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Chicago on a budget, please!

I'm planning far ahead - coming with my BF for a big medical conference in October. But as I am unemployed, I don't want to ask him to pay for an over-the-top tasting menu like Tru, Schwa or Alinea.

Also, living in San Francisco, I've had my share of high-end, haute cuisine tasting menus anyway so I would rather seek out what is specific and special to Chicago on the affordable side ($50 inclusive without drinks - or less).

For example, here in the Bay Area, I would send folks to Burmese food or a Mission burrito or the latest ubiquitous food truck offering duck confit Bao dumplings; all fresh, interesting and relatively inexpensive.

Open to anything interesting to learn what is special to Chicagoans - be it pizza, polish, or pickled!

Thanks so much...

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  1. I just got back from Chicago last week and because we were with two little ones, most of our dining was on the less expensive end of things, but we tried to hit places that were Chow-worthy and of note to Chicago. We loved Hot Doug's, which bills itself as the "sausage superstore" and has more types of sausage and encased meats than I ever knew existed. The more traditional dogs and sausages were in the $2-3.50 range, while the specialty sausages were more expensive and ran in the $8-10 range. However, between the five of us, we shared a total of 7 meats, two orders of fries, and five drinks, and the total was just over $30 and we were all stuffed.

    Deep dish pizza is another good value. I know which pizza is the best is an endless debate on
    this board, but we loved Lou Malnati's. One medium deep dish, a family size salad, a small thin pizza, a child's order of chicken nuggets, a couple of sodas, and one glass of wine came in around $50, before tip.

    We ate lunch at Rick Bayless' Xoco, which was excellent, and also not overly pricey. I had the seasonal torta, plus an order of churros with chocolate for dipping and it came to around $18. The churros were to share, otherwise, I could have ordered a single one and it would have been even cheaper.

    Those three seem more uniquely Chicago, but we also had a very nice dinner at Quartino, that was budget friendly (a small plate salad, two pastas, a meat, and a dessert, plus soda and a cocktail for around $60, before tip). Breakfast at Yolk one morning was also fresh, delicious and filling, as well as easy on the wallet. We also did a picnic in Millennium Park with sandwiches from Pastoral, which has excellent meats and cheeses. For $3 over the cost of the sandwich, you can add chip, a cookie, and a drink, making a meal for around $10.

    Hope this helps a little!

    4 Replies
    1. re: BetsyinKY

      Second Xoco, which does Mexican (not Tex-Mex) soups and sandwiches very well for ~$10-13 apiece. I'm not much of a churro person so I can't speak to that but their hot chocolate is very good and not common, since the chocolate is fresh-ground.

      1. re: BetsyinKY

        I would recommend Frontera Grill over Xoco, or one of our non-Bayless Mexican restaurants. Xoco is more along the lines of Mexican "street food", whereas Frontera Grill has more creative Mexican dishes than that (and very different from what you can get in SF). Compare their menus at www.rickbayless.com/restaurants to get a better understanding of what I'm referring to.

        Frontera only accepts a handful of reservations, so they make most of the dining room available for walk-in traffic. Unless you get there before they open the doors, waiting times for seating can be horrendous. Other non-Bayless places offering similarly creative Mexican cuisine include Mexique, Mundial Cocina Mestiza, and Mixteco Grill, all of which accept reservations so waiting times aren't an issue. All of these are moderately-priced, with average entrees in the upper teens.

        1. re: nsxtasy

          I like both Frontera Grill and Xoco!

          I might suggest Xoco for breakfast, and Frontera for weekday lunch. I was there during weekday lunch a few weeks ago and it didn't seem that crazy with crowds. Plus, you can dine at the bar and choose between the Frontera Grill and Topolobampo menus.

          Note to the OP: all the Bayless restaurants are closed Sundays and Mondays.

        2. re: BetsyinKY

          Some things to keep in mind: Hot Doug's is only open for lunch, and may be a trek dependent upon where you're staying. The lines are worst on Fridays and Saturdays, when they have duck fat fries. I'd get there around 10:45-11am to avoid a line. Closed Sundays, cash only, and they take a lot of random vacations, so definitely check the web site before you go.

        3. There is somewhat of a doughnut renaissance in Chicago right now with the opening of Doughnut Vault, Do Rite, and Glazed and Infused. That should be easy on the wallet, hmm?

