As much as we like home-cooked meals or fancy Michelin star restaurants, there are days when we just want no-frills and guaranteed deliciousness without the damage to our wallets. Embracing cultural diversity has its virtue and beyond the hot dogs and burgers, Chicago hosts a list of marvelous joints where you can sample worldly cuisine at an affordable price. We've included Chinese, Persian, and Mexican cuisine, just to name a few, so that your taste bud can have its own glorious moment of international enlightenment.
For this article's purposes, we define "cheap eats" by setting a budget of approximately $30 total for 2 people with consideration of a dine-in setting. We like to have a balanced meal so a good selection of proteins, veggies, and carbs as combo entree plate is part of our criteria. In addition, hygiene is another important factor. We only frequent restaurants where our observations of hygiene practices within the restaurant are HACCP standards (this is where our hotel school background comes in!). Without further a-do, here is our list. Comments and suggestions are always welcomed. Enjoy!
1. Cho Sun Ok
📍 Lincoln Square
🍴 Korean, Tabletop BBQ
❤ ChaDol-Gui $24.95, Gun Mandu $4, KimChi JjiGae $7.95 (Visit Menu)
🔑 Must try the ChaDol-Gui which is thinly sliced beef without marinade cooked in stone pan. The set comes with five or more side dishes (banchans) as well as kimchi fried rice which the aunties will cook right at your stone pan post meat grilling session. Ordering only the ChaDol-Gui will suffice for your cheap eats budget. But if you want to upgrade, check out the honorable mentioned Gun Mandu (Pan fried dumplings) and KimChi JjiGae (Kimchi Stew) to enhance your dining experience. Word of advice, don't expect much of the service unless you can speak Korean!
📍 Albany Park
🍴 Persian, Kebab
❤ Joujeh Combo $15, Baba Ghannouj $5, Persian Tea $1 (Visit Menu)
🔑 Noon-O-Kabab is a real Persian gem, it's even recognized in the Michelin guide. Our favorite is the Joujeh Combo which comes with a mountain of rice (choose between plain or dill rice) and 2 long skewers of chicken, one marinated chicken breast (Joujeh) and one seasoned ground chicken (Joujeh Koubideh). This combo also includes one side salad with zesty pomegranate dressing which you can grab from the fridge located right next to the ordering counter. It is reasonable to share the plate between two people as the portion is generous, but we love the extra protein to share so ordering an extra skewer of either the chicken breast or the ground chicken at $5 won't ruin the budget. Otherwise, feel free to enhance your dining experience with Baba Ghannouh which is a side dish of roasted eggplant blended with tahini, garlic, parsley, and lemon juice (comes with warm pita breads), or sip an authentic Persian Tea that is just only a buck! This is a semi-self service concept so you would order at the counter which you'll be given a number, grab the salad and carafe of drinking water at the fridge, get seated at a table, make sure the number is visible for the server to deliver your food, and wait for the feast to arrive. See? You got all the tips so you won't look like a lost sheep on your first try.
3. Cantón Regio Mexican Steakhouse
🍴 Mexican, Steak, Taco
❤ Arracheria 1/2 kilo $25, Barbacoa $8, Pollo a la Reña 1/2 $10 (View Menu)
🔑 This is the place to eat when you want steak tacos. The Arracheria 1/2 kilo offers a generous portion of skirt steak grilled to perfection and it is accompanied by bean soup, choice of corn or flour tortilla, and grilled green onions and/or nopales (upon request). The presentation is very traditional as the meat is served on a metal scale that is reminiscence of the Mexican fresh markets. Dining here comes with the perks of receiving complimentary chips and 3 different tasty salsas (red, green, and nopales) and complimentary amuse-bouche taco of the day. There's so many bonus dishes that will leave you feeling satisfied with a great sense of money well spent. If you don't feel like grilled steak tacos, try the Barbacoa plate which is steamed tender beef with rice and refried beans (available only on Saturday and Sunday) or another generous portioned plate, the Pollo a la Reña 1/2, which is a well-seasoned roasted 1/2 chicken plate. Service is very attentive but this is a cash-only place so you either bring cash or use the ATM available inside the restaurant.
