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Counter Intelligence

Photo: Leonard Gertz

The cucumber-ham sandwich at Hannah's Bretzel

Nine places where you can get a delicious (and mostly nutritious) lunch for less than $10 in less than five minutes—unless there’s a line out the door
–Jennifer Tanaka

Letizia’s Natural Bakery
2144 W. Division St.
Panini—those irresistible hot Italian grilled sandwiches—are a dime a dozen in Chicago. But at Letizia’s, a deceptively casual Wicker Park café, they’re made with a homemade olive-oil focaccia that takes ordinary capicolla and mozzarella into the stratosphere. Order any of the tempting “classic” combos (from $4.50) with fresh tomato and sliced red onion for a perfect light lunch.

Chicago Bagel Authority
953 W. Armitage Ave.
The shtick at this popular but low-key neighborhood joint is that the sandwiches come steamed (on bialys, bagels, sub loaves, pitas, or low-carb wraps). Don’t fight it. Just order the inventive gooey combinations by name—we love the turkey-and-Swiss Ned’s gold ($4.95) and the peppery hot tuna meltdown ($5.75)—grab a stool, and enjoy.

Hannah’s Bretzel
180 W. Washington St.
Florian Pfahler read our minds when he set up his appealingly upscale pretzel-based deli in one of the city’s most depressingly barren fast-lunch zones: the Loop. Served on house-baked organic Swabian bretzels (centuries-old German twisted bread), the offerings here are topnotch and cunningly combined. Witness the Italian Parma ham sandwich layered with mozzarella, arugula, and sun-dried-tomato mustard, or the “Vegetable Bomb” that marries avocado with a mess of organic greens and juicy tomatoes—each only $6.95 with chips or tamale-roasted organic almonds.

S3 Kitchen
814 S. Oak Park Ave.
Oak Park
Opened just last year, the low-ambiance S3 Kitchen brings a welcome touch of sophistication to its relaxed fare: a ziti pasta salad gets a gourmet update with a creamy lemon-thyme dressing and fontinella cheese ($7.25); dill adds zing to the tuna-salad sandwich ($6.95); and, recently, chef/owner Karl Bader kicked up his corn chowder soup special with spicy Thai curry and coconut milk ($3.25 a cup).

Cityfood Cafe
400 N. State St.
The de facto cafeteria for River North’s 20something ad agency crowd, this unassuming spot can whip up any deli-esque sandwich your heart desires. But the real draw is the wraps (called “roll-ups” here); our faves are the Reuben (corned beef, sauerkraut, and Swiss) and the tuna melt roll-ups, both served on a toasty tomato tortilla and, at $4.95 a pop, two of the best lunch deals around. The roast chicken club ($5.50) isn’t far behind.

Moho Grill
260 Hawthorn Village Commons
Vernon Hills
It’s not as if the suburbs were lacking for fresh alternatives to McDonald’s, but the newly opened Moho Grill, which bills itself as Caribbean/ Cuban takeout, is a cut above the usual finds. Construct a generous portion of salad (from $4.99), tossed before your eyes, from an extensive selection of ingredients including fire-roasted marinated chicken, or fill up on one of Moho’s trademark beans-rice-and-meat “chop” plates (from $5.69), made even tastier with extra pico de gallo.

Milk & Honey Café
1920 W. Division St.
The designer flip-flop crowd flocks to this bright and sunny café located on a quickly gentrifying stretch of Division Street. It’s worth fighting for your spot at the counter to get a taste of the breakfast panini with scrambled egg, bacon, Cheddar, and tomato ($6) or of the smoked turkey Reuben on pan-toasted marbled rye ($6.95)—an instant classic. The rotating side salads in the cold case are reliably devourable ($3 for a small; $6 for a large) and the shop’s exceptionally moist, raisin-studded carrot cake ($2.75 per slice) is a trip to nostalgia heaven.

Sultan’s Market
2057 W. North Ave.
There’s nothing reinterpreted about the falafel pita sandwiches at Bucktown’s Sultan’s Market, a deliciously authentic Middle Eastern deli. Except that you can order them “spicy”—and, obviously, you should. The wonder of the sandwich, lined with hummus and bursting with Jerusalem salad (diced cucumber, tomatoes, parsley mixed with tahini and lemon juice), is eclipsed only by its absurdly low price tag: $3.

Fox & Obel Café
401 E. Illinois St.
The surprise here is that you can eat at a place that puts a pepper mill on every table without emptying your wallet. Try the mustardy grilled Cuban panini ($8.50, including a heap of crisp fries) made special with a slather of cilantro pistou (the French version of pesto). And it’s worth stopping in on Fridays for a bowl of the cauliflower soup special. Our favorite deal? The half sandwich or side salad, together or either one with soup, for $8. At that price—what the hell—go for dessert, too.


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