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La Humita’s marinated shrimp cocktail
Photograph: Leonard Gertz
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a starving grad student or an investment banker: everyone loves a bargain. Before you crisscross the city and suburbs in search of the best places for a good cheap meal, we suggest you explore the following pages. We’ve packed them with 90-plus budget-friendly restaurants, a roster that includes discoveries, classics, late-night hangouts, and special penny-pinching menus at upscale spots. Pick one, invite a friend, and make it your treat while you’re at it. In these places, you can afford it-no matter what your bank statement looks like.
|Angelica’s||Cleary’s on Clark||La Sierra||Sweet Baby Ray’s|
|Ay Ay Picante||Crêpe and Coffee Palace||The Lucky Platter||Tac Quick Thai Kitchen|
|Bhabi’s Kitchen||Czech Plaza||Maíz||Taste of Lebanon|
|Café Amuse||Edelweiss||Max & Benny’s||Tatsu Sushi Bar|
|Café El Tapatío||El Llano||Mysore Woodlands||Tien Giang|
|Café Fez||Goose Island Brewpub||Pasta Palazzo||Tre Kronor|
|Calvin’s BBQ||Greek Islands||Pho Xe Lua||Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap|
|Calypso Café||The Handlebar||Ras Dashen||White Palace Grill|
|Casbah Café||Kabul House||Reflections||Yang Chinese Restaurant|
|Chi Tung||La Humita||Sushi Luxe||Yum Thai Restaurant|
|Zab Thai Kitchen|
Photography by Leonard Gertz and Matthew Gilson
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3244 North Milwaukee Avenue
“How can they make a profit here?” one of my tablemates wondered as she sampled the fresh vegetables, potato salad, jellied pork, fruit salad, and more on the salad bar. As if that weren’t enough, all meals arrive with a lively tri-salad plate of coleslaw, sauerkraut, and red cabbage salad. Hearty Polish entrées include stunningly tender boiled beef in horseradish sauce ($6.99) and rolled veal loaf ($7.99) in brown gravy. As we relaxed in our nicely upholstered booth and sipped a $2 shot of honey-flavored Polish vodka, we couldn’t come up with a legitimate answer.
–D. R. W.
Ay Ay Picante
4569 North Elston Avenue
Calling all spudsters. Potatoes originated in Peru and the good folks over at Ay Ay Picante-an open kitchen storefront with wall designs of pre-Columbian glyphs-know exactly what to do with them. Ocopa, boiled potatoes topped with cheese sauce, Peruvian black mint, and walnuts, tastes marvelous ($6.50). Papas rellenas, deep-fried mashed potatoes stuffed with savory beef and raisins ($6), also delight. Zesty seviche de pescado comes with corn, onions, and boiled potatoes ($9.90), and rich marinated beef heart shish kebab ($6) with-you guessed it-boiled potatoes. For dessert-a fine wedge of flan-not a tuber in sight. BYO.
–D. R. W.
Photos: Matthew Gilson
6352 North Oakley Boulevard
This colorful BYO spot covers a lot of bases with splendid, everything-from-scratch home cooking. Vegetable ($1) and beef ($2) samosas with three dipping sauces start things off with a bang. Our favorite vegetarian entrée is bagarey balgan ($9)-eggplant in a fantastic sauce seasoned with ground peanuts, sesame seeds, coconut, and coriander. We’re also fond of the kicky chicken boti ($8) from the tandoor (oven). And did someone mention bread? Bhabi’s offers 20 kinds, including a divine naan ($4) sprinkled with pistachios.
706 South Buffalo Grove Road
Korea native Alex Moon cooks American dishes with French and Asian influences in his smart 12-table strip mall spot-and an upscale, down-priced salad of crab with grapefruit and orange segments on greens ($6.75) proves he’s on to something. Steamed mussels in spicy chili sauce ($6.55) deliver restrained Asian heat, as do hefty meatballs in honey chili-miso sauce ($6.95). Grilled chicken breast with artichoke-caper sauce ($9.15, comes with soup or salad), on the other hand, is deliciously European at heart. An order of chocolate-dipped strawberries makes any dinner feel festive, and I was elated by the $22 price tag for the spicy Australian Paringa Shiraz. Amused? I’m tickled pink.
