Where To Eat When You’re Trying To Not Spend Money
photo credit: Azuree Wiitalla
Maybe you went ahead and reserved the iPhoneXXIV. Sure, you had to pre-pay and it’s coming out in 2025, but it will be worth it. Or maybe you’ve just finally accepted the fact that your credit card doesn’t work like a savings account. Either way, you’re trying not to spend a lot of money right now. But you’re also beginning to feel like a hermit, and you want to go out to dinner with a friend. Here are 21 places where you can eat something good and still have enough money to get a case for that new phone.
This Greek restaurant in Lincoln Park is one of our favorite spots in all of Chicago. One reason why is that for around $11, you can get the best thing on the menu - the chicken kalamata dinner. It’s a perfectly roasted half chicken over fries, served with a salad and bread and butter. And while that’s really what you should order, the other dishes (like the gyros and the spanakopita) are as reasonably priced and almost as good. As for alcohol, you can buy it at the adjacent bar and bring it over. Or just drink the chicken juice.
This tiny, cash-only Mexican spot (one of two locations in the city) specializes in huaraches, but anything involving their housemade masa is delicious - tacos, sopes, some incredible mole enchiladas - and almost everything is under $10. You get to pick your toppings (with options like pastor, steak, or calabaza) and your salsa (red or green), and there’s really no wrong decision. While eating here might save you some money, the truth is we’d still come here even if we had enough money to arrive by helicopter and order one of everything before heading to our private island for the weekend.
Goree is a Senegalese restaurant on the border of Kenwood and Hyde Park. Order one of their fantastic stews (our favorite is the vegetarian maffe made with tomatoes, peanut butter, and yams over rice) or an entree like the grilled red snapper or dibi chicken. Almost everything on the menu is between $10-18, and the portions are so large you can plan on eating the leftovers for at least three days - the food is so good that it will stay interesting several meals in a row. Just avoid reheating any fish leftovers in the office microwave, unless you want your coworkers to hate you.
The Delta is a casual Southern bar and restaurant in Wicker Park. Their food specialty is tamales (made with cornmeal and simmered instead of steamed), and you can get three of the beef brisket version for $6. The rest of the food is excellent as well - with almost everything (from hush puppies to fried chicken) costing between $8 and $17. Make the back patio your go-to spot for a summer meal.
El Kacheton is a casual Mexican spot in Belmont-Cragin whose menu consists of a short list of chalkboard specials above the register that includes four rotating varieties of specialty tacos. But these aren’t just tacos - they’re balanced meals in a convenient corn package. The Lomo is filled with skirt steak, beans, cheese, and rice, and the Kacheton has a mixture of tripe and chorizo with cheese, grilled peppers, and onions. The best part is that they come on perfectly grilled handmade tortillas that hold up against all the fillings without falling apart. The second best part is that you’ll spend under $10 for a meal you’ll be thinking about all week.
When it comes to a food-to-dollars ratio, it’s hard to argue with the value of an all-you-can-eat buffet. But a lot of buffets are something to be endured rather than sought out. Thankfully, this isn’t the case at Pearl’s Place in Bronzeville. This spot focuses on Southern food, and has a delicious dinner buffet for $19.99. You’ll find a rotating series of staples, including smothered short ribs, shrimp and grits, and smoked turkey. The buffet doesn’t include dessert, but that’s OK - you can use your savings to buy a waffle cone at nearby Shawn Michelle’s afterwards.
This casual restaurant in Chinatown specializes in delicious dumplings, which start around $10, depending on what you get. But narrowing down your order might require some Good Will Hunting-level equations: the broth-filled dumplings come in orders of 12 or 18, they’re available steamed, boiled, or fried, and you can choose from fillings like pork and pickled cabbage, shrimp and leek, or egg and pepper. So basically, the only danger here is panicking with indecision, ordering everything, and being late on rent as a result. Which might be the kind of behavior that got you into this trying-to-not-spend-money situation in the first place.
Another place that specializes in delicious handmade dumplings is The Momo World in University Village. The dumplings in question are momos, Nepalese steamed dumplings. There are a lot of varieties here, including classic (filled with chicken or vegetables), jhol (served in a spicy soup), and tandoori (steamed then fried). They’re all delicious, and each order is under $10. Extra points awarded to these momos for being the perfect size to fit in your pocket for later.
It might seem really cost-effective to buy a piglet and raise it for meat yourself. But when you factor in the expense of feeding it and the inevitable heartbreak of loving it, you’re better off just going to Carnitas Uruapan in Gage Park for carnitas instead. You can get belly, shoulder, or rib meat, and it’s all priced by weight. Whichever one(s) you choose will be juicy and delicious, and your order will come with some fantastic handmade tortillas. This place is great for large groups, parties, or just dinner with a few friends when you all want to eat as much pork as humanly possible. Don’t leave without getting some chicharrones.
