11 Criminally Cheap Chicago Restaurants

Photo: Courtesy of Big Star.
It's one of the best things about living in Chicago: Walking into a restaurant you've never been to, and sometimes never even heard of, ordering, and being absolutely blown away by what comes out of the kitchen. What makes the experience even better? When you pay with a $10 bill and get change back. Now that's a spot you'll never forget.
With that thought in mind, we rounded up the following 11 destinations, each offering some of the best bang-for-your-buck dining in town. And, no, we're not talking about quick counter spots. Rather, sit-down establishments that encourage you to actually stay awhile. From the fried chicken at Parson's to the to-die-for enchiladas verde at Lake View standout Buena Vista, these restaurants offer food for the people, by the people, and of the people — at a price you simply can't refuse.
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Photo: Courtesy of Podhalanka.
Smack dab in what some still consider Chicago's "Polonia Triangle," Podhalanka satisfies comfort-food cravings for both Poles and pierogi enthusiasts alike. Seriously, any ethnicity could get used to plates brimming with potato pancakes, blintzes, and kielbasa for less than the price of a cocktail at your favorite watering hole. In short, it's a real slice of old-school Chicago that need not be trendy to be cool — and delicious.

Podhalanka, 1549 West Division Street (at Ashland Avenue); 773-486-6655.
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Photo: Courtesy of Buena Vista.
Buena Vista
Lake View’s Buena Vista is as delicious as it is unassuming. Tucked away in a small spot on Broadway, the BYO often has a line out the door. It's the Ramirez family's dedication to making high-quality Mexican classics that keeps loyalists coming back. With a menu made up largely of ubiquitous dishes like tacos, burritos, and fajitas, all one can really say about Buena Vista is that its execution is far above average. The citrus-marinated chicken is to die for; the salsa explodes with authentic flavor; the enchiladas verdes are perfectly spiced and cooked. More good news: For a minimal charge, Buena Vista has a wide delivery range. And, if there's something better than a movie and great Mexican food at home on a Friday night, we're not sure what it is.

Buena Vista, 3147 North Broadway Street (at West Briar Place); 773-871-5782.
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Photographed by Edouard Pierre.
Big Star
How do we love Big Star? Let us count the ways: amazing food, casual-yet-cool atmosphere, and great tunes. And, where else can you pop in for lunch on a random weekday afternoon (not a Friday night) and see at least two people you know having margaritas and tacos (we have dreams about the al pastor) on the cheap? Guilty as charged.

Big Star, 1531 North Damen Avenue (between Wicker Park and Pierce Avenues); 773-235-4039.
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Photo: Courtesy of Pizza Art Café.
Pizza Art Café
Originally founded as the coffee shop Art Café in 2000, the owners were inspired to rebrand it as the Pizza Art Café, after a trip to Italy in 2005. And, they've been satisfying Lincoln Square denizens with their excellent, accessible Italian cuisine ever since. The pizza menu is divided into veggie, meat, and seafood sections, all prepared in the restaurant's brick oven. Ranging from classics to more inventive offerings, favorites include selections like the Pizza Art (Pugliese sauce, shrimp, and parsley) and the Panzerotto (folded 'za with mozzarella, sour cream, mushrooms, and ham). But, the expansive menu at this BYO also includes a wide selection of fresh salads, soups, grilled entrées, pastas, and house specialties, and, in winter, there's even a mozzarella bar.

Pizza Art Café, 4658 North Rockwell Street (at West Leland Avenue); 773-539-0645.
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Photo: Courtesy of Andy's Thai Kitchen.
Andy's Thai Kitchen
Few things are as welcome to a city as a great new Thai restaurant, and when Andy’s opened in Lake View last year, it was greeted with huge enthusiasm. It's a plus that Andy's is accessible, of course, but what really makes the BYO a draw are the authentic flavors — chef Andy Aroonrasameruang honed his skills at his mother's side in Chachoengsao, Thailand, before heading to the United States nearly 20 years ago. Thankfully, fusion is not the name of the game here — so expect straightforward, high-quality renditions of classics like basil-preserved egg, green-curry omelet, and karee seafood (karee curry with shrimp, squid, mussel, fish ball, jalapeno, and onion).

