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Bargain Dining

Chicago is full of restaurants that offer good food for not much money; you just have to know where to look. We’ve gathered a definitive package of 90-plus great spots—ethnic, classic, nocturnal, and otherwise—where your dollar goes the distance.

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La Sierra
1637 West Montrose Avenue
Mexican, Ecuadorian
This bright, clean Ravenswood BYO has a double-duty menu filled with lovingly done Mexican standards like crisp tamales stuffed with shredded pork ($1.25)-and Ecuadorian rarities such as goat stew cooked in white beer ($10.50). You can’t go wrong with either. The little old lady in the kitchen churns out delicious warm corn tortillas; fresh, chunky guacamole; and an insanely large bowl of homemade chicken soup, bones and all ($5.25). Try a side of delicious plantains ($2.50) and marvel at the offbeat wall of birdhouses.
–J. R.


Photo: Leonard Gertz

A Lucky’s Sandwich Company stack: roast beef, fries and slaw.

The Lucky Platter
514 Main Street
Global, eclectic
It’s hip world cuisine at this kitschy spot where upside-down colanders hung with beads pass for chandeliers and tables are covered with old-fashioned dishtowels under plastic. The $5 cocktails and terrific house-made cream soda get the crowd in the mood for little boutique pizzas and Caribbean pumpkin soup ($2.25 a cup, $3.25 a bowl) that tastes like a jazzed-up liquid pumpkin pie. My favorite entrée is the grilled skirt steak topped with blue cheese and shiitake mushrooms ($14.25), and the soufflé-light Key lime pie ($3.75) has won raves from native Floridians.
–D. R. W.



Photo: Matthew Gilson

Maíz dining room

1041 North California Avenue
The name translates as “corn,” which is the star at Carlos Reyna’s brightly decorated Mexican spot. The specialty is cheap-and terrific-street food based on the corn masa treats you see a woman here making in a wooden tortilla press. Tacos, quesadillas, sopes (crisp masa boats), and huaraches (thick oval-shaped tortillas) come with a big choice of traditional fillings from chorizo to cactus, and are served with pico de gallo and sour cream. When huitlacoche (corn fungus) is available, try it with Chihuahua cheese in a giant quesadilla-great with a margarita. It’s cash only, but the most expensive thing on the menu, alambra cazuela (do-it-yourself tacos), costs $9.95.
–D. R. W.


Max & Benny’s
461 Waukegan Road
Max & Benny’s isn’t your average deli. For starters, it’s in a suburban strip mall and the staff is pleasant. Then there’s that deli counter/bakery offering everything from smoked trout to strawberry cheesecake. But the real draw from the giant menu is the tried and true-nicely browned kishke ($3.95); hot brisket sandwiches ($9.95); tangy-sweet cabbage stuffed with ground beef ($5.95); enormous scoops of chopped liver ($6.95). Or do like the locals: grab a lean stacked corned beef sandwich to go ($8.95) and wolf the whole thing down during the SUV ride home.
–J. R.

Mysore Woodlands
2548 West Devon Avenue
You don’t go to Mysore for the ambiance-there isn’t any in the harshly lit large dining room. Go for authoritative South Indian vegetarian food, beginning with dahi vada, fried puréed lentil balls accompanied by yogurt dip ($4.50). Then head to the uthappam ($6.99), a pancake of fermented lentil and rice flour filled with onions and peas. Don’t miss the Royal Family dosai ($11.95), a folded crispy rice crêpe the size of a maharajah’s robe stuffed with spiced onions, potatoes, peas, and carrots. The Madras payasam ($3.50) of vermicelli cooked in milk and honey and garnished with raisins and cashews will temper the spices, as will a mango lassi at this BYO. (Also in Westmont: 6020 South Cass Avenue, 630-769-9663.)
–D. R. W.


Photo: Leonard Gertz

Jalapeño gnocci at Pasta Palazzo

Pasta Palazzo
1966 North Halsted Street
Hmm. A narrow storefront with barstool-style chairs at high bare tables. Bar seating near an open kitchen. I thought I had walked into a pub until the small menu set me straight. It begins with smoky grilled calamari in a lemon herb vinaigrette ($4.95) and baked goat cheese with tomato-basil sauce and garlic toast ($5.95). Conchiglie shells with Italian sausage and red bell peppers in marinara topped with melting ricotta ($8.95) are every bit as savory as the penne with porcini, portobello, and white mushrooms in Marsala sauce ($8.95). Moist espresso cake ($3.95) is the perfect nightcap: coffee and cake rolled into one.
–D. R. W.


Pho Xe Lua
1021 West Argyle Street
The tricky menu takes a bit of getting used to, but what’s your hurry? Explore the delicate spring rolls with shrimp or pork ($3.50) or the banh hoi bo nuong tom, a fine bowlful of rice vermicelli with beef and shrimp ($8.95). Lavish fresh greens show up everywhere-most successfully in the tender beef with lemon (bo tai chanh; $10.95). And, of course, there are soups: a surefire choice is the giant serving of canh rau cai dau hu, vegetable soup with tofu ($8.95). For dessert, or just for fun, try the bubble tea ($3.50).
–J. T.


Photo: Leonard Gertz

Ras Dashen’s injera bread pudding with berries and vanilla ice cream.

Ras Dashen
5846 North Broadway
Marito Tqkala, daughter of the owner at this pretty Ethiopian spot, overheard us marveling at the portions. “It’s my mom,” she said. “She can’t stop herself, she’s so generous.” Marito got that right. They give you tons of injera, the addictive sour/ spongy flatbread essential for scooping up food and acting as an edible plate. Kitfo tere (steak tartare), seasoned with kibe (spiced clarified butter) and surrounded by Ethiopian kale ($10.95), packs a punch, as does yebeg tibs be bebere ($12.95), tender lamb chunks cooked with onions, green peppers, and rosemary. Injera bread pudding ($4) is soothingly warm and exotic, and Ethiopian beers and spicy chai teas are on hand.
–D. R. W.


38564 North Edgewood Street
Lake Villa
Out on the shores of Deep Lake, an old resort has been converted into a charming wood-clad Polish supper club. An Okocim beer at hand, I finished off the barley-sausage kiszka patties with sauerkraut appetizer ($4.95) and then dug into an awesome platter of golabki (stuffed cabbage), pierogi scattered with chopped bacon, and Polish sausage with sauerkraut ($10.95). My wife finished her borsch, which came with a meat-stuffed browned rolled pastry ($3.50), and plowed through about half of her crisp breaded pork loin ($10.95). Not long after, our Polish-accented waitress brought over the dessert platter holding the most amazing napoleon I ever ate ($4).
–D. R. W.


Photo: Leonard Gertz

At Sushi Luxe, the bento box includes a side of sushi.

Sushi Luxe
5204 North Clark Street
Bento combinations look pricey, but when supplemented with a tower of gorgeous goma-ae ($4) and a few extra pieces of sushi, one can easily satisfy two hungry people. We like the combo with the generous serving of shrimp and vegetable tempura ($16): it includes three pieces of sushi, a California roll, miso soup, salad, and rice. Split a large jug of warm saké ($7) and you’ll still have enough cash left over for a ball or two of red bean mochi ($2) and steaming mugs of green tea.
–J. T.



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