, so this would be better as a lunch idea than a dinner plan.

              If you are walking around the neighborhood in the afternoon on Tuesday, check out the excellent Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum on 19th Street west of Wood. (Free admission; closed Mondays.) The Day of the Dead exhibit will be on while you are here, and that's always worth a visit.


              Returning to the Frontera idea, I think lunch at Frontera can be a lot easier than dinner. I was there once for a late lunch around 2, got seated immediately, everything was very relaxed. Bayless was walking around, as he often is, and the food was outstanding.

              1. Re: Hot Doug's - the duck fat fries are only available on Friday and Saturday. Go early, too - they close at 4 (but not too early - they open at 10:30). Worth a trip, if you have a car. Doug is cute as a bug, and the food is great. Check it out:


                1. Everyone:

                  Thanks alot for the help. Here's what we did:

                  Two tacos al pastor from the spit at Taquerias Atonolico in Little Village. Great tacos and amazing atmosphere. My fiancee also bought a cup of fruit and jicama from a cart vendor.
                  Italian beef with sweet peppers from Al's #1. We took it to a nearby park. Messy but delicious and piping hot for a day that turned windy.
                  Polish w/fries from Jim's original. Interesting locale right next to the freeway. Burned my mouth on the hot pepper; amazing deal for 2.60; my fianceed declared it best hot dog she'd ever had.
                  Dinner at Sticky Rice-incredible, possibly the best thai restuarant I have visited. We ordered off the "secret menu": curry with pickled vegetables, ginger and bamboo shoots, and also a wonderfully hot and oily pork and intestine dish with fried shallot, cilantro and mint. The best was the homemade sausage appetizer with chunks of galangal and lemongrass that provided an otherworldly flavor.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: equinoise

                    Very cool. You guys get a double A+ for experiencing the "real" Chicago (and for reporting back). I hope the rest of your trip was enjoyable. Come back soon.

                  2. On this board I push The Red Apple so much they should be paying me a fee. This is the quintessential "Polish smorgasbord", a very special Chicago genre. (Chicago is said to have more Polish people than any city except Warsaw.) It's a vast buffet of homestyle Polish cooking, I would estimate 50-60 dishes. Turnover is fast and the food is constantly replaced by nice Polish kitchen ladies so it's hot and fresh. Price is rock-bottom---depends on day and hour but is never more than $10 pp for all you can eat and probably much more than any of us should. If you are driving it's 3123 N Milwaukee, just south of Belmont, and there is a parking lot behind the restaurant. (You can also take the Milwaukee 56 bus from the Loop corner of Madison and State.) Red Apple has another branch on N Milwaukee a block north of Devon, if that's more convenient---it's easy to hit coming or going from O'Hare if you come off the downtown-bound expressway at Nagle and turn west from the off-ramp.

                    1. Another possibility for lunch is Manny's. A large, loud New York style (but not kosher) restaurant a little south of the Loop. It's very busy at lunchtime, but by 1:30 or so the crowd has cleared out some. Excellent corned beef and pastrami and potoato pancakes, to mention of few of the things I like there.