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Jul 29, 2011 08:49 PM

Lunch and dinner on a budget in The Loop

My cousin and I are staying in The Loop from Saturday to Monday, the weekend of Lolla. Not going to the concerts but being the recent college grad/grad students that we are, we have to stay on a budget nonetheless. But we're adventurous foodies and looking for good food!

Our budget being around $10/person for lunch, around $15/person for dinner. We are giving in and splurging on a meal or dessert/drinks at the Signature Room or Lounge, just for the view.

In The Loop is great, but if it's outside and easily accessible by train (and in an area also worth exploring), that's awesome too.

We're open to any kind of cuisine but probably not Chinese, as we're Chinese and would be extremely picky with Chinese food. We're really looking for really good, unique, or can't miss food. As a reference, I'm coming from San Francisco and my cousin spends her time travelling the world (most recently France and Tunisia.) So really, we're open for trying anything.

These are the places I've found so far, input on any "musts" or "skips" is welcome. I feel like much of my list is more lunch stuff (and a lot of Mediterranean), so dinner stops are much appreciated.

Johnny's Grill
Big & Littles
Harold's Chicken Shack
Perry's Deli
FliP Crepes
Pastoral Artisan Cheese
Protein Bar
Mediterranean Grill
Avanti Caffe Inc
Pierogi Heaven
Oasis Cafe
Roti Mediterranean Grill

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  1. Why no deep-dish? Lunch or dinner, it's delicious and it's our local specialty and it's not expensive. In the Loop, go to Pizano's on Madison. If you're in the south end of the Loop, consider Lou Malnati's at 8th and State. If you're in the north end, consider the original Uno or Due.

    Really good, unique, and can't miss, is our creative provincial Mexican cuisine. You can't get that in San Francisco (believe me, I've looked). Take a look at the menus to understand the difference. I recommend Mundial Cocina Mestiza, either for weekend brunch or dinner. It's a half block east of the 18th Street stop on the CTA Pink Line. Closed Mondays.

    I like Steve's Deli better than Perry's.

    I'd also consider Heaven on Seven, for cajun/creole. It's on the seventh floor of an office building. The Loop (Wabash) location is only open for breakfast/lunch and is closed Sundays.

    Get some Garrett's Popcorn as a snack. Several Loop locations.

    I would check out the French Market too. Closed Sundays.

    Make sure the places you plan on going are open on Sundays (and, to a lesser extent, Saturdays), as many places in the Loop are not.

    Mundial Cocina Mestiza
    1640 W 18th St, Chicago, IL 60608

    2 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy

      Thank you! I've been reading a lot of your other posts as well.

      I didn't include deep dish because it's not our first time to the Chicago area, just our first time in the city proper and without family/relatives. We've had Lou Malnati's and Uno. I think we may end up eating deep dish at least once.

      Mundial Cocina Mestiza definitely looks interesting. Dinner may be stretching our budget a little but lunch is definitely doable. This is exactly the type of restaurant we're looking for.

      Also, thanks for the heads up about Sundays, totally makes sense, just didn't think of it.

      Mundial Cocina Mestiza
      1640 W 18th St, Chicago, IL 60608

      1. re: chaseshadows

        >> I didn't include deep dish because it's not our first time to the Chicago area, just our first time in the city proper and without family/relatives. We've had Lou Malnati's and Uno. I think we may end up eating deep dish at least once.


        If you'd like to try something different from our classic deep-dish, you could try one of our places serving double-crust "stuffed" pizza. It's different and unique in its own way. Giordano's has several locations in the Loop where you can get some.

        >> thanks for the heads up about Sundays, totally makes sense, just didn't think of it.

        Yes, it's primarily true just in the Loop, because of its concentration of office workers during the week. And even still, some places are open on Sundays in the Loop, but places that specialize in inexpensive food, especially at lunchtime, are often the ones not open on Sundays.

    2. Just a quick note about the Signature Lounge - great view, yes, but stick to beer or wine. The cocktails are terrible and not worth the price. I wouldn't bother eating at the Signature Room, certainly not when you get the same view with the price of a beer in the Lounge.

      Another destination worth trying for lunch is at Macy's on State St., in their Seven on State food court. I know, 'food court' sounds terrible, but Macy's has partnered with some great chefs for some very good results. Rick Bayless has his name on a Mexican-themed stand and... well, you're better off going to Xoco (see below); Marcus Samuelson has a burger stand and burgers there really stand up to about anything else in the city (fries are great, too). In fact, Marc Burger has the best turkey burger I've ever had. Ramen bowls from Takashi are very good, too. All within your price range for lunch, Seven on State is only open on Saturday afternoon and with pretty limited hours. I mean, really, you could do much worse for the price point in the Loop on a Saturday.

      Cafecito is great. Harold's is fine if you want fried chicken (orders can take a while, though, since they fry everything to order -- to me, that's a good thing, but some have found the wait times to be too long) -- keep in mind that you're likely to order/pay through bullet-proof glass. That may/may not take away from your experience.

