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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

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(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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