          I would also steer you towards the weekday Boarding House lunch at Big Jones. $16pp for fried chicken, biscuits, cornbread, and sides.

          Mercat a la Planxa also has a similarly priced lunch special, and is conveniently located near the Art Institute.

          For dinner, you can stay under $50pp before drinks at Girl and the Goat (reserve ASAP) and Publican.

          Unfortunately, until very recently Chicago food trucks were prohibited from cooking "on board" so the food truck culture isn't as diverse/rich as other cities. That law has been relaxed but now they can't park within 200 ft of a restaurant and on many streets located in the Loop.

          3 Replies
          1. re: kathryn

            Oh, Kathryn.... You hit me with the doughnuts! I've got a doughnut blog (a little defunct right now), but you completely piqued my interest there!

            I've seen Girl & the Goat and Publican referenced before and both menus looks perfect - thanks for those too!

            On Bayless in general; he's got a fast-food restaurant here in San Francisco and it doesn't do much for me. That is probably because I lived on the San Diego/Mexican border and used to cut class to go to Ensenada for fish tacos and grilled Baja lobster.

            1. re: CarrieWas218

              Bayless's fast food restaurants are nothing like Frontera Grill. Not at all.

              Just check out the website menus, not just for Frontera Grill, but also for the others I mentioned:

              1. re: nsxtasy

                NSXtasy, read every menu...

                Also, I met Bayless and have eaten his non fast-food at some CIA-sponsored events in the Napa valley. It still does nothing for me (I'm a cilantro-hater, so the whole flavor profile is problematic for me).

          2. Since you mention Chicago specialties, someone needs to throw in the Italian Beef sandwich. Not that it means much, but Adam Richman just selected the version at Al's Beef on Taylor Street as the best sandwich in the Midwest.

            1 Reply
            1. re: camusman

              Always a good call and definitely an Illinois specialty ....

            2. This earlier topic has lots of tips for creative dining on a budget:

              Where are the best Chicago dinner *values* - the hidden gems? - www.chow.com/topics/697829

              It's not that recent but the advice in it is still totally relevant. Especially the part about how you can eat just about anyplace for lunch without spending a lot of money.

              7 Replies
              1. re: nsxtasy

                Carrie, where are you staying? Downtown Chicago is split by the Chicago River running east-west. South of the river is the older part of downtown, The Loop. North of the river is variously known as the Near North Side, the Magnificent Mile (the Michigan Avenue corridor), and River North (west of Michigan Avenue). Streeterville is between Michigan Avenue and the lake. Don't know where you'll be but here are some budget ideas. 1) Big Bowl, Ohio just west of Rush, is a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant (big deal here) with reliably good Asian stir-fries for $10-$12. The second Big Bowl is on Cedar just east of Rush in the Gold Coast neighborhood. 2) Oasis Cafe, at the back of a jewelry mall at 21 N Wabash, is a treasure with many daily specials of Middle Eastern food for about $7. Lunch only. 3) Maggiano's (Clark & Grand) has pasta entrees for about $12 or you can get up a group of 4 and have the Family Style meal which is A LOT OF FOOD for about $20 apiece. Let us know where you will be.

                1. re: Querencia

                  Querencia, the conference is at the Convention Center but we are staying at the Best Western Grant Park.

                  Does that help?

                  1. re: CarrieWas218

                    By "Convention Center", I assume you mean McCormick Place, and not the convention center in Rosemont. There's not much in the immediate vicinity of McCormick Place, but it's only about 3/4 mile from our Chinatown, with our best Chinese restaurants. I know you have great Chinese restaurants at home, but if you're looking for proximity to McCormick Place, it's an option.

                    Your hotel is at 11th and Michigan, in the neighborhood called the South Loop. It's a half mile south of the southern edge of the Loop, a mile south of the middle of the Loop, and 1.5-2.0 miles south of River North and the Magnificent Mile. It's easy to get to those and other neighborhoods by CTA, either by catching a CTA bus running along Michigan Avenue, or catching the el (subway) at Roosevelt (12th) and State, served by the Red Line that goes underneath State Street, and the Orange and Green Lines that circle the Loop on elevated tracks. More info on the CTA website at www.transitchicago.com

                    Your hotel is only a couple of blocks from Bongo Room, one of our best and most creative breakfast/brunch restaurants. It's at Roosevelt (12th) and Wabash. They specialize in pancakes such as pretzel pancakes with white chocolate caramel sauce. The standard portion consists of three gigantic pancakes, but you can also get one-third or two-thirds portions at reduced prices. www.thebongoroom.com I'm not as fond of Yolk, another breakfast restaurant, but there's one just a couple of doors south of your hotel. www.yolk-online.com

