Food & Drink

The Best Cheap Lunches in Chicago

Published On 01/24/2014 Published On 01/24/2014
L'Patron Chicago
Sean Cooley/Thrillist

L‘ Patron

Logan Square

Relocating further west after a rent dispute has not dampened the enthusiasm for this much-beloved taco joint. And it's not just the reliably superior tacos that make it worth a visit. Try the unbelievably priced burritos and The Gringo, which is homemade masa packed with L‘ Patron’s paradigm-altering carne asada and chihuahua cheese for $5.49. Not that you’ll need it, but it comes with a side of tasty refried beans and rice to boot.

Flickr/Gloria Cabada-Leman

Taste of Lebanon

Andersonville

This simple authentic Middle Eastern food stand is a go-to for anyone in the neighborhood looking for shawarma or hummus. Everything on the simple menu is really good and really easy on your wallet, you can walk out with a wrap and the best lentil soup in the city (seriously it’s hearty, healing, slightly spicy perfection) for under $7. The best deal is the veggie combo No. 1, which will only set you back $6 and change for falafel, pickled sides, and two heaping helpings of hummus and baba ghanoush that will leave anyone but the hungriest with plenty of leftovers.

Cafecito

Two Loop Locations

Even though the somewhat dismal food options in the Loop have slowly been brightening in recent years Cafecito still stands out as an oasis of cheap Cuban eats in a desert of overpriced sandwiches and salads. They boast a murders' row of Latin specialties with all the sandwiches coming in under the mid-$6 range. No one will fault you for sticking to the excellent Cuban, but expand your range to the steak sandwich options like the Chimichurri or Chivito, which adds ham, bacon, and egg to the mix. Make it a combo with chips and a drink and you’ll still barely break $9.

Sean Cooley/Thrillist

Byron’s Hot Dogs

Lakeview, Ravenswood

What’s better than a dyed-in-the-wool old-school Chicago hot dog stand? Byron’s makes no attempt at accommodating modern trends and tastes -- thank God for that. While the combo menu is filled with solid deal you are coming here for the hot dog, the two dog combo to be exact, which will only set you back a little over $9 for a huge meal that would make any burly Midwesterner proud. The meal comes not only with a bottomless 22oz fountain soda (dine-in), but some scrumptious salty shoestring fries that match the quality of the dogs themselves.

Nhu Lan Bakery

Lincoln Square

You should plan on taking your lunch to go at this tiny Lincoln Square storefront, but that should not inhibit you at all from visiting this Vietnamese bakery, eat in the alley if you have too. They have the best banh mi in the city including multiple combinations of the now-famous pate, ham, headcheese combination, every one of which is a step above what you have probably come to expect elsewhere. All of them come in at under $5 so you can even add a smoothie or Vietnamese iced coffee without breaking your budget.

Lawrence Fish Market

Lawrence Fish Market

Albany Park

Yes, cheap sushi can be a dicey proposition, but that is not the case at Lawrence Fish Market, and great cheap sushi is a wondrous thing to behold. So rare of a creature in fact that you will often find people from all over the city standing in line up in Albany Park to take home a few days worth of their affordable rolls. The sushi is as fresh and high-quality as anything you would expect from a modern sushi bar, and the selection is a plentiful mix of classic rolls, most of which are priced under $5.50. You can walk out carrying a crunch roll with shrimp tempura, some spicy tuna, and pocket change from your $10 bill.

Kasia’s

Ukrainian Village

A Chicago classic that is still delivering the goods after more than 30 years Kasia’s started as a home-cooked enterprise catering to locals hungry for some classic Polish dishes. While Kasia’s pierogi may be a nationwide supermarket item at this point, that doesn’t take away from the quality of the Deli’s original. The lunch menu has cheap sandwiches and soups that will please almost anyone but go for the famous pierogies and potato pancakes first and foremost. They come with a bewildering number of fillings from potato onion to spinach or blueberry, and a half dozen along with a few pancakes will come in at under $5.