      Pastoral is phenomenal. While the French Market outpost is closed on Sundays, the 53 E. Lake St. outpost is open -- feel free to buy some wine/cheese/bread/salads/sandwiches and head over to Grant Park, too. You'll have no problem hearing the bands playing and can enjoy a picnic, too.

      The other places mentioned... I don't know them or I just don't think there's much worth saying about them (ie. Protein Bar -- I mean, a location just opened across from my office and the food is fine, but it just feels really corporate, and not in a good way -- if you really have a hankering for quinoa while in town, by all means, go and enjoy it - but I wouldn't consider it destination food).

      If you want to leave the area while sticking close to the train, I'd suggest the following:
      Irazu (blue line, Western Stop) - Costa Rican food, very simple, very homey, pretty good. Their sandwiches and burritos are a little more enjoyable than the dinner plates, for me, and while nothing is amazing, nothing is very bad. They're BYO and do not accept reservations.

      Belly Shack (blue line, Western Stop) - Korean/Mexican fusion by one of the city's best chefs (and one of the first to eschew fine dining for more downscale options). If you want kimchi on a hot dog, this is where you go. Again, BYO and no reservations.

      Both of these places are about 10-15 minutes from downtown.

      Are you open to Thai? While Next has garnered a ton of attention for its current Tour of Thailand menu, it's nice to remember that Chicago has a long tradition of super-traditional Thai restaurants already. Most, if not all, are BYO and very affordable, besides. Arroy Thai focuses mainly on Northern Thailand - be sure to request the Thai Classics menu (steps from the Damen brown line stop). Sticky Rice, TAC Quick and Spoon are all other amazing Thai places, as well.

      As Nsxtasy said, Mexican in Chicago really does mean something different than nearly any other city. Another option in Pilsen would be Nuevo Leon. It's much more traditional, but still amazing (seriously, I've never had better flour tortillas in my life). In particular, the tacos de Sabinas and asado de puerco are my favorites. Nuevo Leon is also BYO.
      Xoco, just north of the loop itself in River North, would be another option - limited to sandwiches and soups, for the most part, I've always walked away happy. Definitely a budget buster since most sandwiches are $10-12 and come with nothing (even a side salad would run another $4), the quality of ingredients cannot be matched. I love the pepito most of all, though the ahogado is a close second. The churros are a must - easily as good as anything you'll find in Mexico (and worth the cost, even if it means giving up on a side salad).

      Sticky Rice
      4018 N Western Ave, Chicago, IL 60618

      Nuevo Leon Restaurant
      1515 W 18th St, Chicago, IL 60608

      26 E Congress Pkwy Ste 1, Chicago, IL 60605

      Marc Burger
      Macy's State Street, 111 N. State St., Chicago, IL 60602

      Thai Classic Restaurant
      3332 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60657

      449 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654

      3 Replies
      1. re: danimalarkey

        Thanks for all the suggestions!
        Belly Shack sounds good!
        Also Thai, like Mediterranean, is always good for good cheap eats, so thanks for those suggestions too!

        1. re: danimalarkey

          >> Another option in Pilsen would be Nuevo Leon.

          I wouldn't bother. The food there is the same conventional Mexican food you get back home, and anywhere else in the United States. It's well prepared and dirt cheap, but it's just not different at all. Whereas Mundial... well, from your reply, you've obviously already looked at the menu, so you know how different and creative it is.

          XOCO (which I stopped at yesterday for something quick) is somewhat similar. Bayless still does very creative Mexican food at his restaurants next door (Topolobampo and Frontera Grill) but they are closed Sundays and Mondays, the lines at Frontera are horrendous, Topolobampo is out of your price range, etc. Hence the recommendation for Mundial, which doesn't have those downsides.

          Honestly, a lot of the places you've mentioned really don't serve "destination" food, food that's at all special in any way, other than being cheap. I don't mean to offend, of course. But Chicago has so many different kinds of great food, and many of them are not all that expensive. If you can stretch your budget even just a bit, you can have food that's way more memorable than fried chicken. Mundial is only slightly more, as previously mentioned. Some other places that are not terribly expensive and worth considering include Sable, an upscale restaurant which specializes in contemporary American cuisine and artisanal cocktails, and offers half-portions of many of its dishes; you can eat well on $20-25 of food for dinner there. Quartino, which has Italian small plates. Cafe Iberico, for tapas (no reservations). All of which are walkable from the Loop, so that saves you $5 in transportation.

          1. re: nsxtasy

            Believe me, I know we're limiting our choices A LOT by imposing this budget, especially coming from San Francisco.

            Quartino and Cafe Iberico sound good. From what I can see on the website and on yelp, around $30 might actually be enough for a substantial dinner? I think tapas and small plates might be a good choice for us. Thanks!

            Cafe Iberico
            737 N Lasalle Drive, Chicago, IL 60654

            626 N. State Street, Chicago, IL 60654

        2. For Sunday, don't miss Maxwell Street Market, one of the best venues around for Mexican street food. More info here (altho it doesn't do justice to the food offerings; a good start there, is to look for Rita's and others making the tortillas fresh):

          Also, no serious safety issues (other than the deep fat frying) at the Harold's on Wabash; it's behind the Hilton and practically next to Buddy Guy's a great venue for Chicago blues