                    For deep-dish pizza, there's a location of Lou Malnati's a few blocks away at 8th and State. You can phone ahead with your pizza order to avoid waiting 30-45 minutes while seated for your pizza to bake. www.loumalnatis.com

                    Your hotel is also right near Gioco, which has excellent Italian food at moderate prices. I had some wonderfully tender veal when I ate there not long ago. www.gioco-chicago.com Two other good places within a few blocks are Mercat a la Planxa (mentioned above - www.mercatchicago.com ) and Custom House Tavern ( www.customhouse.cc ). All of these are open for lunch and dinner, and again, lunch is often bargain-priced, as it is at all three of these.

                    To get to our non-Bayless creative Mexican restaurants, Mundial Cocina Mestiza is half a block from the 18th Street station on the CTA Orange Line. To get to Mexique, take the Red Line north to the Chicago station and transfer to the #66 CTA bus. For Mixteco Grill, take the Red Line north to Belmont, and from the same platform, take the northbound Brown Line to the Montrose stop.

                    1. re: nsxtasy

                      This is brilliant - thanks so much!

                      I have to add that my BF is a pretzel geek (with me being the doughnut geek) so I have a feeling that The Bongo Room will be added to the list!

                      He'll be at the conference while I get to tour the city and art museums so our dinners together will be the big ones, but I love the lunch suggestions as San Francisco is woefully lacking in a good Cuban sandwich!

                      1. re: CarrieWas218

                        If your BF loves pretzels, I would suggest the pretzels at Sable. I could eat my weight in those!

                    2. re: CarrieWas218

                      Then check into the Mercat a la Planxa suggestion above, close by with a very good $18 lunch special. They also have a smaller sibling downstairs that has breakfast and lunch items in the $5 range.

                      You're also very close to Cafecito which is a Cuban-style coffee/sandwich shop. Great breakfast/lunch/dinner options all under $10.

                      1. re: CarrieWas218

                        I haven't been (since it just opened) but for mid-range dinner you might want to give City Tavern a look:

                  2. Eleven City Diner is a block away

                    http://www.elevencitydiner.com/ (BEWARE, STUPID AUTO PLAY MUSIC)

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: delk

                      Eleven CIty is okay but nothing you need to travel to Chicago to experience.

                    2. Hi. Native Chicagoan and longtime SF resident. Great suggestions already. I would suggest a drink and some appetizers at the Frontera Grill even despite your reservations. Nothing like the fast food at Macys in Union Square and truly exceptional. Also fr a Chicago experience very different than anything you will find in Northern California check out Greektown. Maybe the Parthenon.Feel free to ask me for more SF advice on Chicago things we simply don't have here

                      11 Replies
                      1. re: smokestack lightning

                        I've already got reservations at Publican for Saturday night and Girl & Goat for Sunday night (right on about calling immediately for those!).

                        Really, Frontera doesn't interest me. Maybe it was living near the Mexican border for too many years and too many trips to Central America that ruined me for Mexican food, but I just don't appreciate the flavors at all anymore. My BF and I have dated almost a year and even though his business is smack-dab in the middle of the Mission, we have successfully avoided eating at any restaurant with a hint of flavors like tomatillo, chipotle, green chile, or tortilla chip... I seriously could go the rest of my life and never eat another burrito, taco, or anything with a predominance of Mexican ingredients.

                        Now, Greektown interests me! I adore Mediterranean flavors (and cook more from Paula Wolfert's cookbooks than anyone else's). I'm also intrigued with the Polish contingent since my heritage is Polish and Czech.

                        1. re: CarrieWas218

                          Lots of good places in Greektown. I happen to like the Parthenon for authenticity but Greek Islands is always good.

                          I got your aversion to burritos or tacos, but you might want to check out their menu - it's much higher end Mexican cuisine than what you're talking about.

                          I don't know much about the Polish and Czech food in town, but I know others do and they can direct you better than I.

                          1. re: chicgail

                            Not sure why folks keep recommending something I've said doesn't interest me. I don't have an aversion to burritos or tacos - they are simply foods I would never miss if I never had again. It is not something I crave, but I will eat it for convenience or budget's sake once in a while.

