Chicago is home to several hidden-gem eateries that aren’t quite so hidden anymore. Thanks to recent publicity from shows like “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” and “No Reservations,” the city’s greasy spoons, mom-and-pop cafes, and late-night taquerias are enjoying a much-deserved moment in the spotlight. These Windy City staples are big on flavor but light on the wallet.
Avondale: Legendary Hot Dogs
Hot Doug’s has become a universally praised Chicago hot-dog stand, known for its unique meats and easy-going owner Doug Sohn taking your order. Doug names his sausage dishes after celebrities like Brigitte Bardot and Norm Crosby. The shop’s more exotic encased meats include Andouille sausage, chicken sausage, and bratwurst—all well worth the wait.
South Loop: Monstrous Deli Sandwiches
Since 1942, four generations of the Raskin family have served up Jewish-American cuisine at Manny’s Café and Delicatessen. With a classic cafeteria setting, the chefs follow time-tested recipes for matzo-ball soup, chewy latke, and overflowing sandwiches lauded by Time Out Chicago.The Raskins can count President Barack Obama among their fans after he visited the eatery in 2008.
Near North: Battered and Fried Fish Tacos
After competing in the reality-cooking show “Hell’s Kitchen,” chef Tony D’Alessandro teamed up with childhood friend Gary Strauss to open Big & Little, which has been named the “Cheap Eater’s Restaurant of the Year” by The Chicago Tribune. The restaurant serves battered shrimp, grilled tilapia tacos, and other comfort seafood amid a no-frills exterior and countertop-style indoor seating.
Ravenswood: Fresh Banh Mi
Even the most expensive sandwich at Nhu Lan’s Bakery will only set you back $4.25. The majority of the 17 traditional Vietnamese sandwiches come in at $3.50 and under, including combos such as veggie pate and ham. Each creation is tucked inside freshly baked banh mi that’s made onsite. The Vietnamese bread is scored with a knife and baked in a giant oven, where it rotates slowly for 20 minutes to ensure an even cooking.
Wicker Park: Tacos and Whiskey
Where else can you get a braised pork-belly taco, a beer, and a shot of whiskey for under $10? Created by James Beard “Best Chef of the Midwest” winner Paul Kahan, Big Star’s Tex-Mex cuisine is outdone only by its selection of Kentucky bourbons and tequila. When it’s warm, grab a seat on the large outdoor patio, illuminated by strings of twinkling lights.
Near North: Tortas and Homemade Churros
If celebrity chef Rick Bayless builds it, they will come. Such is the case with Xoco, Bayless’ quick-service venture known for fresh-from-the-oven gourmet tortas, hearty soups, authentic hot chocolate, and homemade churros. The centerpiece is its rustic wood-burning oven, which lures in passersby with enticing smells. The shop recently made Bon Apetit’s top-ten list for “Delicious Cheap Eats in Chicago.”
Lakeview: Chinese Food and Smoothies
While this unassuming eatery offers a range of pork, beef, seafood, and chicken dishes, it’s just as known for its vegetarian options, such as sautéed Chinese broccoli and vegetarian Singapore rice noodle. Wash it all down with a lychee-strawberry or pineapple-coconut smoothie. Monday through Friday, weekday lunch specials are $6.95 or less.
Oak Park: Barbecue Ribs and Burgers
More than just a burger shack—although it’s worth pointing out those are only $1—Mickey’s serves Italian beef sandwiches, gyros, and rib-eye steak sandwiches, all for $5.29 or less. The restaurant’s piece de resistance: a full slab of barbecue ribs, with fries, cole slaw, and garlic bread. Cap off the meal with a large milkshakes, which comes in flavors such as banana and orange creamsicle,
Lakeview: Healthy Middle Eastern Cuisine
Lebanon native and chef Maher Chebaro saw an open market for healthy Middle Eastern cuisine in Chicago. Falafill’s concept is simple: for $6–$8, you choose between a pita or a plastic bowl, select a falafel, and pile your dish high with fresh vegetables and sauces prepared daily.
Near West Side: Healthy, Raw Food
Created by two self-proclaimed foodies with a passion for healthy eating, Raw Chicago Food serves strictly plant-based, uncooked foods. You’ll find classic vegetarian standbys wheatgrass juice and veggie burgers alongside collard burritos, meatless sandwiches, and more-inventive entrees. Finish the meal with a reimagined dessert: coconut macaroons, tiramisu, and apple pie, made entirely with raw ingredients