Food & Drink

The 15 Most Underrated Places to Eat in Chicago

Mike Gebert Published On 05/07/2015 Published On 05/07/2015
mike gebert/thrillist

In a city as food-rich as Chicago, there’re always some places that ought to have lines running out the door, but don’t have lines running out the door... yet. These are some of those restaurants: 15 spots in 15 all-important categories -- from donut shops to burger joints -- none of which 1) have any Michelin stars, 2) are on any of the most recent Best Restaurants in Chicago lists from Chicagoist, Food & Wine, or Zagat, or 3) get nearly the amount of hype they deserve.

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Underrated donut shop: Somethin' Sweet Donuts

Cragin
If you’re tired of paying $3 a head for hipster doughnuts covered with more frosting than a birthday cake, get back to basics at this West Side shop owned (like a lot of donut shops in California) by a super-friendly Cambodian immigrant and his family. They make classic dunkers in lots of flavors, from blueberry to red velvet -- and they'll run you a whopping 75 cents each.

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Underrated burger joint: Ivy's Burgers, Hot Dogs and Fries

Edgebrook
Go in this attractive dog and burger restaurant in almost-suburban Edgebrook on the Northwest Side and you’ll quickly notice this is no ordinary dog stand (see: the Japanese dog topped with seaweed and pickled ginger). Owner Tony Tzoubris aims to do everything a little better while keeping prices reasonable and his burger, made from Angus beef from a few hand-chosen ranches in Nebraska, is as good a single-digit-priced burger as you can find anywhere in the city.

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Underrated sandwich place: Bombacigno's J&C Restaurant

West Loop
The Loop is littered with indistinguishable plastic fast-food sandwiches. But off on the Southwest side of Downtown near Union Station, there’s this family-run Italian place that looks like a speakeasy and makes all kinds of things from scratch -- including lemon chicken sandwiches with roasted vegetables on crusty D’amato bread, meatball sandwiches, Italian subs -- the works. The only bad thing about finally discovering it is kicking yourself for all the years you worked nearby and didn’t know it existed.

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Underrated tacos: El Metro

West Town
We could name great unknown taco joints all day long, but our current fave is this new, Mexican street food-themed spot from the two sisters (Betty and Veronica, we kid you not) who run the equally under-appreciated Cafe Gaudi. They’ve got a wider range of tacos than most places, serving up everything from fish tacos to cochinita pibil. They’re all tasty and artfully made, and almost nothing is over three bucks.

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Underrated breakfast spot: Danny's Egghead Diner

North Center
This old-school coffee shop finally gave up the ghost and was taken over by a friendly Mexican family that knows how to knock out a plate of pancakes and bacon that'll keep the kiddies happy. But they also work Mexican flavors into things like the al pastor hash, or the Hangover Chilaquiles that make it a worthy Sunday morning stop for adults, too.

Flickr/Mike Gebert

Underrated Mexican restaurant: Mezquite Pollo Express

Gage Park
The haze of smoke in this Mexican restaurant tells you there's no kidding about the mesquite. There’s juicy, spicy chicken and steak cooking over live fire all day long. The location (a couple of miles East of Midway Airport) may be a hike for most of Chicago, but go for the steak, then take a chicken or two along with some handmade tortillas to-go, and you’ll be fed happily for most of the week.

mike gebert/thrillist

Underrated pizza: Orsi's Pizza

Summit
Speaking of Midway, just past it in the suburb of Summit is an old tavern called Chester’s, which is also home to an old pizza place called Orsi's. And if you want the full Chicago tavern-cut pizza experience with cracker-thin crust and tasty Italian sausage, American beer, and real Chicago guys yelling at the ball game on the TV in between games of video poker, this is your place.

mike gebert/thrillist

Underrated Italian: Bacchanalia Ristorante

Pilsen
As Taylor St fills up with sushi bars and Indian restaurants, you have to look harder for a real Little Italy in Chicago. Heart of Italy, on the edge of Pilsen, is a little strip that looks like Sonny might show up at any minute to beat the crap of Carlo. The Italian-American joints along Oakley are definitely old school, and some have gotten tired. But some still know how to do the classics well and make you feel like a big shot for dining out. And Bacchanalia does one of the best Chicken Vesuvios in town, plus plenty of other dishes from lasagna, to linguini and clams.

