Best Restaurants in Chicago: 30 under $30

We found a whole slew of great ways to eat well for less—trusty BYOs, prix fixe stunners, and places that don’t seem to realize how good they are


$29 prix fixe menu at Café de Architectes: appetizer, amuse-bouche, entrée, minardises, and dessert

 

It’s easy to spend a lot of money on fine dining, but you don’t have to. The trouble with finding bargains in a big city is that the gems are hard to uncover. So we did the heavy lifting for you, scouring the land for values—often at some of the most highly touted restaurants—and compiled a list of the best deals in dining right now. That includes prix fixe dinners such as a stunning $29 three-course offering at Café des Architectes, generous BYOs such as Coast Sushi Bar and Han 202, and a terrific small-plates spot that doesn’t nickel-and-dime you. (It’s Chilam Balam, it’s Mexican, and it’s also BYO.) We pinpointed early-bird deals, late-night deals, midweek deals, and restaurants that could charge twice as much and we’d still pay. All are $30 or under, without wine, tax, or tip. One caveat: Some of these restaurants aren’t exactly publicizing their bargains, so if you don’t see the special menu, don’t be shy about asking for it. It’s a small price to pay.

ABIGAIL’S AMERICAN BISTRO
493 Roger Williams Avenue, Highland Park; 847-849-1009
AMERICAN REGIONAL
up to $30

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Hold the big plates. The chef Michael Paulsen’s small and medium plates sate the hungry when capped by a delectable apple tart with butter pecan ice cream ($5). Start with a bubbling ramekin of crab gratin with shoepeg corn (small, white, and sweet) and diced potatoes enveloped in crème fraîche ($10). Follow that with a big nest of frites bedding honey-onion marmalade and frisée with bacon chunks, mounded generously with shredded duck confit and a poached egg ($11). And the opening volley to all this goodness? Gooey, rich Cheddar-chive biscuits hot from the oven—compliments of the chef. –D. R. W.

 

BLUE 13
416 West Ontario Street; 312-787-1400
AMERICAN
3 courses for $20

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Blue 13’s chef, Chris Curren, loves his tattoos and calls his American cuisine “twisted.” Nonetheless, every Sunday, he forgoes all his cutting-edge twists and sets out a family-style supper that changes from week to week but is always a love letter to the Midwestern farm table. Fashioned from what Curren finds Friday at the market, the meal recently followed a lively green salad with a table-swamping feed of juicy and herby roast chicken accompanied by big bowls of delicious, thick-sliced glazed carrots, golden brown thyme-roasted potatoes, and buttered green beans. My family had second helpings, but there was so much chicken we still couldn’t finish. Then the Key lime cheesecake arrived. –D. R. W.

 

CAFÉ DES ARCHITECTES
Sofitel Chicago Water Tower, 20 East Chestnut Street; 312-324-4063
FRENCH
3 courses for $29 adults, $16 children 6 to 10

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“Won’t you be my neighbor?” That’s the welcome from the master French chef Martial Noguier on his Sunday-through-Tuesday Neighborhood Friends’ Menu. His petite Ball jar of wonderful fennel-purée-topped salmon tartare with a side of micro-greens and lemon confit was welcome, indeed. Then came a comforting flatiron steak with wild leek purée, English peas, wild mushrooms, and fingerling potatoes. Noguier works the room—to make sure you feel the love—but if that doesn’t do it, his hazelnut nougatine and espresso crème should. Almost forgot about the two freebies—an amuse to start and mignardises to finish. Wish Martial was my neighbor. –D. R. W.

 

CAFE MATOU
1846 North Milwaukee Avenue; 773-384-8911
FRENCH
3 courses for $24

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The dishes on Charlie Socher’s three-course value menu aren’t as elaborate as his usual à la carte offerings, but there’s a lot to be said for simplicity when it’s this good. Wonderfully light cream of asparagus soup gets perfumed with a squeeze of lemon and a final flourish of minced tarragon. Ragoût de porc provençale—luscious chunks of fork-tender pork braised in a stew of tomatoes, garlic, and basil—is served over a browned, herbed mashed-potato cake. And the delicate lavender ice cream’s shower of blueberries is all the dish needs to be great. –D. R. W.