Opart Thai House

Opart Thai House

Lincoln Square, South Loop, West Town

Now that Opart has blessed us with three locations any Thai fans in the city have no excuse not to check out this authentic hot spot. If you are looking for a deal in the city, lunch or otherwise, it’s hard to beat Opart’s curry fried rice. It’s under $8 and comes with your choice of protein. It may be hard to understand how a simple rice dish can stand out so much but just do yourself a favor and try it. Spicy without being overpowering, it’s the essential Chicago Thai dish.

Chicken Planet

The Loop

Chicken Planet almost seems like it shouldn’t exist. A place in the Loop where lunch crowds can devour a quarter chicken meal (comes with pita, salsa, another side, and a drink) for under 7 bucks? And it’s good? Yes, it looks like kind of a dive, but that’s just part of the charm, like the massive line of identical chickens sprawled out before the cook, or the pile of finished birds ready to be cut up. The service is quick and friendly and the grill chicken they pile in your styrofoam container never wants for flavor. And if you are really hungry you can upgrade to the half chicken and still come in under $9.  

Courtesy of Ghareeb Nawaz

Ghareeb Nawaz

Roger’s Park, University Village

This simple, straightforward Indian served at bargain basement prices. Of course that would be nothing if the food wasn’t good too. While the menu is pretty big stick with popular choices like the goat biryani, chili chicken, or butter chicken, and you won’t be disappointed. The dishes are just $4.99, and you get some pretty whopping portions at that crazy price too. The original location in Roger’s Park has been a favorite up on Devon for over 20 years but you can also hit their express location down by UIC if you don’t have time to trek up north.

Panes

Lakeview

A neighborhood bakery and lunch spot Panes has an eclectic menu of sandwiches, omelets, and pasta dishes, as well as fresh baked bread and other goodies. That bakery pedigree is half of what makes their sandwiches so damned irresistible, the other half being the impeccably fresh ingredients they pile in-between the slices, all for prices that are shockingly low considering the quality at work. For the best example try the fittingly named “Popular”: chicken breast and provolone with caramelized onions, spinach, roasted red pepper on their soft, tangy tomato bread. Every sandwich comes with a side of chips and you will only drop $8 a piece.

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Sultan’s Market

Wicker Park, Lincoln Park

Where would the denizens of hungry lunchers in Wicker Park and Lincoln Park be without Sultan’s Market? Falafel fans across Chicago have made them a Middle Eastern staple for seekers of great bargains and even better kebab. Despite years of high demand Sultan’s Market has maintained prices that will keep you wallet as full as your mouth. The best of the bunch is the Lamb shawarma dinner served with pita, hummus, and a side, savory spit roasted goodness, which still only costs $7 and change.

Bari

West Loop

This a difficult call. Not because Bari’s quality is questionable, anyone who’s visited this Grand street grocery can tell you they have some of the best sandwiches in the city. The difficulty is making a call on which one of their many fantastic menu items is the best deal. You can grab a footlong of the gold-standard Chicago Italian sub for $6.75 or an Italian beef with house-made giardiniera (yes, it’s as good as it sounds) for $7. But our vote for the best is the creamy, salty delight of the footlong prosciutto and fresh mozzarella for only $7.50.

Flickr/sp1365

90 Miles Cuban Café

Roscoe Village

While the world presents us with many fine food options there are few that have reached a vaunted level of perfection, like a simple margherita pizza, that they won’t ever be improved upon. The Cubano sandwich is one of those things. The 5 ingredient combo of roast pork, ham, swiss cheese, mustard, and pickle may be messed with, but will never be defeated. There have been more and more decent iterations popping up around Chicago but 90 Miles still slings what is probably the best in the city. And happily for all us at 90 Miles original Clybourn location (the two others have higher-priced menus) it only costs $7.

Pierogi Heaven

The Loop (Two Locations)

Guess what you’re getting here? Any place that sticks to such a limited menu must be pretty damn confident, and since there are only two other entrees on the menu besides pierogis (stuffed cabbage or sausage, good but come on) you can rest easy knowing your Polish craving is in good hands. The portions are good and a six-piece will only set you back $8 even after you add a drink.

Courtesy of Pleasant House Bakery

Pleasant House Bakery

Pilsen

Pleasant House just jumped across the river from Bridgeport to Pilsen, sad for the neighborhood, but luckily their new location with still be serving up the same hearty British specialties. The essential items are their royal pies, savory pastries filled with chicken and curry or mushroom and kale, each at on $7.95. The best of the bunch is the steak and ale pie with carrots and herbs, the home-cooked English meal you never knew you craved so badly.