mike gebert/thrillist

Underrated Chinese: Richland Center

Chinatown
Chinatown is booming with new places worth checking out, but if you really want to see the cutting edge, locate this building on the East end of the Chinatown mall and head downstairs into its food court. At first it seems dead, but start checking out the food stalls and just order off the photos. Anything that looks good... it’s all cheap. The skewer stand is great, there’s a handy Tribune guide to the food posted on the wall, and there are places to get dumplings and takoyaki (think octopus doughnuts). Snack Planet belies its mild name with spicy food -- it’s a street food trip to Shanghai, just a CTA ride away.

mike gebert/thrillist

Underrated Asian food: Isla Pilipina

Lincoln Square
If there’s a whole Asian cuisine that's underrated, it’s Filipino food in general. Isla Pilipina is the closest that any spot comes to being known outside of the Filipino community, and deservedly so for its brightly flavored comfort food and energetic second-generation staff. Pancit noodles, adobo chicken, lumpia (Pinoy eggrolls), lechon kawali (fried pork), and the inevitable garlic rice offer you a feast for a reasonable price.

mike gebert/thrillist

Underrated Middle Eastern food: Zizi's Cafe

Lakeview
This Turkish restaurant with an eager-to-please owner is one of the hidden gems of Lakeview, not otherwise a dining standout of the city. It offers well executed versions of classic Middle Eastern dishes (hummus, falafel, chicken. and beef shawarma), but what lifts it all up a notch is the terrific house-baked bread.

mike gebert/thrillist

Underrated vegetarian: Annapurna

West Ridge
Most of the time, you’re all too aware of compromising when eating in a vegetarian restaurant. Not so, though, when the vegetarian restaurant is Indian and offers rich, spicy flavors that explode from the simplest things -- like potato-filled samosas, or plates of chole bhatura, or chickpea stew served with puffy bread for dipping.

mike gebert/thrillist

Underrated farm-to-table restaurant: Fork

Lincoln Square
Anyone who thought Gather brought farm-to-table to Lincoln Square wasn’t paying attention to one of the neighborhood’s old standbys. Fork looks like the other burger bars and family dining spots on Lincoln, but it stands above them because of the commitment of Chef Tim Cottini (a veteran of Lettuce Entertain You) to buying all that farmer’s market meat and produce and turning it into easygoing comfort food. Try the standout chicken & waffles with maple pecan-crusted bacon.

mike gebert/thrillist

Underrated gastropub: Red Door

Bucktown
Eight months of the year, Red Door huddles in its little indoor space and serves Troy Graves’ earthy, tasty food alongside a great beer list. Then spring comes and for a few glorious months, it hides the best back patio in Bucktown. You should definitely hit it now as the weather gets better, but you should also support it in the colder months to keep it going for next summer, too.

mike gebert/thrillist

Underrated fancy dining: Cafe des Architectes (in the Sofitel)

Streeterville
The Sofitel has a ‘70s-glam dining room, a chef in Greg Biggers who trained under Nobu Matsuhisa, and does gorgeous plates of chic dots and squiggles. It also has a star pastry chef and baker in Leigh Omilinsky (which ensures that breakfast is as much of a dazzler as dinner) and the city’s only in-house charcuterie, pickling, and cheese-making program. So why don’t you see it on more best-of-fine-dining lists? Beats us, but it’s the kind of sophisticated night out that reminds you why you live in a big city.

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Mike Gebert is a James Beard Award-winning food video producer and writer, and founder of SkyFullofBacon.com. Follow him on Twitter @skyfullofbacon.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
1. Somethin' Sweet Donuts 5111 W. Fullerton Ave, Chicago, IL 60639

When you are hankerin' for something sweet, isn't it best to go to a place where that's the name? The answer is yes, because these guys sling cheap and delicious 'nuts that are baked fresh every day.

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2. Ivy's Burgers, Hot Dogs and Fries 5419 W Devon Ave, Chicago, IL 60646

The man behind this Edgebrook hidden gem has a history in the restaurant business, which you can tell immediately once you taste his food. The wieners are black Angus dogs from Eisenberg, and aside from a stellar Chicago-style version, you can also try one of Ivy's specialty dogs, including The Japanese with seaweed, gari, and wasabi cream.

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3. Bombacigno's J & C Restaurant 558 W Van Buren St, Chicago, IL 60607

Bombacigno’s J & C Inn, which is a lunch-only joint, makes a mean meatball subs. They makes everything from scratch, except the bread it goes on -- for that they use the great crusty-fluffy Italian loaf from D’Amato’s.

