The Best Cheap Eats in Chicago

A visit to Chicago wouldnt be complete without a visit to the Bean
A visit to Chicago wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Bean | © Susan E Degginger / Alamy Stock Photo
Amy Schulman

Food Editor

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.

Ghareeb Nawaz

Things are very cheap at Ghareeb Nawaz, a family-run Indian restaurant on Devon Avenue. You can get away with spending very little and still manage to leave very full; after all, most dishes hover around $5. Line your stomach with biryanis, parathas, curries and a whole host of vegetarian dishes. For a taste of many things in smaller portions, try one of the combination entrées, such as the veggie thali, which comes with rice, roti, four kinds of veggie curry, raita and onion.


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.

J.P. Graziano Grocery and Sub Shop

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.

Lawrence Fish Market

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.

Honey 1 BBQ

The father-son pair behind Honey 1 BBQ may have moved their establishment from the Northwest Side to Bronzeville, but smoked meat lovers still travel for a taste of Arkansas in Chicago. You’ll see most people digging into the spicy hot links (three links go for $9.25) or gnawing at rib tips (a large serves three for only $13). The smoky meat is slipped onto paper trays, followed by slabs of doughy white bread and french fries.

Johnnie’s Beef

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.

Lito’s Empanadas

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).

Small Cheval

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.

Sultan’s Market

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.

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