Pleasant House Bakery
964 W. 31st St.; 773-523-7437
While compiling this list, we asked not, "Is Pleasant House good enough?" but rather, "Is it a restaurant?" A tiny BYO with scuffed floors and rickety tables–and a chalkboard menu proffering little beyond savory pies–barely seems to qualify. But everything that Art and Chelsea Jackson serve is first-rate, from chips dripping with cheddar and gravy scattered with skirt steak ($5) to steamy mushroom and kale pies ($7.25) flakier than Gary Busey. Wonderful housemade sodas ($2), traditional Sunday high tea, and a weekday sandwich carvery reveal a truth about shoestring restaurants: If the food's good enough, shabby becomes charming.
Publican Quality Meats
825 W. Fulton Market; 312-445-8977
Meat has never been more persuasive than it is here. Sandwiches include monumental tuna muffuletta ($12), beef meatball with spicy brava sauce ($8), and a bold combo of ham, chopped liver, and arugula ($7.50)–all served with a pickle and housemade chips. Ribollita soup ($5) and even the meatless seasonal vegetable salad ($9) rock, big-time.
Yuzu Sushi & Robata Grill
1715 W. Chicago Ave.; 312-666-4100
Everyone–including the fedora-clad chefs–seems gleeful at this chummy BYO. Maybe the thumping hip-hop anthems have something to do with this, but we suspect it's the attractive maki, bite-size robata beauties with a plate's worth of flavor (for $3.50 or less), and delightfully chewy pad si yu.
2230 S. Wentworth Ave.; 312-842-7888
Small, crowded waiting area, Mao-inspired décor, noisy as hell. Such are the tradeoffs for top-notch bargain-priced Chinese exotica at Tony Hu's latest Lao (Lao Sze Chuan, Lao Shanghai, Lao You Ju, Lao Beijing). Jade tofu ($5.95) and Hunan-style crispy eggplant ($9.95) thrill the chili-pepper set, pea pod leaves ($10.45) target the garlic addicted, and Singapore noodles packed with veggies, egg, and baby shrimp have mass appeal. You don't have to order Lucky Braised Pig Hand unless you want to. Your call.
Butcher & The Burger
1021 W. Armitage Ave.; 773-697-3735
You can take the man out of fine dining, but you can't take the fine dining out of the man, even when he opens a BYO counter-service burger shop. Those willing to venture beyond (stellar) grass-fed-beef patties are rewarded with elk, shrimp, and bison burgers, which truly showcase Allen Sternweiler's culinary chops—all for no more than $14 a pop.
1634 Orrington Ave., Evanston; 847-328-2222
If you like big wet ones, this bubblegum-bright spot is for you. Each juicy two-fisted sandwich comes crammed with carrot, daikon, pickle, lettuce, cilantro, and chili aioli. The rest is up to you. Burmese coconut curry? Indonesian spiced grill? Singapore tikka? Chicken, pork, steak, or veggies? We went with Thai grilled chicken and the best-selling Indonesian ginger barbecue with pork. Everything is under $8; Burmese chips and housemade slaw included.
Mama Milano Pizza Bar
1419 N. Wells St.; 312-787-3710
Old Town Pizza
Whether political or culinary, Chicago loves its dynasties. In the pizza world, the name Milano still has clout, and the dandy pies at MMPB are proof enough. The stretchy cheese is vintage Chicago, while the thin crust smacks of modern times, as does the Bianco (red peppers and olives but no tomato sauce, $10). Split an antipasto salad, a 'za, and an order of Mama's cannoli, and like us, you'll probably forget to ask: Where's Papa?
The Southern Mac & Cheese Store
60 E. Lake St.; 312-262-7622
Mac And Cheese
The crowd-pleasing mac and cheese at The Southern spawned a food truck, which in turn led Cary Taylor to launch this counter-service joint that slings his down-home concoctions to an army of lunchtimers. A dozen toothsome varieties (none over $8), such as chorizo with Cotija and pepper Jack, are served in hefty portions ideal for dinnertime reheating.