Andy's Thai Kitchen, 946 West Wellington Street (at North Sheffield Avenue); 773-549-7821.
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Pleasant House Bakery
Full disclosure: We may have fallen in love with this family-owned Bridgeport hot spot during the polar vortex, thanks to its perfectly crafted savory pies and sweets that kept us warm and satisfied. But, who are we fooling? Snow need not be falling to enjoy a steaming concoction of beef, ale, carrots, and herbs — especially at the price point of $7.95. Bring on the food coma.

Pleasant House Bakery, 964 West 31st Street (at Keeley and Morgan Streets); 773-523-7437.
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Photo: Courtesy of Parson's Chicken & Fish.
Parson's Chicken & Fish
When the warm weather arrives, it's hard to top grabbing a spot on the expansive patio at Parson's Chicken & Fish, and enjoying some delish comfort food, excellent and affordable cocktails, and maybe even a little ping-pong. The Amish chickens come from Miller's Farms in Indiana. Choose from the fried variety (brined in sugar, salt, and water, then seasoned with onion, thyme, chili flakes, and coriander) or grilled (seasoned with rum, habanero, and scallion, giving it a Caribbean flavor).

Whether you opt for the chicken or crispy fried pollock, both served with slaw and Texas toast, you'll want to explore the summer sides like hush puppies and butter beans. Between the eats, drinks, and bustling atmosphere, this is the perfect place to while away the warm nights.

Parson's Chicken & Fish, 2952 West Armitage Avenue (at North Humboldt Boulevard); 773-384-3333.
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Photo: Courtesy of Penny's Noodle Shop.
Penny's Noodle Shop
Whether you're starving, out with a group who can't decide what to eat, or you want both crab rangoon and chicken pad Thai — it's time to go "pan," and we don't mean the kind you put on a stove. In Lake View, Bucktown, Lincoln Park, and beyond, Penny's Noodle Shop has earned a devoted following for its delicious pan-Asian cuisine, serving everything from Chinese to Thai to Japanese classics. No matter what you order, one thing's for sure: You won't go home hungry.

Penny's Noodle Shop, multiple locations.
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Photo: Courtesy of Café.
Café Con Leche
Founded as a coffee and sandwich shop, this Logan Square staple has since evolved into two winning concepts. By day, it serves a sprawling menu of Latin favorites, ranging from Milanesa de Pollo (seasoned chicken breast breaded with cheese) to a jibarito sandwich (rib-eye between crispy plantains). At night, however, the space morphs into the dinner hot spot D'Noche. While a bit pricier, entrées like the Ropa Vieja Platillo (shredded braised flank steak) and Pollo en Mole Poblano (grilled chicken breast in mole poblano), both under $15, are still relatively affordable for a memorable night out. If you’re lucky enough to get a table by the fireplace, toast your good fortune with a custom mojito or margarita.

Café Con Leche, 2714 North Milwaukee Avenue (at North Sawyer); 773-289-4274.
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Photo: Courtesy of DMK County BBQ.
DMK County Barbecue
Truth: Chicago has its fare share of killer barbecue joints. Yet, we respect DMK for its flavorful brisket, cheddar grits, and garlic fries — all of which are are worth every extra mile on the treadmill. Sandwiches, bar bites, and sides make for the best wallet-friendly options, yet mains are hearty enough to be split with a pal for a meager three-to-ten bucks a piece.

DMK Country Barbecue, 1352 West Taylor Street (between Loomis and Ada streets); 312-929-2528.
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Photo: Courtesy of Pecking Order.
Pecking Order
Acclaimed chef Kristine Subido's homage to chicken is unique in the Chicago dining scene, and one that can be enjoyed at minimal cost. The star, of course, is the bird — marinated in tamari, sugar, garlic, and bay leaves overnight, and served grilled, fried, or roasted. But, the expansive Philippine-inspired menu also includes numerous enticing sides, ranging from Mom's Pickles (shaved jicama, papaya, carrot, ginger, and radish) to Rice & Lola's Gravy (rice and chicken gravy), making exploring and sharing easy. After you’ve familiarized yourself with the main event, come back to try the specials, like roasted chicken mac 'n' cheese, and house specialties, such as the chicken and the egg noodles (chicken broth, egg noodles, toasted garlic, ginger, and baby bok choy topped with roasted chicken and egg).

Pecking Order, 4416 North Clark Street (at West Montrose Avenue); 773-907-9900.