 

CHILAM BALAM
3023 North Broadway; 773-296-6901
MEXICAN
up to $30
BYO | CASH ONLY

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A meal of small plates always sounds like fun—until you realize you ordered all wrong, you’re not full, and you spent more than you intended. But at Chilam Balam, a colorful two-month-old BYO in Lake View, you can finally enjoy this small-plates thing. CB is small, its menu is small, and your check can be small. Here’s how our party of four did it: We shared halibut seviche and an order of guacamole while we sipped our wine and kibbitzed with the waiter. He suggested the hanger steak and mushroom-filled empanadas. Fine. We threw in an order of grilled pork ribs and a grilled whole game hen. Loved everything and squeezed in some jiggly hibiscus flan and sugary PBJ empanadas. Total damage for four: $100. With tax. –J. R.

 

COAST SUSHI BAR
2045 North Damen Avenue; 773-235-5775
SUSHI
BYO

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Sushi is the ultimate tease. You look at the menu and nothing seems all that expensive, so you order a bunch of rolls and maybe some saké, and the next thing you know, your foursome is into the restaurant for $200. That partially explains the popularity of an uncomplicated place like Coast, where straight-up sushi like a crispy salmon skin roll is fresh, tight, and gloriously cheap ($6). The sprawling menu’s pricier options, like the po’ boy roll—a lovely mess of whitefish tempura, unagi, masago, tempura crumbs, and eel sauce—are massive beasts. Then there’s Coast’s true selling point: It’s BYO, which, as we all know, makes everything taste better. –J. R.

 

Photograph by Anna Knott; photo assistant: Nicole Stege

 

 


Duck confit salad at Abigail’s American Bistro

 

CUATRO
2030 South Wabash Avenue; 312-842-8856
NUEVO LATINO
3 courses for $30, vegetarian $20
BYO ON WEDNESDAYS

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At Cuatro, the seviche of hearts of palm, white asparagus, and avocado tastes so good you won’t miss the usual seafood versions. An outsized yuca-meal-crusted trout filled with spicy rock shrimp yields a gold mine of flavor, but you should still be up for warm plantain crêpes around sherried baby bananas in dulce de leche with pistachio praline ice cream. The set menu, available Tuesday through Thursday, includes $5 caipirinhas and half-price wines on Wednesdays—and also on Wednesdays, every diner’s favorite letters: BYO. –D. R. W.

 

DUCHAMP
2118 North Damen Avenue; 773-235-6434
AMERICAN
3 courses for $25

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You won’t see a scandalous Nude Descending a Staircase at this Duchamp, but on Tuesdays you can dine off the regular menu for outrageously few dollars. Prosciutto with caprese and arugula sets you up for a modern French twist on steak and eggs, namely grilled skirt steak with roasted shallot sauce and an unforgettable Parmesan-smoked bacon quiche. A three-dessert palette of chocolate-chip-cookie ice-cream sandwich, chocolate mini cupcake, and lemon tart is a sweet deal—and pure artistry in its own right. –D. R. W.

 

GLEN PRAIRIE
Crowne Plaza Glen Ellyn-Lombard,
1250 Roosevelt Road, Glen Ellyn; 630-613-1250

CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN
3 courses for $20

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An artisanal-minded kitchen doesn’t always mean cost be damned. Think about a farmers’ garden salad of shaved winter vegetables tossed with local baby greens in Champagne-cider vinaigrette as a prelude to juicy grilled Duroc pork tenderloin in a sauce of caramelized figs and port with wild rice and baby carrots. Green apple and raspberry sorbets go down easy after the hearty chop. And the three-course prix fixe is so easy on the wallet that, even with a glass of green-farmed wine or a Minnesota Organic Prairie vodka martini, you can stick to the budget. –D. R. W.

