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Inexpensive must-have eats in Chicago

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My husband and I want to do a long weekend in Chicago, and want to do it on a budget. Any recommendations for great ethnic and Mom-and-Pop type places – Italian, Mexican, Asian, Middle Eastern, etc. – in the downtown area? Where would be the best area to stay to get access to the best local haunts on foot and public transportation?

Thanks!

Lauren

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  1. Chicago has great food, including great ethnic and cheap eats places, all over the city; there is no single neighborhood with a monopoly on them. The greatest concentrations, though, tend to be within a few miles of Lake Michigan, from roughly McCormick Place (three miles south of the Loop, the center of downtown Chicago) up to Evanston (first town north of the city limits on the lake). It's a huge area, but any place convenient to the CTA's Red Line will give you easy transportation to the entire area.

    IMHO the one "must have" food specialty in Chicago is our delicious Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. There are a lot of places serving great pizza here, and the chains (with the exception of non-downtown locations of Uno's) do quite a good job of maintaining consistent quality across their many locations throughout the city and suburbs. Take your pick - double-crust "stuffed" pizza from Giordano's, Edwardo's, or Bacino's, or single-crust "pan" pizza from Lou Malnati's, Pizano's, Gino's East, or the original location of Uno's - you can't go wrong with any of these. You can phone your order ahead of time if you want to avoid waiting 30-45 minutes while seated for your pizza to bake; you can find their menus and locations on their websites.

    Neighborhoods which emphasize specific types of inexpensive ethnic food include:

    - Indian/Pakistani food along Devon Avenue (6400N) between Western (2400W) and Sacramento (3000W)

    - Vietnamese food along Argyle St (5000N) within a couple blocks of the Argyle stop on the Red Line

    - Mexican food along 18th St (1800S) within a couple blocks of the 18th St stop on the CTA Pink Line.

    - Greek food in Greek Town, along Halsted Street (800W) between Washington and Van Buren (just west of the Loop)

    In these areas, you can just walk up and down those streets and read the menus in the windows, and pick whatever place sounds best.

    Here are links to discussions of these and other types of Chicago's best "cheap eats":

    Pizza:
    www.chowhound.com/topics/327474
    www.chowhound.com/topics/319254

    Greek:
    www.chowhound.com/topics/119233

    Barbecue:
    www.chowhound.com/topics/360674

    Tapas:
    www.chowhound.com/topics/370492
    www.chowhound.com/topics/366524

    Burgers:
    www.chowhound.com/topics/382781

    Hot dogs:
    www.chowhound.com/topics/364427

    Quintessential Chicago:
    www.chowhound.com/topics/372986

    Brunch and Breakfast:
    www.chowhound.com/topics/364403

    Enjoy your stay!

    2 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy

      Great suggestions from nxstasy!

      I will add that if you are not familar with the street numbering system it is a "regular grid" with roughly ten blocks to the mile. The zero line in State St & Madison Ave. Thus Halstead at 800 W is about 8/10s of mile west, and Argyle is about 5 miles north at 5000N.

      The use of the CTA L line and walking (for the fit) is preferred for the budget conscious, though the city is easily navigated by car.

      Hotels are far more concentrated in the downtown area, as that is where business travelers, include convention goers demand to stay. You can find deals on the various online hotel booking sites that drop your room rate FAR below the standard quote. You should really plan on the hotel merely being a place to sleep, regardless of what it is "closest" too. Generally anything close to Michigan Ave (which runs north south about half a mile form the lake) has good access to the CTA.

      1. re: renov8r

        A couple more tips (and I'll throw in some restaurant information because the Chowhound Team hates it when we don't post about food)...

