To experience a city through its dining scene doesn’t mean merely visiting Michelin-star or four-dollar-sign restaurants. In fact, a lot can be discerned from a city through its cheap eats – places that are often the backbone of neighborhoods and run by families, not white-suited cooks. These are the places you’ll want to hit to get a different taste of Chicago – or when you don’t want your wallet to lose any weight.
It’s with good reason that Portillo’s has long been a cheap-eats staple in Chicago; the beloved Chicago-style hotdogs are no more than $4 and piled high with mustard, relish, celery salt, chopped onions, tomatoes, a kosher pickle and sport peppers. The rest of the fast-food-centric menu is just as wallet-friendly, peppered with the likes of a char-broiled chicken sandwich ($5.29), an Italian beef sandwich ($6.29), crinkle-cut fries ($2.69) and a chocolate cake shake ($4.29), which is actually blitzed with ice cream and a slice of chocolate cake.
You can do a bit of multitasking at J.P. Graziano Grocery and Sub Shop; you can stock up on canned tomatoes and sliced meats before making your way over to the sub station for a sandwich. Here, you’ll find a roster of subs – all made on wand-shaped rolls from D’Amato’s Bakery – along with a line of people. Try the Spicy (hot capicola, pepperoni, hot soppressata, provolone, tomato and lettuce) or the house specialty, Mr G (sharp provolone, hot soppressata, prosciutto di parma, genoa salami, truffle mustard, hot oil, marinated artichokes and fresh basil). None of the sandwiches are more than $12 – and they’re quite filling – so you might as well walk away with a freshly filled cannoli, too.
Up north in Albany Park is a veritable sushi destination. The digs are pretty basic – counter service and cash only – and the sushi arrives in Styrofoam boxes. However, the sheaths of fish are invariably fresh, and the sushi rice feels comfortingly warm. Most sashimi runs for a dollar a piece, and classics such as salmon and avocado rolls are a mere $3.45. The rest of the menu features a handful of rolls, the majority of which don’t dip beyond $8. Grab a handful to go, or snag one of the few tables and stay awhile.
Everyone comes for the cemitas (a sandwich originally from Puebla, Mexico) at Cemitas Puebla. The famed establishment – which has been featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives – jams carne asada, pollo, al pastor or milanesa between two slices of a home-made sesame roll. Each is finished off with a swig of chipotle sauce, a showering of oaxaca cheese and hunks of avocado, and are no more than $9. Pair a cemita with a couple of tacos – corn tortillas topped with meat, vegetables and a squeeze of lime.
At Johnnie’s Beef, people itching to try the Italian beef sandwich wait in lines out the door. Tender slices of beef are crowded into a soft roll, along with sweet or hot peppers, before it’s showered with its own juices. It’s hefty, meaty and juicy – all for $5. There are hotdogs and fries as well, but most people come for the Italian beef and leave with a cup of Italian ice.
The empanadas at Lito’s are far from your average, traditional versions. These plump, golden-brown half-moons are sealed with a braid and stuffed with avant-garde fillings. There are breakfast versions, including one filled with chorizo, egg, cheese and potato, and a Hawaiian-style one brimming with ham, pineapple, roasted peppers and cheese. Some are even sweet, packed with Nutella and bananas or caramel and apples. All are undeniably cheap – no more than $3.25 each. Slather your empanada in a house-made sauce, such as the morita (made from slow-cooked sun-dried morita peppers).
While the rest of Chicago waits for a burger at Au Cheval, you can head over to its sister restaurant, Small Cheval, for a slightly smaller version that’s equally good – and cheaper. The stripped-down menu focuses just on the necessities: a hamburger ($8.95), cheeseburger ($9.95) and golden fries ($2.95). Each is topped with pickles and dijonnaise – and with crispy bacon for an added charge. The entire meal is slipped into a red paper basket – best enjoyed on the patio outside with a beer or milkshake.
When Sultan’s Market opened, it served only American sandwiches and hotdogs. However, when owner May Ramli first introduced house-made hummus in the store, she knew she had to change the menu. These days, the shop is a haven for Middle Eastern fare, including silky hummus, smoked baba ganoush and flaky baked pies hiding lamb and spices. There are also a host of pita sandwiches, carved out and filled with crispy falafel and chicken shawarma. A meal here won’t break the bank, with dishes costing between $3 and $10.