 

HAN 202
605 West 31st Street; 312-949-1314
PAN-ASIAN
5 courses for $20
BYO

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Time was, Bridgeport was a bridge to nowhere for exciting dining. No more. The rock-bottom five-course nightly menu at this modern Pan-Asian storefront attracts crowds of BYOers with spicy king crab miso soup, sliced cold beef with lemongrass, and a luscious Thai fish cake. Wait: There’s more. A rack of petite lamb chops in bonito plum sauce, with pink peppercorns and julienned white asparagus, and a finale flourish of startlingly good mango-tomato sorbet with vanilla ice cream convinced us this improbable location is somewhere special. –D. R. W.

 

INDIA HOUSE
59 West Grand Avenue; 312-645-9500 (plus three suburban locations; see The List)
INDIAN
$40 per couple

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When you think about top-notch Indian cuisine, if River North doesn’t exactly leap to mind, think again. India House’s daily Feast for Two at 40 bucks—yes, $40 total—gets it right. Spicy lentil soup readies your taste buds for a smoky and deftly seasoned tandoori oven blowout of rosy-hued chicken on the bone, thick chunks of yogurt-and-spice-marinated chicken breast tikka, lamb boti kebab, mahi-mahi, and plump shrimp. Scoop up the sauce from the creamy chicken tikka masala with tender naan, then soothe your palate with cardamom-scented rice pudding with raisins and almonds. It’s a feast, all right, made all the more decadent by the comfortably upscale setting. –D. R. W.

 

INOVASI
28 East Center Avenue, Lake Bluff; 847-295-1000
CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN
up to $30

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“Odd menu,” says one of our foursome. “It doesn’t have normal things that normal people normally eat.” True. Pork shoulder lasagna, veal tongue tacos, and seafood/oyster fritters probably aren’t for everybody, but this contemporary north suburban bistro makes you want to take a chance on, say, chewy-crispy udon noodles in spicy Chinese barbecue sauce ($9). Follow with a feisty meat or seafood dish—New York strip with Civil War grits ($16) or walleyed pike splashed with four sauces ($13)—and you will have just enough room and money for the coffee-pistachio mousse with a strange hitchhiking pile of house-fried bacon bits ($6). Sounds weird, but at Inovasi, a dish like that almost passes for normal. –J. R.

 

Photograph by Anna Knott; photo assistant: Nicole Stege

 

 


Assorted sushi from Coast Sushi Bar

 

KARMA
Crowne Plaza Chicago North Shore,
510 East Route 83, Mundelein; 847-970-6900

PAN-ASIAN
3 courses for $20
VEGETARIAN

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This stunning space, an imaginative take on a Vietnamese rice paddy and waterfall, is the last place you’d expect to cut deals on dinner, especially on weekends. But Friday through Sunday, contemplate the serenity and savor the best miso soup you’ve had in ages, brimming with fresh shiitakes and roasted nori. After that, you’ll snap to attention for Thai-spiced stir-fried hunks of beef tenderloin with Chinese noodles and baby bok choy in mirin-miso beef broth or yellow mango-coconut vegetable curry, plus oodles of vegetables and kimchi. Then mellow out with blood orange and pomelo sorbets. The three-course spread is 20 bucks; the tranquillity is free. –D. R. W.

 

KINZIE CHOPHOUSE
400 North Wells Street; 312-822-0191
AMERICAN, STEAKS
3 courses for $20

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Sometimes a steak house is just too much. Too much food, too much money. The folks at Kinzie Chophouse have a nifty solution: Any day for $20 you can get a savory eight-ounce flatiron steak—half the usual size—topped with herbed butter and accompanied by irresistible thin fries sprinkled with sea salt and rosemary. Or you can go low-cal with seared jumbo shrimp around sautéed broccoli and mushrooms. Either comes as part of a three-course meal that begins with a simple salad or—better—bruschetta piled high with chopped tomatoes, garlic, and basil cured in aged balsamic vinegar. Finish with warm chocolate cake or hot-buttered-rum cheesecake—both will cancel out the calories you saved on the shrimp and vegetables. True, $25 buys you a 16-ounce cut, but then everything else will be à la carte. Trust us. This is a steal. –D. R. W.