                            I have read the menus. I've eaten Bayless' food. As well as Mary Sue Milliken & Susan Feniger's food (Two Hot Tamales). I've had high-end Mexican and Central American food.

                            I am a very, very adventurous eater. I'll try anything once, but there are certain flavors that simply don't excite me and those flavors tend to come from various chili peppers, salsa-like combinations, mole, and I have found that 80% of what is served has cilantro, which I despise.

                            'Nuff said, okay?

                            1. re: CarrieWas218

                              Whatever else you do, Carrie, don't go to Frontera. Sorry I mentioned it.

                              1. re: CarrieWas218

                                I guess my response got zapped. Sorry if I came across as mean-spirited. My BIL lives near Wrigleyville and one of the things I enjoy about visiting him is that there are literally hundreds of great, small family-run neighborhood restaurants to enjoy. If you have a car and without a set place to visit, drive in to one of the neighborhoods and when you see a type of fare that excites you, by all means try it. What I like about Chicago is that generally the quality of food is high, while the fierce competition keeps the prices reasonable.

                            2. re: CarrieWas218

                              Podhalanka is a good place for Polish food. And it's not far from downtown, and right near an el stop on the CTA Blue Line.

                              I'll second chicgail's suggestion to check out the menus of our contemporary Mexican restaurants before ruling them out entirely. Here are some links for you:


                              1. re: CarrieWas218

                                Before Publican or GATG, stop into the Aviary for a molecular cocktail. Try the In the Rocks, an old fashioned served inside a giant ice sphere you must crack. Or the Chai, a drink in a specially made porthole flask that infuses with various herbs and spices over time. Or the Ginger, a freeze dried take on a Moscow Mule, that reconstitutes when you add liquid. Lots of fun. The drinks are not cheap but they are unique.

                                At Publican, don't miss the housemate charcuterie plate. Really excellent stuff.

                                Since you said you like pickles, I also like the pickle plate at Big Jones (last time they had pickled green strawberries) and their charcuterie but with the boarding house lunch on top of that you might not be able to finish.

                                If you find yourself on Magnificent Mile, stop into the Purple Pig. Great wine and cheese bar with excellent seasonal antipasti, morcilla, bone marrow, and other adventurous items.

                                1. re: kathryn

                                  Just be aware that the Purple Pig does not accept reservations, and waiting times to be seated for dinner can be lengthy (typically 2 hours or more). They serve the same menu all day long, so you're not missing anything if you stop in for lunch or mid-afternoon, when the waits are a non-issue. They're open late (kitchen open till midnight weekdays, 1 a.m. weekends) so late-night may be another option, although they may still be pretty crowded until really late. You can always phone ahead to ask what the waits are like at that moment.

                                  1. re: kathryn

                                    Kathryn - I *love* the idea of a molecular cocktail! I just introduced my BF to molecular cooking AND, he not being a big drinker, he is just beginning to learn how interesting cocktails can be (at 50+ years of age, I've just recently got him to some upscale bars in SF for the first time). I had a molecular Caipirinha as a Jose Andres restaurant and still remember it as the most orgasmic slushly I've ever experienced...

                                    Great tips - thanks!

                                  2. re: CarrieWas218

                                    For Greek, I really like Taxim in Wicker Park. I've always enjoyed eating at restaurants in Greektown, but more for the atmosphere (and usually because it's a rehearsal dinner or some other celebratory occasion). Taxim, I think, is a little more focused on seasonal ingredients and pull from a variety of cultures in/around Greece. Sadly, they haven't updated their online menu since May, but it should give you a good sense of what to expect:

                                    1. re: CarrieWas218

                                      If you're willing to venture far to the north side of Chicago, Smak Tak is the favorite restaurant of my extended Polish family, and they are very particular. Great home cooking.
                                      If that's too far away, then Andrzej Grill is by far my favorite Polish place closer to downtown.

                                  3. Hi... I think you might want to do lunch (corned beef sandwich) at Manny's which is at 12/Jefferson... a roughly 3/4 mile walk from your hotel. It's cafeteria style and very Chicago. I'd also second the Lou Malnati's suggestion. If you are interested in good bbq I like Smoque on the northwest side and Rub in Rogers Park. You might also enjoy M. Henry for a breakfast and Andersonville (the neighborhood just south of it) is where the fabulous Big Jones and it's ploughman's lunch and many other delicious treats is located. Have fun.