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1. L'Patron Tacos 3749 W Fullerton Ave, Chicago, IL 60647 (Logan Square)

If you thought you could only get decent Mexican street food south of the border, think again – for Chicagoans, it’s as easy as a trip to Logan Square. The market-driven menu at L’Patron includes highlights like carne asada and the signature la gringa, a tortilla with al pastor, Chihuahua cheese, pineapple, and a side of rice and beans. While seating is available, this counter-service taqueria is a lunch hotspot, so get there early to snag a seat and chow down.

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2. Taste of Lebanon 1509 W Foster Ave, Chicago, IL 60640 (Andersonville)

The authenticity and affordability of this cozy Middle Eastern joint makes it an Anderson hot spot. Regulars will adamantly claim that the lentil soup here is the best Chicago has to offer, and rave about other popular offerings like the falafel pita and hummus combo plate. While a meal here won’t burn a hole in your pocket, make sure you hit up an ATM beforehand -- this place is cash-only.

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3. Cafecito 7 N Wells St, Chicago, IL 60602 (Loop)

If you’re craving a taste of Cuba, look no further than Cafecito. This coffee and sandwich shop brings a bit of authentic Latin flair to The Loop, providing fresh, affordable eats like their award-winning Cubano and the fan favorite Chivito, a protein pick-me-up of steak, ham, bacon, fried egg, mozzarella, citrus mayo, and other fixings, served hot in a pressed hero. Whether you’re grabbing grub on your lunch break or swinging through for your daily café con leche, this casual spot has your commuting cravings covered.

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4. Byron's Hot Dogs 1017 W Irving Park Rd, Chicago, IL 60613 (Lakeview)

On the side of this tiny Lakeview hot dog stand is written: “You are about to have the best hot dog in town" -- and that's no exaggeration. Byron's sticks to tradition, keeping its menu the same since it opened in 1975. The dogs here come in three sizes: an 1/8lb, a 1/4b Jumbo Dog, and a half-pound Dogzilla. They come with mustard, relish, onions, tomato slices, a pickle spear, celery salt, and hot peppers. Not enough toppings for you? You can also throw on some cucumber, lettuce, and green pepper. Be sure to order a scrumptious shoestring fries, too.

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5. Nhu Lan Bakery 2612 W Lawrence Ave, Chicago, IL 60625 (Lincoln Square)

This Vietnamese bakery churns out solid bánh mì options with all the fixings that make it a welcome departure from the standard lunchtime sub. The BBQ pork sandwich with crisp cucumber spears, sweet pickled daikon, shaved carrots, jalapeños, and fresh cilantro in a crusty baguette is a stand-out special. It's not always easy to find a table in either of their tiny, storefront locations if you're dining in, but it's well worth the wait.

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6. Lawrence Fish Market 3914 W Lawrence Ave, Chicago, IL 60625 (Albany Park)

Don’t let the concept of takeout-only sushi bog you down; Lawrence Fish Market is a popular stop for bargain sushi on-the-go, where the fish is fresh and the maki is made to order. The Albany Park storefront is best for the unpretentious sushi seeker on a budget -- who isn’t deterred by less-than-perfect knife skills on their nigiri and sashimi -- to load up a personalized tray of $1 to $5 maki options. Not that you’ll need a lot of it, but know that Lawrence Fish Market is cash-only (what else would you expect from a bargain sushi joint?).

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7. Kasia's Deli 2101 W Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60622 (Ukrainian Village)

A great stop for Polish food aficionados and first-timers alike: stuffed cabbage, kielbasa, and, of course, their own signature pierogis -- they have 16 kinds, everything from a standard potato & cheese to blueberry or plum. Although Kasia's pierogis can be found in grocery stores nationwide, nothing compares to the freshness and quality one has with these fresh from the deli. In addition to pierogis, Kasia's has a great variety of sandwiches and soups.

