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Cheap Eats in the downtown area?

My soon-to-be college freshman will be living in the downtown area. We are looking for cheap deals or places to eat in and around the downtown vicinity (walking distance, el, bus).
We know about The Oasis. Any others or is this a Don Quixote-esque task? Thanks.

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  1. These are all South of Oasis and within walking distance from it:

    Chicken Planet - 1/2 grilled chicken with side and warm pita $6 (1/4 for ~$4.50).

    Kramer's Health Foods - good salads in to go area for $4 plus cafe upstairs (all vegetarian/vegan which can be a nice change of pace, also all affordable).

    Zacatacos - haven't tried it yet but supposed to be good and cheap (near Oasis in ugly food court).

    Max's Burgers, Beef, and Hot Dogs To Go - good hot dog special and good beef sandwich (cheap, not a fan of the cheeseburger).

    Fontano's Subs - good low cost subs that aren't as cookie cutter as Jimmy Johns or Subway.

    Potbellies - chain of subs but still another option that isn't too expensive

    Under 55 Cafe - large cafe-style dining area in basement of 55 E. Monroe that doesn't seem to get too busy and is affordable. I've only tried the sandwiches.

    La Cocina Mexican Grill - good cheap mexican food that is sometimes a bit salty (right next door to Chicken Planet, lines way too long at peak lunch time).

    My Thai Restaurant - ordering to go or pickup is affordable. I've tried one of the Japanese curry dishes and a Thai dish and both were good but apparently reviews vary.

    Berghoff Café - not quite cheap but a good splurge every once in a while.

    To be honest, after working in the loop for four months the number of affordable options isn't thrilling particularly if one is after healthy food. I'm looking forward to other replies to this thread.

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    Chicken Planet
    21 W Jackson Blvd, Chicago, IL 60604

    Under 55 Cafe
    55 E Monroe St Lbby Lowr-1, Chicago, IL 60603

    La Cocina Mexican Grill
    178 N Franklin St, Chicago, IL 60606

    Zacatacos
    3837 Harlem Ave, Berwyn, IL 60402

    2 Replies
    1. re: cymen

      The always-excellent Cafecito has fantastic breakfast and lunch offerings - all variations on Cuban sandwiches.

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      Cafecito
      26 E Congress Pkwy Ste 1, Chicago, IL 60605

      1. re: ferret

        Cafecito sounds great -- I'll give it a try. Thank you.

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        Cafecito
        26 E Congress Pkwy Ste 1, Chicago, IL 60605

    2. When you refer to "Downtown" just where do you mean? The term has been so expanded over the years recommendations can come from a wide area. Narrowing-down the neighborhood (maybe the intersection/block) will help get recommendations more specific. Thanks.

      5 Replies
      1. re: gomexico

        Good point but when college student and loop is put together I think it's safe to assume DePaul or Columbia which are both on the Southern side of the loop (as far as I know). Or am I missing some other major downtown campuses?

        1. re: cymen

          Roosevelt, Robert Morris, School of the Art Institute and John Marshall are the other schools.
          Try SRO for a decent chicken sandwich, Wao Bow on Van Buren is an easy walk, basement of the Chase Building has a big food court similar to Under 55, Epic Burger, 7th floor of Macy's, gumbo and corn muffin to go from Heaven on Seven means you don't have to wait for a table.

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          Under 55 Cafe
          55 E Monroe St Lbby Lowr-1, Chicago, IL 60603

          Epic Burger
          517 S State St, Chicago, IL 60605

          1. re: cymen

            The young man will be living in the "Downtown area," wherever that is. The living space could be any place. It's a question without an answer, at this point. You might just start listing the hundred possibilities in Downtown. That was the point I was trying to make ... it's largely an area to which there is no definition of boundaries ... without more information.

            1. re: gomexico

              Your right of course. I happen to work close to Oasis so I just went with what I know close to there (which is really all I know at the moment in the loop). Hopefully we can get a more precise location.

          2. re: gomexico

            "College freshman" is a clue because there aren't many undergrad programs situated in the "downtown" area. University Center supports most of them, Columbia, Robert Morris, Roosevelt and DePaul (and I don't know if DePaul even offers freshman-level classes downtown). The Art Institute is the only other one. The others are graduate programs.

            The other possibility is UIC, which may be "downtown" for some people.

          3. Take the redline El to Chinatown.
            For lunch, Lou Malnattis on S. State has a lunch combo of a side salad, personal size pize & drink for about $8. In lieu of pizza, there are also some pasta choices for the same size, but who goes to Malnatti's for pasta?

            1. In the Loop itself, this topic is a great discussion of cheap eats there; it started as an inquiry about lunch, but the same places apply for cheap dinner eats as well: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/527275

              However, people often refer generically to "the downtown area" when they mean neighborhoods including not only the Loop, but also the Gold Coast, Streeterville, River East, River North, Greek Town, the West Loop, and the South Loop. That's quite a wide area, extending roughly three miles from north to south and a mile and a half from east to west, all very built up with lots of food options. For that reason, gomexico's question about pinpointing the downtown location is very appropriate, especially for everyday cheap eats where geographical convenience may be as important as any other factor.