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4. El Metro 1959 W Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60622 (West Town)

We could name great unknown taco joints all day long, but our current fave is this new, Mexican street food-themed spot from the two sisters (Betty and Veronica, we kid you not) who run the equally under-appreciated Cafe Gaudi. They’ve got a wider range of tacos than most places, serving up everything from fish tacos to cochinita pibil. They’re all tasty and artfully made, and almost nothing is over three bucks.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
5. Danny's Egghead Diner 2012 W Irving Park Rd, Chicago, IL 60618 (North Center)

Egghead's is a greasy spoon with a little Mexican flavor, serving up hangover-curing grub like Chilaquiles, crunchy granola French toast, and salmon benedict.

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6. Mezquite Pollo Express 2809 W 55th St, Chicago, IL 60632

The haze of smoke in this Mexican restaurant tells you there's no kidding about the mesquite. There’s juicy, spicy chicken and steak cooking over live fire all day long. The location (a couple of miles East of Midway Airport) may be a hike for most of Chicago, but go for the steak, then take a chicken or two along with some handmade tortillas to-go, and you’ll be fed happily for most of the week.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
7. Orsi's Pizza S Archer Rd, Bridgeview, IL 60455

In the suburb of Summit is an old tavern called Chester’s, which is also home to an old pizza place called Orsi's. And if you want the full Chicago tavern-cut pizza experience with cracker-thin crust and tasty Italian sausage, American beer, and real Chicago guys yelling at the ball game on the TV in between games of video poker, this is your place.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
8. Bacchanalia 2413 S Oakley Ave, Chicago, IL 60608 (Pilsen)

A Pilsen staple that's been drawing pilgrims from all over the city since 1979, Bacchanalia guides its diners through a narrow, unpretentious bar area that’s coated in old neighborhood charm. Still family owned, it’s hearty Italian classics like veal scallopini and chicken vesuvio are homestyle recipes that founder Belfonte Pieri brought with him from Tuscany in 1958.

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9. Isla Pilipina 2501 W Lawrence Ave, Chicago, IL 60625 (Lincoln Square)

Isla Pilipina is the closest that any spot comes to being known outside of the Filipino community, and deservedly so for its brightly flavored comfort food and energetic second-generation staff. Pancit noodles, adobo chicken, lumpia (Pinoy eggrolls), lechon kawali (fried pork), and the inevitable garlic rice offer you a feast for a reasonable price.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
10. Zizi's Cafe 2825 N Sheffield Ave, Chicago, IL 60657 (Lakeview)

This Turkish restaurant with an eager-to-please owner is one of the hidden gems of Lakeview, not otherwise a dining standout of the city. It offers well executed versions of classic Middle Eastern dishes (hummus, falafel, chicken. and beef shawarma), but what lifts it all up a notch is the terrific house-baked bread.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
11. Annapurna 2608 W Devon Ave, Chicago, IL 60659 (West Rogers Park)

Most of the time, you’re all too aware of compromising when eating in a vegetarian restaurant. Not so, though, when the vegetarian restaurant is Indian and offers rich, spicy flavors that explode from the simplest things -- like potato-filled samosas, or plates of chole bhatura, or chickpea stew served with puffy bread for dipping.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
12. Fork 4600 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL 60625 (Lincoln Square)

Lincoln Square’s farm-to-table restaurant is a jaw-unhinging “showstopper” destination. Whether you're joining them for a brunch filled with fantastic chicken and waffles, "brunch-ready monster," which features a 1lb prime beef patty poised atop a Belgian waffle "bun" and smothered in cheddar and Swiss, or just popping by to enjoy something from their impressive wine and beer lists, you'll feel like a winner.

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13. Red Door 2118 N Damen Ave, Chicago, IL 60647 (Bucktown)

This underrated Bucktown gastropub serves upscale bar food alongside a hefty selection of craft beers -- most of which are from the Midwest -- and speciality cocktails. There's a long bar and plenty of two- and four-top tables, so Red Door is a great place for a low-key date, especially given the menu's emphasis on shared plates. The best part about it all? The huge backyard patio that's stocked with long picnic tables.

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14. Café des Architectes 20 E Chestnut St, Chicago, IL 60611 (Streeterville)

The Sofitel has a ‘70s-glam dining room, a chef in Greg Biggers who trained under Nobu Matsuhisa, and does gorgeous plates of chic dots and squiggles. It also has a star pastry chef and baker in Leigh Omilinsky (which ensures that breakfast is as much of a dazzler as dinner) and the city’s only in-house charcuterie, pickling, and cheese-making program. So why don’t you see it on more best-of-fine-dining lists? Beats us, but it’s the kind of sophisticated night out that reminds you why you live in a big city.

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