 

LA TACHE
1475 West Balmoral Avenue; 773-334-7168
FRENCH AMERICAN BISTRO
3 courses for $20

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“Damn, it’s closed on Monday. . .”  Ah, the traditional lament of the diner looking for a restaurant open at the beginning of the week. Andersonville’s reliable bistro feels your pain and prescribes a different mix-and-match three-course prix fixe menu every Monday night. Ours included standouts such as a chunky corn chowder with lemon crème fraîche and chorizo oil, a juicy breast and leg of roasted chicken in verjus sauce with wild mushrooms, and silky chocolate pot de crème with a dab of crème Chantilly. Our weekly search is over. We’re going to La Tache. –J. R.

 

LULA CAFE
2537 North Kedzie Boulevard; 773-489-9554
AMERICAN CONTEMPORARY
3 courses for $28
NO RESERVATIONS

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On Monday nights Lula Cafe puts out a farm dinner for frugal foodies on the prowl. It’s a set three-course meal—no choices—featuring the chef Jason Hammel’s penchant for the local and the seasonal. House-made, too. A recent meal began with pistachio-dotted mortadella with pickled vegetables and a baguette topped by wonderful house-churned butter. Pan-roasted Lake Superior whitefish was a triumph on its cushion of shredded braised pork with luscious leek-apple mustard. The sophisticated Chambord and milk chocolate mousse torte, despite the blackberry buttermilk sherbet sidekick, isn’t exactly farm cooking—not that we’re complaining. –D. R. W.

 

LE BOUCHON
1958 North Damen Avenue; 773-862-6600
FRENCH
3 courses for $25

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There’s something magical about Tuesdays at Le Bouchon, when the entire menu turns into a $25 three-course fête. That means you can revel in the authenticity of salade Lyonnaise or house-made country pork pâté among the classic starters. And, remarkable for a prix fixe entrée, the bouillabaisse is a fine saffron broth brimming with cherrystone clams, mussels, shrimp, and chunks of fish, complete with toast slathered in creamy rouille. Maybe you should order dessert first, such as exemplary profiteroles dripping with fine chocolate sauce— before your neighbor at the long banquette snags the last one. –D. R. W.

 

312 CHICAGO
Hotel Allegro Chicago,
136 North LaSalle Street; 312-696-2420

ITALIAN
3 courses for $30

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Any night—not just when you’re clutching tickets for one of the five nearby theatres—is the right time to dip into the multiple choices on 312’s $30 prix fixe menu. Grilled calamari and shrimp hanging out with red potatoes, string beans, and aged balsamic vinegar treats you right, and so does veal carpaccio under tuna caper aïoli. Take comfort in butternut squash/amaretto cookie tortelloni in sagey brown butter sauce, or catch the fine roasted tilapia with oyster mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, and lemon oil brightened by mellow asparagus purée. Dark chocolate flourless cake avoids cliché with the drama of hazelnut cream and bitter orange sauce. –D. R. W.

 

MARCHÉ
833 West Randolph Street; 312-226-8399
FRENCH
3 courses for $29

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Now a grand-père in the Market District, Marché still knows how to turn on the charm. Anything on the menu is up for grabs on Mondays and Wednesdays for $29 for three courses. Excellent steak tartare or vol-au-vent des champignons—puff pastry filled with forest mushrooms in garlic shallot cream with port wine reduction—sets the pace. You can’t go wrong with traditional coq au vin or pan-seared barramundi with citrus beurre blanc on braised fennel with sunchokes and melted leeks. Marché’s food has never been as wild as its décor: Raspberry and apple cobbler on cinnamon strudel with tarragon ice cream is as offbeat as the menu gets. –D. R. W.

 

Photograph by Anna Knott; photo assistant: Nicole Stege

 

 


Le Bouchon’s bouillabaisse

 

MAY STREET MARKET
1132 West Grand Avenue; 312-421-5547
CONTEMPORARY
3 courses for $25
BYO

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On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, the chef-owner Alexander Cheswick lures thrifty customers with a $25 three-course BYO dinner with choices in each category. His gazpacho is a big wet kiss to fresh local vegetables, as are the braised baby chard and grilled corn on the cob that cozy up to the mahogany Moroccan-spice-rubbed grilled half chicken with lime vinaigrette. That bird packs a lot of flavor, and so do the pistachio-crusted smoked scallops on blood orange and brown butter sauce. But when you taste the flight of miniature cupcakes—especially the chocolate five-spice one with peanut butter icing—you’ll want to plant a big wet one on Cheswick’s cheek. –D. R. W.

