Ultimate Cheap Eats Guide in Chicago

By Sarah Freeman  |  August 13, 2013

The art of stretching a dollar is much more easily said than done in a city like Chicago where dinner can easily cost as much as a month’s rent. The good news is that there are cheap eats hiding all over Chicago, if you know where to find them. From hot dog stands hiding gourmet franks to unforgettable barbecue on the South Side - it’s amazing how delicious $10 can taste.

  • Bar Bites

    Orbit Room
    Grab Alexander Hamilton and head down to this retro bar for a plate of nachos piled high with refried and black beans, shredded pepper jack cheese, pico de gallo, sour cream, guacamole and jalapeños.

    In Lakeview, Evanston and a truck, these over-the-top grilled cheese sandwiches are difficult to beat. Try the Frenchie, with two types of cheese, fries, bacon and chives, or The Popper with cream cheese and jalapeños.

    The Rocking Horse
    The treat here is the tots. A single order starts at $4 and can be covered in specialty toppings such as chimichurri, pepper jack, white truffle and chili cheese, or turned into poutine.

  • BBQ

    Honey 1
    Don't miss the lunch deals at this BBQ joint - stop in for a $2.99 hot link sandwich or $4.99 rib tips.

    Uncle John’s
    The iconic South Side restaurant is not for the faint of heart. Hot links, chicken and ribs cooking in a rotating smoker will surely tempt you off any diet plans.

    Grab a metal tray and chow down on some of the best brisket in town. Choose from chopped, sliced or sandwiched for under $10.

  • Chicken

    Art of Chicken
    Built into a well-designed chicken coop complete with newspaper wallpaper and poultry murals, the vibrant shack serves char-gilled chicken by the quarter, half or whole along with sides and corn elote.

    The one-and-only fried chicken king of Chicago has been an institution for over 50 years. Originating on the South Side, it now fries chicken to order at dozens of shacks across the city, each differentiated by a number.

    The house specialty is Korean fried chicken - stick to the original “Plain Jane” that's marinated, coated with spices, dipped in batter and deep-fried. Half of a signature, BBQ, buffalo or “Seoul Sassy” bird runs around $9.

  • Fish

    Calumet Fisheries
    Take a trip down to the South Side to visit one of the few remaining smokehouses in the state of Illinois. The ultimate roadside pit stop smokes rainbow trout, pepper-and-garlic salmon, shrimp and more in its wood-burning smokehouse.

    Big & Little’s
    Whether it's grilled tilapia tacos, soft-shell crab po’ boy or fish ‘n’ chips, diners get big flavor for a little price. The fish sandwich cost just $6.50, but it's much more satisfying than a Filet-O-Fish.

    Phil’s Last Stand
    The burgers are great as well as char dogs, but only the fried jumbo shrimp earn the qualifier “Fatso’s Famous.” They're served by the half-pound or pound, meaning it's best to gather a few friends before dining into the deep-fired deliciousness.

  • Hot Dogs

    Redhot Ranch
    Four dollars will get a "double dog" with fries. That is the beef hot dog in the natural casings with a good snap covered in fresh-cut fries in a bun. It makes for a solid hand-held meal as well as satisfies 2 AM munchies.

    There's something to be said about an institution that has been serving the same item the same way since 1948. Fans still rave about this drive-in hot dog stand serving beef hot dogs with mustard, piccalilli, kosher dill pickles, onions and hot peppers.

    Wiener Circle
    This hot dog stand offers some killer deals for those who can get past the cheeky employees (and titter-inducing name). Less than $5 can get a Vienna red hot, char dog or char cheddar dog.

  • Italian Beef

    Al’s Beef
    Between the eight locations, chances are good an Italian Beef sandwich is never far in Chicago. They may not have kept the prices from the 1983 opening, but the recipe for the thinly sliced beef remains authentic.

    Sure it’s a chain, but that won’t matter after one bite of the tender beef on fresh-baked French bread with a choice of sweet or hot peppers. Other can’t-miss cheap eats include the char-grilled Maxwell Street-style Polish and Chicago-style hot dog.

    Mr. Beef
    The first three items on this roadside dive’s menu say it all: Italian beef, Italian sausage or Italian combo. Choose one for lunch or dinner and leave a satisfied diner with a full stomach and wallet.

  • Pizza

    Armitage Pizzeria
    A slice of cheese costs $2 and of sausage costs $3. Given the fact that that much money exists in between the couch cushions or in the back of the car, it’s hard to turn down the super-thin, East Coast-style pie.

    The Boiler Room
    One of the greatest trifectas of Chicago nightlife is served in this Logan Square bar. It's a slice of pizza (try the "Purist" with fresh mozzarella, basil and balsamic) with a PRB and a shot of Jameson, all for $7.50.

    Now that there's a location in Wrigleyville and a new location in Wicker Park, more of Chicago can dine on slices covered in mac 'n' cheese or barbecue chicken. Slices start at $2.75 and are served until the last drunken straggler has returned to bed.

  • Tacos

    This new taco stop earned instant recognition for its beer-battered fish tacos, carne asada and more, served on housemade tortillas with boldly flavored salsas.

    La Pasadita
    This local institution has been serving drunk munchies to hipsters of Chicago since 1976. Currently, its six locations stay open late, offering signature tacos such as barbacoa, lengua and chorizo.

    Maxwell Street Market
    The market pops up every Sunday with produce, antiques and lots of authentic Mexican cuisine. Vendors include Rick Bayless' favorite, Rubi's, which serves some of the best al pastor this side of the Mexican border.

  • Vegetarian

    Chicago Diner
    The motto at both the Lakeview and Logan Square location is “Meat Free Since ’83.” They stick to serving seitan tacos, vegan grilled cheese and Cajun black bean burgers.

    Vegan and vegetarian Mexican cuisine - yes, it is a thing. In addition to meatless savory Mexican offerings, the restaurant recently started serving tempting desserts such as "The Colombiano" coffee cupcake.

    It has a full bar, beer garden and strategically placed bike parts. It's also vegetarian- and vegan-friendly with a menu packed with comfort food including Chicago-style tofu and chili mac.

  • Sweets

    Mario’s Italian Lemonade
    This summer signature is located in the heart of Little Italy. A cup of the fresh Italian ice is the perfect accessory for a stroll down Taylor Street on a warm summer night.

    Bang Bang Pie Shop
    Pie and biscuits served with housemade butters and jams are served in the cozy shop and the backyard complete with picnic tables and twinkle light. It’s the best treat $5 can buy.

    Margie’s Candies
    Full of nostalgic charm and irresistible smells, the historical candy shop serves housemade ice cream and candy. Try a few scoops in a sundae or a shake and be transported back to a simpler time when a scoop of ice cream was the best part of the day.