The Best Cheap Lunches in Chicago
There's no need to let your wallet stand between you and a truly satisfying meal. Especially at lunch, when restaurants are all too happy to take advantage of your desperate need for quick sustenance by gouging you for crappy soup or overpriced sandwiches that barely leave a dent in your appetite. These spots are your salvation, havens of cheap, filling, and above all damn good food you can grab with nothing but a $10 bill.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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