              10 Replies
              1. re: nsxtasy

                Downtown indeed refers to the Loop. State Street from Wacker south to Balbo, lets say. For varieties sake, walking distance from this area would be reasonable. Thanks so far, some great suggestions here.

                1. re: twodales

                  "Downtown indeed refers to the Loop."

                  As nsxtasy has mentioned, the description of "Downtown" is not fixed - it encompases a wide area of the center area and that's why it's confusing when someone asks for advice without a bit more specifics.

                  1. re: gomexico

                    The other thing to realize is that, while the Loop does indeed comprise roughly the area you have indicated, walking distance from the Loop would include at least some of the surrounding neighborhoods of River North, West Loop, South Loop, etc.

                    1. re: gomexico

                      And just to be clear, the loop is technically bounded by Lake Street on the north (south of Wacker, which also takes a curve and goes north and south west of Wells St.), Wabash Avenue on the east (which is east of State), Van Buren St. on the south (which is north of Balbo), and Wells Street on the west (east of the other part of Wacker).

                      So you can see why when you say "downtown indeed refers to the Loop" it's a little more complicated than that. In addition, some of the best and most interesting restaurants are a little outside of these boundaries (and the ones you gave).

                      1. re: chicgail

                        Although those are the streets bounded by the elevated trains (and, prior to that, by the streetcars after which the Loop was named), most locals do refer to the Loop when discussing restaurants and other sites that may be located anywhere north of Congress and south and east of the Chicago River. However, it's also worth noting that there are no hard and fast rules; neighborhood boundaries can be subjective (different people think of different boundaries) and can also change over time. And in both ways they can vary, there's no better example than the term "downtown Chicago".

                        1. re: nsxtasy

                          I am of the age where downtown means south of the river, east of the train stations, Marshall Fields, State and Madison, Miller's Pub. To others, it means a larger area--- from the discussion here. I don't really want to mention the college for privacy reasons but it has been mentioned above by others. To be more specific, a mile from State & Madison in any direction would probably be ok. Or even a short hop on the el is fine if anyone can think of some good places that fit the bill. There are some good suggestions here and I appreciate all of the comments.

                          1. re: twodales

                            2D - There really was no need for you to clarify the geographic scope of your inquiry. For anyone familiar with the location of the undergraduate institutions located "Downtown,' plus your inclusion of restaurants within easy bus or el rides, it was pretty self-evident, that regardless of whether one considers the West Loop, S. Loop or n. of Mich Ave. within the bounds of "Downtown," that cheap eats within those locations would be of interest.

                            1. re: masha

                              Thank you for putting that so succintly.

                              1. re: twodales

                                Keep in mind, as part of the tuition your child will get a U-Pass that will allow unlimited public transportation.
                                http://www.transitchicago.com/travel_...

                                1. re: twodales

                                  Your welcome. I recognize you are a regular poster on this Board, who obviously lives in the Chicago area. If you'd introduced the post with a statement that you live in L.A. or NJ, say, and your child was attending school "downtown," then maybe I'd worry that you mistakenly thought DePaul or Hyde Park was located "downtown." But under the circumstances, this whole semantic tangent on whether the restaurants recommended were within the geographic scope of "downtown" seemed to be an unnecessary hijack of the link.

                  2. Cafecito - Incredibly tasty pressed sandwiches and sides as well as delicious cookies.

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                    Cafecito
                    26 E Congress Pkwy Ste 1, Chicago, IL 60605

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: LAWoman

                      Yes, particularly the chimichurri with Argentinian sausage. Two others to add to your list: Harold's Chicken at 626 S. Wabash for nice fresh greasy fried chicken and, yes, gizzards, and Flacos Tacos at 725 S. Dearborn for inexpensive basic, but for the most part freshly made Mexican

                    2. The French Market in the train station is a treasure trove of great eats of all kinds, many cheap and some not so cheap, including prepared and ready-to-eat foods as well as raw ingredients. www.frenchmarketchicago.com

                      Pastoral's cheeses and sandwiches are available at their booth in the French Market as well as at their store on Lake Street in the Loop (and, of course, their original location in Lakeview). www.pastoralartisan.com

                      There's always deep-dish pizza. For the double-crust "stuffed pizza" variety, Giordano's has several locations in the Loop, and Bacino's has a location on Wacker. For the single-crust "pizza in the pan", Pizano's has a location on Madison. Surrounding neighborhoods include more locations for Giordano's and Pizano's as well as Lou Malnati's, Uno/Due, Gino's East, etc.

                      I wouldn't classify either as cheap eats because they are snacks rather than meals, but two of my favorite treats can be found in the Loop: Garrett's Popcorn www.garrettpopcorn.com for cheese and/or caramel popcorn, and Beard Papa www.beardpapas.com for cream puffs.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: nsxtasy

                        Edwardo's has a $6.29 lunchtime special: mini stuffed pizza, rather large salad and can of soda. Dearborn and Congress.

                        1. re: delk

                          Thank you for all of the suggestions and links you've offered. This information will be very helpful in making a smooth transition to the college life for my child. I'll have to try some of them also!