        Outside the downtown area, the numbering system is 800 to the mile (eight blocks to the mile); it's only less than that (i.e. more blocks to the mile) within about a mile of the Loop. So throughout the rest of the city, the major streets, incremented by 800, are a mile apart - Chicago Ave (800N, on which Green Zebra is located), North Ave (1600N, on which Spring is located), Fullerton (2400N, Sweets and Savories), Belmont (3200N), Irving (4000N), Lawrence (4800N); Halsted (800W, Alinea), Ashland (1600W), Western (2400W), Kedzie (3200W), etc. So Argyle (5000N), where the Vietnamese restaurants are located, is actually over 6 miles north of the middle of the Loop.

        You can find transit information for the el (subway) and city buses on the CTA website at www.transitchicago.com ; for suburban commuter trains at www.metrarail.com ; and for suburban buses at www.pacebus.com Cabs are plentiful and cruise the city.

        Many restaurants are extremely convenient to el stops, such as Thai favorites TAC Quick at the Sheridan stop on the Red Line, and Spoon Thai at the Western Ave stop on the Brown Line.

    2. If I was coming into town, knowing what I know now, and wanting to eat on the cheap for 2 for a long wknd (assuming three day wknd?), here's what I'd try to eat:

      Split a combo (italian beef and sausage sammich) with hot peppers and a hot dog with fries with two drinks@
      Tore's Beef
      2804 N Western Ave
      Chicago, IL 60618
      (773) 227-7595

      Portillo's might be another easier option for the above meal, but IMHO Tore's is better for the price. Just my opinion.
      ===============
      PIzza. Spinach and sausage (with hot giardiniera if you like it). Find one of the pizza threads. Take your pick of places. I prefer thin crust, but "stuffed" pizza is a Chicago original.
      ===============
      I think Tac Quick is great for Thai food. Cheap too. Steps from an el stop. (Irving Park rd) Bring Your Own Bottle too. :-)
      Tac Quick
      3930 N Sheridan Rd
      Chicago, IL 60613
      (773) 327-5253
      ==========
      I would try to have Mexican food twice.
      La Pasadita for a bare bones experience, (maybe for a late night burrito or tacos) and then I'd try to eat at one of the nicer joints.
      La Pasadita Restaurant
      1141 N Ashland Ave
      Chicago, IL 60622
      (773) 278-0384

      For a tiny bit nicer place with a mom/pop style feel to it and great eats, there are plenty of spots around. The Little Village and Pilsen neighborhoods would probably be a good bet. Get a dozen tamales for snacks somewhere at one of the places that sells them by the dozen!!!
      =====
      No chance in hell I would miss Khan's Bbq for Pakistani food. I'd get Potato and cauliflower curry, chicken boti, one meat&gravy dish, rice and some parathas. You'll be in total business for around 30.00!! Cancel the meat/gravy dish, and you will still have leftovers.
      Khan B.B.Q
      2401 W Devon
      Chicago, IL 60645
      773-338-280
      =====
      Easy mid eastern (persian:)
      Reza's on Ontario.
      Try the grilled mushrooms,
      Vegetarian Shami
      Chicken kabobs with dill rice
      (they also have your hummus, b ghannouj, falafel type mid eastern stuff as well)
      Reza's Restaurant
      432 W. Ontario, Chicago, IL 60610,
      312-664-4500
      =========
      Just suggestions. If I had to leave this town, I'd prolly miss these places the most for cheap eats.

      1. I see that you've gotten a lot of excellent advice. I'd add that if you're staying downtown, your transportation lifeline will be the Red Line subway which runs under State Street. Right downtown you won't find many bargain places because rents are too high. One downtown place that I recommend so often they should pay me a commission is Big Bowl, Rush & Ohio, where you can get a good stir-fry for around $10, and in a cheery atmosphere. If money is really desperate there's the Spice of Life Cafeteria at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, second floor, public welcome, food not great but will keep you alive, prices low---a meal under $5 is possible. It's one block off Michigan and occupies the block described by St Clair, Fairbanks, Erie, and Huron. One more oddball downtown restaurant offering: WholeFoods (organic supermarket), Huron & Clark, has a huge self-service hot foods line, salad bar, pre-packaged sandwiches, salads, cakes etc. Tables for sitting.