–D. R. W.
Café El Tapatío
3400 North Ashland Avenue
You’ll find lots of ways to fill up at this popular spot without going broke. The pitcher of margaritas ($22.95) gives four drinkers a good buzz, and chips and salsa are free-¡olé! We love the pechuga Oaxaca (broiled chicken breast topped with mango-jalapeño sauce; $9.75) with warm tortillas and the revoltijo ajijic (steak, mushrooms, and poblanos served over grilled plantains; $9.95). Both come with rice and steamed vegetables. Nothing haute here, but everything is far beyond the ordinary.
4659 North Elston Avenue
Décor doesn’t get much more bare-bones than this, but hospitality flows along with the mint tea here, and the food is an earthy pleasure. Start by smearing pita triangles with zaalouk (mashed roasted eggplant dip) or ratatouille-like taktouka ($3.50 each); then segue into lamb tagine with prunes and almonds ($9.50) or perhaps the couscous ($7.50). But whatever you do, don’t miss the triumphant chicken pastilla ($8.50), a phyllo-wrapped pie of chicken, egg, and almonds, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. BYO.
2540 West Armitage Avenue
You’re seduced by hickory smoke before you even walk into Calvin Woods’s new BYO spot (he also owns Smokin’ Woody’s). The cops have already sniffed it out-another good sign. With any entrée other than a sandwich you get a fresh salad, coleslaw, and a choice of potatoes. The sauce is righteous and the baby back ribs ($16.95), brisket ($9.25), and chicken ($6.50/half; $8.95/whole) are terrific; so is the fried catfish ($9.25). All that bothers me is that the place is so clean inside. But, hey, it’s a barbecue shack: it’ll get properly sooty in time.
–D. R. W.
5211 South Harper Court
Let’s face it: Hyde Park is hardly a foodie mecca. But the locals line up for lively Caribbean chow at this faux tropical hut. Frozen daiquiris in hand, they dig into an appetizer of magnificent Jamaican jerk chicken wings so jumbo, the eight of them are perfect for two to share ($10.45). So are the greaseless plantain chips with guacamole and spicy Cuban black bean dip ($7.25). Smoked baby back ribs caribe in a fruity barbecue sauce hang over the plate ($17.95/full slab, $11.95/half), and I fell hard for the baked chayote squash stuffed with a curried vegetable medley. The coconut banana cream pie adds a bit of tropical splendor.
–D. R. W.
3151 North Broadway
Moroccan, Middle Eastern
This is one sweet spot-a North African and Middle Eastern veteran with an evocative Arabic soundtrack, inviting banquettes, and a cozy fireplace. The appetizer combo ($13.50) could be a light dinner for two: stuffed grape leaves, white beans with carrots, sautéed spinach and onions, hummus, falafel, and a basket of warm pita. Great stuff-but wait. Entrées include salad or soup (like a well-spiced carrot number), and it’s hard to choose between the Marrakech lamb stew and the Moroccan chicken-brochette couscous. Finish with creamy mulalabie (rice pudding) garnished with pistachios. As savory as sweet, but memorable nonetheless. BYO ($4 corkage). Word to the wise: meter parking is tough; the $10 garage across the street is the cheapest option.
–D. R. W.
9560 South Kedzie Avenue
This sprawling, modern setting resembles a one-stop upscale-Asian food court. People stream in for a huge menu of Chinese, Thai, and Japanese dishes washed down with big mai tais. An army of cooks at a battery of woks whip up likable standards with fresh ingredients. For starters, try the plump pork pot stickers ($4.95), barbecued ribs ($6.95), and chicken satay ($4.95). The crispy half duck ($8.95) and the Thai red beef curry ($7.95) are both musts; the sushi is a must not-it was gummy and left me cold. (Bonus: lunch buffet is $5.99.)
–D. R. W.