🍴 Chinese, Dimsum
❤ Siu Mai $4.15, Ha Cao $4.45, Beef Crepe $4.15, Pan Fried Turnip Cake $3.55, Beef Short Ribs w/Black Pepper $4.45, Chinese Broccoli $5.25, Baked Egg Yolk Bun $4.45 (View Menu)
🔑 Another hailed Michelin guide recipient, Phoenix Restaurant has been our staple dim sum place for years. We really like the clean dining hall, consistent tasty dishes, and attentive service. Having dim sum is a great way to try a variety of dishes without breaking the bank. Our favorites are listed above such as Siu Mai (steamed pork and shrimp dumpling) and Ha Cao (steamed shrimp dumpling). The Baked Egg Yolk Bun here is a great way to end the meal as the egg yolk lava bomb is a perfect combination of savory and sweet. The dim sum dishes are made in-house and if you come during Saturday or Sunday early brunch hours, you get the crème de la crème versions where the dim sum are freshly steamed (and an hour wait for a table). Between 2 people, you can try 5 or 6 of our favorites listed for a well rounded experience.
❤ Chicken Sharwama Dinner $8, Meat Combo Dinner $10, Falafel Sandwich $4.75, Mama Masada Chicken Soup $3 (View Menu)
🔑 This long standing establishment has garnered many recognition for its amazingly tasty and budget friendly meals throughout the years. The no-frills service means you walk up directly to the staff behind the food counter and order whatever you want. He'll quickly scoop everything within under 1 minute and put it on a tray for dine-in or boxed up for take-out. Our favorite item on the menu is the Chicken Sharwama Dinner which comes with a side of either lentil rice or curry rice and tabouli or cucumber salad. The dinner plate includes one pita bread but you can ask them to substitute the pita bread for one piece of the to-die-for falafel. Since the falafel is phenomenal here, we suggest you try the absolute bang for your buck, Falafel Sandwich, which is a little under $5. And on colder days, don't pass up the heart warming Mama Masada Chicken Soup with carrots and potatoes. Additional pointers, you can sample a variety of protein by getting the Meat Combo Dinner which includes Beef Kefta, Lamb Kebab, and Chicken Shawarma in one plate.
6. Cafe Hoang
❤ Bun Rieu $9.95, Bun Bo Hue $9.95, Cha Gio $3.50, Bahn Xeo $10 (View Menu)
🔑 After sampling the myriads of Vietnamese Restaurants on the Argyle strip, we determined that Cafe Hoang offers the tastiest renditions of our noodle soup favorites, and in this case the Bun Rieu (Crab Cake & Pork Soup) and the Bun Bo Hue (Spicy Hue Style Soup) shine. Other noteworthy dishes are the Cha Gio, pork and shrimp spring roll with delicious seasoning, and the Bahn Xeo which is a thin yellow crispy pancake filled with pork, shrimp, and veggies. We think the well-balanced aromatics and the perfectly crisp pancake are signs of quality. If you're looking for Pho, the well recognized Vietnamese noodle soup, don't look for it here or any other Vietnamese restaurants in Chicago (we can't seem to find a really good Pho place yet). Other standalone dishes from the expansive menu here won't make too big of a dent on your wallet but our favorites listed are truly outstanding and you won't find a better version from its neighboring joints.
📍 Lincoln Square
❤ Sinigang Baboy $11, Lechon Kawali $13, Mixed Adobo $12, Lumpia Shanghai $4, Garlic Rice $8 (View Menu)
🔑 The warm hospitality and freshly prepared popular Filipino staples made this place shine above all other Filipino joints. The generous portion is an intended bonus as the Filipino are keen of sharing large plates in a family style dining, which is perfect for our cheap eats strategy. We suggest you order two entree items like the Sinigang Baboy Soup (Tamarind Soup with Pork Belly), Lechon Kawali (Deep Fried Pork Belly served with Filipino Style Gravy), and Mixed Adobo (Chicken and Pork marinated in Garlic, Vinegar, and Black Peppercorn Sauce). A side of rice accompany most entrees but if you would like to turn it up then go for the Garlic Rice and the Lumpia Shanghai (Mini Eggrolls) of which we both enthusiastically give thumbs up.
❤ Pork Carnitas $8.99/lb, Guacamole $3-$4 Mkt Price (View Menu)
🔑 If you see the line and the cars parked in front during the weekends, you'll know this place is the real deal. The signature Pork Carnitas by the pounds are mouthwatering delicious and freshly made, which makes queuing for a table a bit arduous as the entire Pilsen Hispanic community loves their fare share of the carnitas. The menu has a diagram of the various carnitas parts which can be quite confusing at first. Our favorite parts are the belly and the shoulder. However for your first time, we recommend getting a mix combo to sample all the parts and discover your own favorites. The meal comes with free flow tortilla, cilantro, onions, limes, and pickled jalapenos. Of course, if you're eating tacos, while not go for the whole mile and add some Guacamole and chips too. We swear, out of all the times we've frequented this place, we've never spent over $30 but we've felt like we ate for the entire day in one meal. One meal to rule them all!
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