PHOTOGRAPH: COURTESY LOCAL ROOT
Best Budget Thai
Andy’s Thai Kitchen
946 W. Wellington Ave., 773-549-7821, Lake View
This tiny place is often packed to the gills, but if you can score a table at an off-peak time, you’re in for a treat. Thai standards shine, but the real news is such seldom-encountered fare as crispy on choy, with its happy heap of tempuraed Chinese water spinach ($12), and slithery noodles of yum woon sen talay ($9), generously topped with seafood.
Best Budget Tacos
1360 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-687-8697, Wicker Park
You know a place is onto something when the young and tattooed are willing to eat, drink, and talk there instead of laptopping. The guac and chips ($6) at this airy corner storefront stand with the best in the city and tacos (pork carnitas, $7 for two; grilled ribeye, $8 for two) burst with bright tastes. Beer comes in cans, rosemary margaritas in glass milk bottles.
Best Budget Empanadas
3612 N. Southport Ave., 773-966-8917, Lake View
Like a stationary food truck selling Mexican street snacks and coffee, this wee, jolly enterprise is, for all practical purposes, takeout-only. If, however, you can’t wait to eat an empanada ($3) stuffed with chicken and salsa verde or with black beans, goat cheese, and plantain, no one will kick you out as you stand, gobbling. Finish with a concha ($1) and a latte (12 oz., $3.25).
Best Budget Bibimbap
1840 N. Damen Ave., 773-772-9880, Bucktown
Bountiful bowlfuls of bibimbap ($8–$12) embellished, if you choose, with meat, four kinds of fish eggs, or five kinds of sashimi are the stars of the show at this Korean counter-service spot, but sushi rolls ($4 for classic maki, $9 for supersized) are also pretty compelling. This might be the only place in town to get a paratha panini stuffed with kimchi and spicy pork belly ($7.50), just sayin’.
Best Budget Northern Chinese
3205 S. Halsted St., 773-949-9328, Bridgeport
Massive portions of well-prepared Northern Chinese food, rock-bottom prices—irresistible. You’ll wish you’d grown up in a home where these tastes were in style: boiled cabbage and pork dumplings (12 for $6.95); stir-fried lamb and vegetables abuzz with cumin and chili peppers ($12.95); garlicky deep-fried sautéed string beans ($7.95); and, at meal’s end, an upbeat fortune cookie.
Best Budget Locally-Sourced Food
601 N. McClurg Ct., 312-643-1145, Streeterville
In-house baking and a focus on freshness, generally, create an oasis of coziness in this hotel-rich nabe. Soups ($2.49 for a cup), sandwiches with salad or frites ($11-$12.50), and a great big cookie ($1.99) make a nice lunch; in the evening, get mellow with three-cheese flatbread ($8) and a glass of wine, maybe followed by bleu-cheese-and-berry crepes ($6.49).
Best Budget Ramen
1385 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-360-8791, Wicker Park
Elegantly minimalist decor and hip-hop on the sound system form the backdrop for a cross-cultural menu of steamed buns ($8-$9 for two), ramens ($13–$15), and appetizers. The buns are filled with duck breast, pork belly, or portobello mushrooms; noodles are housemade; and apps include everything from French kimchee soup ($7) to tuna carpaccio ($10). Accompany with sangria or an oiimoji (mojito).
Best Budget Chicken
4416 N. Clark St., 773-907-9900, Uptown
All chicken, all the time—grilled, roasted, or fried—keeps people coming back. The flavors of the Philippines make meals special; homey presentations and a picnicky vibe put diners at ease. A half chicken with off-the-husk grilled sweet corn and Mom’s Pickles ($12.95) satisfies big appetites. Sandwiches like the Country Bird ($9) are another way to go. Don’t miss boozy Lean Back punch.
Best Budget Barbecue
410 Circle Ave., 708-669-9744, Forest Park
Yee hah! Dry-rub barbecue, smoked or wood-fired, is the draw, with pork, chicken, and beef brisket available in sandwiches ($9-$9.50), tacos ($3), and on large plates with fries and slaw ($11 for a half chicken, $22 for a full slab of baby back ribs). Deviled eggs, beer, fried green tomatoes, and pie for dessert—plus sports on TVs over the bar—add to the all-American vibe.
Best Budget Bagels
2607 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-697-4234, Logan Square
Wood-fired bagels ($2.25) get you in the door, but go-for-broke sandwiches ($7.50), pizza ($9–$14 for a 14-incher), pasta ($8–$14), desserts ($4–$6), and a glass of wine will make you want to linger longer. Every bite seems engineered for maximum pleasure, from sweet-tart pickled apricot jam offered with bagels to sage and Gruyère on the butternut squash pizza.