 

MOON PALACE
216 West Cermak Road; 312-225-4081
CHINESE

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When you’re in the mood for Shanghai on Cermak, head to this spiffy Chinatown spot; as quick as you can say “kung pao chicken,” some dynamite Sichuan should find its way to your table. Start with a bowl of Chicago’s best hot-and-sour soup ($2) before you focus on superb Shanghai xiao long bao dumplings ($7.50). Don’t miss the Shanghai-style crispy chicken in a red-chile-laden sauce redolent of garlic and star anise ($11) or the luscious scallops with black pepper ($15). For a veggie fix, throw in an order of chives stir-fried with bean sprouts and strips of bean curd ($8.50). And MP makes the best Beefeater martinis in Chinatown for $9. –D. R. W.

 

NACIONAL 27
325 West Huron Street; 312-664-2727
NUEVO LATINO
3 courses for $27
DRINK INCLUDED | TIME SPECIFIC: seated by 6 p.m., order by 6:15 p.m.

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There’s as much substance as sizzle in this rollicking spot’s daily bargain. Order before 6:15 p.m. and you’ll score three courses plus two cocktails or two glasses of wine per person (or a pitcher of sangría per couple) for $27. What’s not to like? Openers include smoked chicken empanadas and a tasty seafood seviche—but, this being Nacional 27, the latter is served over a trippy color-shifting light. N27 has ten years’ experience with roast suckling pig, and you get the juicy meat in ancho pork jus with crisp bits of chicharrones. The pig fest includes caramelized-onion-flecked mashed Cuban sweet potatoes and a ratatouille-like eggplant with spicy tomatoes. And the rum cake is so well spiked it’s a digestif and dessert in one. –D. R. W.

 

PETTERINO’S
150 North Dearborn Street; 312-422-0150
AMERICAN
3 courses for $20
FREE VALET | TIME SPECIFIC after 7 p.m.

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Petterino’s, which lives and dies by its theatregoing clientele, does whatever it can to get civilians in its doors, too. That means ridiculously cheap deals like the 7 After 7 Menu, packed with gems such as a goodly sized jumbo shrimp cocktail, a chunky tomato bisque, flaky grilled Atlantic salmon, and fun homemade desserts, including a pink peppermint sundae and steak-house-quality cheesecake. You’ve got to order carefully (avoid the abysmal prosciutto and melon)—and the $7 wine picks aren’t exactly adventurous—but the staff’s goofy bow-tied exuberance is irresistible, and so is much of the food. –J. R.

 

RED LIGHT
820 West Randolph Street; 312-733-8880
PAN-ASIAN
3 courses for $20.09

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In case you forgot, because she is so modest, Jackie Shen is a Chicago treasure. Fine French technique animates her Pan-Asian cooking, which means that when she offers up a specially priced set dinner—five nights a week at the sexy Red Light—just go. A sprightly lychee Mandarin orange vinaigrette makes Shen’s grilled-shrimp-and-pea-shoot salad dance on the plate, while her hanger steak teriyaki, served with mashed potatoes, defines Japanese bistro with its stupendous sauce. And who knew coconut sorbet was invented to be drizzled with rich chocolate sauce? Shen did, apparently. –D. R. W.

 

¡SALPICON!
1252 North Wells Street; 312-988-7811
MEXICAN
3 courses for $29

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Priscila Satkoff, among Chicago’s finest Mexican chefs, offers a dandy prix fixe on Mondays and Tuesdays. The special menu is drawn from the regular lineup, so it might hold sparkling blue marlin seviche—marinated in lime juice, spiked with fresh chiles and herbs—or a trio of picture-perfect masa sopes with different spicy toppings. Next up: a classic pair of chiles rellenos—one stuffed with pork picadillo, the other with Chihuahua cheese—or grilled scallops over savory black beans with asparagus, avocado, and herb-flecked rice. Satkoff closes with warm pear and mango cobbler punched up by cajeta ice cream. It’s such a good deal you can easily justify an Herradura tequila margarita ($8). –D. R. W.