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8. Opart Thai House 4658 N Western Ave, Chicago, IL 60625 (Lincoln Square)

Come to Opart for the most authentic Thai cuisine in Chicago -- they have tons of appetizers, soups, and salads, but make sure you leave room for any one of the curries here and you will leave happy. We recommend ordering the signature curry fried rice, which is spicy without being too over the top. Oh, and it's BYOB too, so stop by the liquor store (it's right next door!) on your way in.

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9. Chicken Planet 177 W Van Buren St, Chicago, IL 60605 (Loop)

Chicken Planet in the Loop is a bit of a dive, but that's what gives this delectable counter-service chicken house its charm. Lunch crowds get pretty massive, and for good reason: you can get a quarter chicken (with sides and a drink) for less than 10 dollars. You can even watch the cooks preparing massive chickens in the kitchen. If you're in a rush, your meal is served up in a styrofoam container, so it is as portable as it is delicious.

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10. Ghareeb Nawaz 2032 West Devon Ave, Chicago, IL 60659 (West Rogers Park)

This no-fuss Indian/Pakistani restaurant, located on Devon in West Rogers Park, offers giant portions for low prices. Most customers take food to go, and the place is known for their chili chicken and goat biryani. The vegetarian options are just as hearty (and varied) as the meat dishes, and because the prices are so low, you can come back and order many different dishes. In fact, this gem is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so you will never have to go hungry for great Indian food.

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11. Panes Bread Cafe 3002 N Sheffield Ave, Chicago, IL 60657 (Lakeview)

Known for its original sandwiches and fresh-baked bread, this cash-only counter-service cafe crafts a mean Oaxacan pork sandwich. The pork chop sandwich has an authentic Mexican sweet and spicy flavor between crusty, homemade bread. For the same price as Subway, the generously portioned, top-notch handheld that could easily make two meals reigns supreme as a quick and tasty option.

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12. Sultan's Market 2057 W North Ave, Chicago, IL 60647 (Wicker Park)

Sultan's Market is the best on-the-go spot for falafel, babaganuj, curry basmati rice, and anything else Middle Eastern/Mediterranean. It's not too expensive, and you can BYOB. Score!

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13. Bari 1120 W Grand Ave, Chicago, IL 60642 (West Loop)

Bari's an Italian grocer known for delicious sandwiches like their Italian beef -- house-made giardiniera, thick-cut beef with savory gravy, and a sturdy roll that will hold up to all that hearty stuff inside. The West Loop hot spot, therefore, serves up some of the best sandwiches in the city, and the sheer variety on the menu makes it difficult to just pick one sandwich to choose from. We recommend going for the footlong prosciutto and fresh mozzarella, which perfectly combines salty and creamy flavors.

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14. 90 Miles Cuban Cafe 3101 N Clybourn Ave, Chicago, IL 60618 (Logan Square)

Open since 2009, the original Roscoe Village location of this local mini-chain serves some of the best Cuban food around in a funky quick-serve space (the other two outposts are full-service). 90 Miles serves an all-day menu of classic Cuban combo plates and sandwiches, including a stellar daily sandwich and fries deal. The restaurant is more of a roadside shack, and though there are only a few seats inside, there's an outdoor patio with plenty of umbrella-shaded tables. Oh, and it's BYOB.

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15. Pierogi Heaven 329 S Franklin St, Chicago, IL 60606 (Loop)

Pierogi Heaven in the Loop is where to go to get some of the most authentic Polish food in Chicago. Whether you are looking for traditional meat-filled ones or vegetarian-friendly ones filled with potatoes, these pierogies, offered at six an order, are perfectly cooked to deliver a savory dining experience. If you're wanting something else than pierogies, you can order either stuffed cabbage or sausage. This no-frills counter-service location won't put you out very many bucks either, which will leave your tummy and wallet happy.

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16. Pleasant House Pub 2119 S Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60608 (Pilsen)

Pilsen’s Pleasant House Pub serves up pints and pies in an English pub setting. The menu is divided into pub snacks, pub plates, sides, salads, and flaky, savory “Royal” pies, which you can “crown” with mashed potatoes and gravy. Choose to eat this decidedly British fare in either the indoor or outdoor area, and if you have any room left, jump on the sticky toffee pudding for dessert. Stocked with a full bar of cocktails and craft beers, Pleasant House Pub will have you gabbing in your foolish English accent after one too many.