Your Opinion

The 7 Hottest Fast-Casual Chains in Chicago

By Sarah Freeman  |  September 1, 2015
Credit: Potluck Creative

When time is short and your appetite is the size of a bus, the answer is one of the city's hundreds of fast-casual restaurants. As culinary connoisseurs, you know that not just any paper-wrapped burger will do. Our Fast-Casual Chain survey focuses on high-quality, counter-service restaurants with between two and 50 locations nationally. Here are Chitown's top picks.

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  • 1. Tortas Fronteras 

    Why it made the list: Making trips to O’Hare Airport more bearable since 2012, Rick Bayless’ Mexican​-inspired sandwich stand has expanded to airports and malls around the country. The three O’Hare locations are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, so frequent fliers can start the day with an egg and chorizo torta or end it with a smoked pork loin Cubana.

    Must order: Pepito, braised-beef short-rib torta with jack cheese, pickled jalapeño, cilantro crema, black beans and wild arugula.

    Multiple locations

  • 2. Big & Little's

    Why it made the list: With two successful locations, and a new Wicker Park one in the works, this mini-chain is well on its way to satisfying most of Chicago. While the menu runs the gambit from al pastor burgers to deep-fried grilled cheese, it’s seafood that’s the star here, appearing in assorted tacos and po’ boys.

    Must order: The signature fried whitefish taco is loaded with cabbage, lettuce, tomato, special sauce (aka chile aïoli), tartar sauce and lime juice.

    Multiple locations

  • 3. Luke's Lobster

    Why it made the list: This East Coast import specializes in fresh Maine lobster, crab and shrimp rolls. Each bite of sustainably sourced seafood is simply seasoned in lemon butter and secret spice blend. In addition to the rolls, the counter-service restaurant serves a small selection of coastal staples such as clam chowder and Maine Root soda.

    Must order: Lobster roll served on a toasted New England–style split top bun with a swipe of mayo and healthy serving of chilled lobster.

    134 N. Lasalle St.; 312-982-2977

  • Credit: Potluck Creative

    4. Leghorn Chicken

    Why it made the list: Named after the heritage-bred chicken of the same name, this fried chicken shack serves up the bird pickle brined or Nashville hot on a bun or buttermilk biscuit. It will be one of a dozen acclaimed restaurants, including Big Star and Lillie’s Q, that will take up residence in the United Center this fall as part of the new Chicago’s Plate program.

    Must order: Pickle-brined breast on a bun with buttermilk rancho verde sauce and a side of nori fries.

    Multiple locations

  • 5. Protein Bar

    Why it made the list: This chain is redefining the power lunch with protein-driven wraps and bowls filled with whole grains, all-natural meats and vegetables. Bold flavors like spicy Buffalo sauce and bright basil pesto help diners forget that items such as the BBQ “Bar-rito” and chicken Parmesan bowl are healthy.

    Must order: Buffalo Bar-rito filled with all-natural chicken tossed in vegan Buffalo sauce, with blue cheese, organic quinoa blend and Super 6 salad mix.

    Multiple locations

  • 6. Hannah's Bretzel

    Why it made the list: Sandwiches made with organic ingredients, served in an eco-friendly environment, is the formula that led to five locations (with one more opening soon) of this 10-year-old chain. European accents like Spanish Serrano ham, white-truffle goat cheese and the signature pretzel baguette make these sandwiches a no-brainer for the Downtown lunch crowd.

    Must order: Free-range chicken and avocado baguette with local fresh mozzarella, housemade pesto, organic baby arugula and roasted red peppers.

    Multiple locations

  • Credit: Velvet Taco

    7. Velvet Taco

    Why it made the list: This Texas-based taqueria's Gold Coast location made a splash into Chicago's crowded taco market with its globally inspired taco creations served in housemade tortillas. Go Indian-style with fried paneer and tomato chutney; crisp tikka chicken; Mediterranean via a squid-feta-Greek salad combo; or fish ‘n’ chips with curry mayo.

    Must order: Shredded pork taco tossed with grilled pineapple, drizzled with avocado crema and finished with pickled onions.

    1110 N. State St.; 312-763-2654