 

Photograph by Anna Knott; photo assistant: Nicole Stege

 

 


(Clockwise from left) Lamb kebab, baklava, red lentil soup, and Turkish bread from Turquoise Café

 

SOLA
3868 North Lincoln Avenue; 773-327-3868
CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN
3 courses for $30

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Some diners happily order the same thing every time; others face momentary paralysis, anxious that they are overlooking something better. Carol Wallack delights in torturing the second group. Her addition of special prix fixe menus at Sola makes the decision even harder, particularly when they revolve around an irresistible theme, like the peachcentric one we encountered. First came an arugula and peach salad, harboring long strips of candied ginger; then grilled pork tenderloin medallions with curry pork jus, sautéed shallots, bacon-studded bread pudding, and warm peach slices. Dessert was a buttery peach-blueberry tart alongside some kind of insanely smooth revelation called lemongrass frozen tofu. Carol, you’re an evil genius. –J. R.

 

SWEETS & SAVORIES
1534 West Fullerton Avenue; 773-281-6778
CONTEMPORARY
HALF PRICE
BYO

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David Richards, the chef/owner, takes the first part of his restaurant’s name seriously: Peach cobbler with brown butter ice cream shares space with seven other wonderful desserts at this snug BYO. But Richards—whose whole menu is, ridiculously, half price on Tuesdays—also knows his savories. If New England seafood chowder crowded with shrimp, scallops, and lobster isn’t rich enough for you, this chef slathers foie gras as a pâté on his wagyu burger with truffle mayonnaise and on the generous crouton accompanying the roast duck and sausage cassoulet. What’s next? Foie gras panna cotta? We hope so. –D. R. W.

 

TSUKI
1441 West Fullerton Avenue; 773-883-8722
JAPANESE
5 courses for $30

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The chef Toyoji Hemmi’s terrific five-course Sunday set dinner feeds our infatuation with Japanese food. First up is a lively yuzu-dressed seaweed and greens salad. Then Hemmi rethinks carpaccio by putting delicate slices of New York strip on a bed of fresh wasabi. Then comes the clincher: seafood toban yaki. A sizzling griddle is set on the table for you to sear an array of scallops, shrimp, salmon, and mushrooms in butter before you dip these goodies into a complex sweet soy–based sauce and add a final squeeze of lemon. Of course there’s sushi—the highlight is salmon maki with asparagus paste, fish roe, and almonds topped with gold leaf. For dessert, the strawberry mochi looks like Mount Fuji.  –D. R. W.

 

TURQUOISE CAFÉ
2147 West Roscoe Street; 773-549-3523
TURKISH, MEDITERRANEAN
up to $30

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You would have to go out of your way to spend more than $30 on a three-course meal in this welcoming minimalist space. First up are warm, round loaves of house-made Turkish bread, especially good with the accompanying dip, sometimes of yogurt, carrot, and garlic. Lahmacun (ground beef and chopped vegetables on flatbread) and creamy red lentil soup with fresh mint are winning appetizers at just $4 each. Even the heartiest appetite is no match for a kebab of hefty beef tenderloin medallions and grilled vegetables with yogurt sauce and rice pilaf ($17) or braised and shredded lamb shoulder wrapped in eggplant ($18). Turquoise has superb baklava to boot, and a single $5 order is plenty for two. –D. R. W.

 

VONG’S THAI KITCHEN
6 West Hubbard Street; 312-644-8664
THAI
3 courses for $25

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Yes, the shiny room has always felt as though it belonged somewhere between the Chinese and Italian pavilions at Disney World, but VTK’s food has held up nicely over the years. The Black Plate Menu showcases the restaurant’s approachable Thai options, ample all, including crispy pork and shrimp spring rolls, admirable pad Thai harboring plenty of shrimp and crab, a handful of pleasant curries, and a wonderful creamy passion fruit soufflé. It’s all very straightforward and reliable—and a strong introduction to one of the world’s great cuisines. Consider the meal a gateway drug into the harder Thai stuff out there. –J. R.

 

Photograph by Anna Knott; photo assistant: Nicole Stege

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