Like scoring a hotel room with a view or getting through airport security, finding delicious meals on vacation should be easier than it is. It can be, if you are willing to shell out a fortune to taste wines in Napa or sample crème brûlée in Paris. Food-focused vacations often miss out on the dishes locals eat.
Chicago is a well-regarded dining town, with such higher-end chef-driven restaurants as Grant Achatz’s Alinea and Next and Top Chef-winner Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat receiving tons of media attention. Then there are the traditional foods associated with the city: hot dogs dressed with crunchy pickle spears, tomato slices, and emerald green relish; meaty Italian beef sandwiches; thick wedges of pizza layered with sausage, cheese, and onions.
But the city can also boast of an array of small, affordable restaurants, where meals can be had for under $10.
Rick Bayless, a renowned chef and Mexican cuisine specialist, has a mini-empire of Mexican restaurants in the city that explore the country’s cuisine at varying price levels. The most casual is XOCO, which opens at 8 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday to serve breakfast. Head in and start the morning with an excellent rendition of huevos rancheros that deliver a kick from tomato-serrano salsa, and a side of sugared churros. Get your morning coffee elsewhere, because you will want to order hot chocolate, which XOCO makes by frothing freshly ground cacao beans with water or milk to create five combinations. The classic version features a chocolate shot with milk, while the Aztec gets a jolt from chile and allspice sprinkled in. Come lunch and dinner time, the menu veers toward tortas (crusty sandwiches) and caldos (substantial soups), which are $9-$12.50. 449 North Clark St., 312-334-3688, www.rickbayless.com
With four locations downtown, M Burger is a fast spot with a small menu of sandwiches, fries, and shakes for lunch or dinner. Just off the Magnificent Mile, the tiny East Huron Street location has just eight seats inside, with tables available outside during warmer weather. The menu is simple: Choose from four burgers, which you can order with one or two slabs of beef, plus chicken and veggie sandwiches. There’s a basic hamburger and cheeseburger (a nearly perfect specimen with crunchy veggies, melted cheese, and pickle slices), a patty topped with bacon and Big Mac-esque “special sauce,’’ and the Hurt Burger, which is available in three levels of heat. While the first two levels barely made my palate tingle, they are enough for some. Chef Tim Hockett starts by dressing each Hurt Burger with house-made spicy barbecue sauce and lettuce, pickle, and onion. For the first degree he adds pepperjack cheese and a slick of mayo, the second degree raises the bar with a layer of crunchy jalapeño slices, and the third degree swaps in an extra spicy barbecue sauce. A single patty Hurt Burger is $3.29, a double is $4.49. If the heat is too much to bear - or even if it isn’t - order one of M Burger’s $3 milkshakes, which are so thick you could eat them with a spoon. Classic vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry are always available, but be sure to ask what’s on the rotating secret menu; on my visit the secret shakes were caramel apple cider and espresso. 161 East Huron St., 312-254-8500, www.mburgerchicago.com
Bodega N. 5 opened this summer in the South Loop below sister restaurant Mercat a la Planxa. The tiny Spanish joint riffs off bodegas, convenience stores that sell food, and offers all items for $6.50 or less. Salads, flatbreads, and empanadas cost $5, and sandwiches are $6.50, with one available each day for $5. The jewel box of a restaurant has a wall of seats to slide into and lively music playing. The colorful atmosphere is an ideal accompaniment to the flavors on your plate, which can range from an earthy roasted vegetable flatbread to a tuna sandwich that gets a pop from celery-caper aioli. Go traditional with La Sagrada empanada, a golden brown pocket stuffed with rich Spanish ham, a mix of cheeses, and speckles of red pepper. While the main dishes are solid, the unexpected side of potato chips threatens to steal the show - chef de cuisine Cory Morris dusts the rounds with dehydrated cheddar cheese powder and dried Serrano ham that he grates with a microplane over the chips. If you’re at Bodega N. 5 at an acceptable hour for a cocktail, start your evening with $5 wine, beer, or sangria. Or pick from one of three cocktails, say the nicely balanced La Boqueria, made with gin, pomegranate juice, fresh sour mix, and mint. 638 South Michigan Ave., 312-542-3605.
Located under the Clinton-Green CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) stop, Saigon Sisters has high, industrial ceilings and a Vietnamese menu neatly written on a chalkboard wall. A soundtrack of Spoon and The New Pornographers gives the restaurant a fun, casual vibe. The menu has traditional and creative bánh mì, rice bowls, and harmonic renditions of pho at $7 to $9 each. Choosing is difficult, so the best solution is to bring along a dining companion who won’t mind splitting a bánh mì and pho (available with chicken, beef, or vegetables). More accustomed to beef and vegetarian versions, I went with the chicken pho on my visit, and was greeted with a big tangle of noodles soaking in an aromatic broth with shreds of poached chicken and scallions. Open the packet of accents that comes on the side, and add a handful of bean sprouts, basil leaves, and coins of sliced jalapeños to customize the soup. Twist the slice of lime over the bowl for some acid, and control the spice level with the trio of sauces on the table. The hoisin sauce adds a rich, sweet tang and the sambal a spicier punch, while the sriracha brings a fiery garlic-chili flavor. Bánh mì, Vietnamese sandwiches that pick up on French influences, include meat, pâté, pickled vegetables, jalapeños, and cilantro tucked into a fresh baguette. Saigon Sisters offers a number of versions, from classic combinations such as ham and pâté to the Hen House, a sweet layer of shredded, caramelized chicken cut with jalapeños, and the Frenchman, a mix of duck, mustard seeds, and kumquat. 567 West Lake St., 312-496-0090, saigonsisters.com
As in many big cities, Chicago food lovers have embraced food trucks, tracking the culinary vehicles on Twitter - though if you are walking around downtown, you will probably spot a couple. But unlike Los Angeles, New York, Washington, and other places, this city prohibits cooking on the trucks. Food has to be prepared in a kitchen before going onto the truck, and chefs and bakers have found creative ways around that. You find trucks offering cupcakes (like More Cupcakes’ More Mobile and Flirty Cupcakes) and pre-assembled sandwiches (Gaztro-Wagon’s naan-wiches come stuffed with ingredients such as wild boar and barbecue duck, while Lillie’s Q Meat Mobile serves pulled pork and chicken sandwiches with a side for $10). One of the most popular trucks is The Southern Mac and Cheese Truck, which was so successful at peddling the nostalgic favorite that it opened a downtown storefront.
At The Southern Mac and Cheese Store, there are 12 varieties of macaroni and cheese plus a daily special, which cost between $6.99 and $8.99 for a good-sized portion. The combinations range from classic, like American and cheddar cheese pasta topped with breadcrumbs, to a buffalo wing-inspired version with pulled chicken, blue cheese, and zesty sauce. The restaurant recently announced that it would be collaborating with big name chefs around the city, bringing even more culinary credibility to the place. 60 East Lake St., 312-262-7622, thesouthernmac.comAmy Cavanaugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.