A Place By Damao is a small Chinese restaurant in a strip mall in an industrial section of Bridgeport, so it’s understandable if you haven’t come across this spot during your weekly bird-watching or morning jog. They have a short menu of Sichuan food, including tender braised dishes (like ribs and duck tongue) and barbecue (get the pulled rabbit), all priced around $4-8. But our favorite things are the Chengdu small plates - for example, the sweet and spicy handmade noodles and bell dumplings, which both have a great amount of heat.
There’s a lot to like about 5 Rabanitos in Pilsen. Not only is it affordable and BYOB, but everything on the huge menu is delicious. That being said, we really like the tacos (you can get a single one for $2.75, or three with rice and beans for $13.50) and the very, very spicy torta ahogada (which is $9.50). You can come here on a weeknight for a casual meal, or on the weekend with a group of friends. Basically, you should come here even when you’re not trying to save money.
If deep dish by the slice is still too cheesy for you, go to Jimmy’s Pizza Cafe. Jimmy’s serves New York-style pizza - meaning huge, foldable, greasy slices on little paper plates. Come for the basics, like plain cheese with red sauce and a garlicky white pizza topped with blobs of ricotta.
This Mexican restaurant in Pilsen has great tortas, gorditas, enchiladas, and huaraches, and almost everything on the menu costs less than $10. But what you really want to order here is the Taco Encarbonado. It’s made with perfectly seasoned charred ribeye on a large handmade tortilla, along with grilled onions, jalapeno, and beans. It’s $3.75, absolutely huge, and qualifies as a complete meal in itself. And it’s a lot more satisfying than eating an entire box of Lucky Charms for roughly the same price.
Dog Haus is a Lincoln Park location of a hot dog chain from LA, and even though Chicago has strong opinions regarding hot dogs, we’re really happy these are here. They’re all made in-house and served on King’s Hawaiian buns, and they cost $7 each (for a very large portion). The specialty hot dogs in particular are pretty great - like the Scott Baioli, which has caramelized onions, or the Thai sausage. They even have an off-menu Chicago-style dog you can order, but you should seriously consider branching out.
This spot in Logan Square is ideal for grabbing a casual sit-down lunch or dinner with some friends. The sandwiches here are delicious (our favorites are the reuben and the crawfish melt) and very filling. Plus, each one comes with housemade chips or a salad. If you can, spring for an order of the cheese curds, too. They’re worth it.
If you’ve hit the skill ceiling on your home-cooked Italian food, go to Pasta Palazzo in Lincoln Park. This place specializes in big bowls of pasta that range in price from $8-$11. Get the penne bolognese, or one of the handmade pastas like the gnocchi or ravioli. It’s good for dining solo, but you could also invite your roommates - they’re tired of your pasta with sauce from a jar, too.
Here’s the thing about deep dish - it’s delicious and filling, but an entire pie with approximately 30 pounds of cheese can be expensive. Luckily there’s Art of Pizza in Lakeview, which serves very good deep dish by the slice. But the best is their stuffed pizza, which has an extra layer of dough at the top. This is a counter service operation, but there’s a huge dining room that looks a little like a rec room. So BYOB and pretend you’re hanging out at a friend’s house.
Crisp in Lakeview serves excellent Korean fried chicken, and our favorite order here is the sweet and spicy Seoul Sassy wings. Whatever version you choose, you can get five huge wings or a half chicken for around $10. If you’d rather eat something kind-of-healthy, they have a variety of rice bowls (including their version of bi bim bap) for the same price. This place tends to be crowded no matter when you come, but it’s a casual spot with fast turnover, and if you loom effectively, you won’t have to wait long for a table.
Entertaining out-of-towners can be stressful when you don’t want to pay for a lot of big meals out. But they’ll probably be excited if you take them to a classic establishment like Portillo’s. And you should be grateful for any excuse to eat the food here, anyway. Come for the Italian beef sandwiches, make sure there’s at least one Chicago-style hot dog on the table, and because everything is so affordable (as in $3-$6), get a chocolate cake shake, too.
Lonesome Rose is the kind of restaurant you’ll want to spend some time in. The space is light and airy, with lots of plants (which, unlike the ones in your apartment, are still alive). Benches and large tables make it great for groups, and the Tex-Mex dishes on the menu are easy to share. Get an order of the chili con queso, and the fried chicken torta - it’s big enough to feed two people.
Left Coast is an all-day spot serving healthy things for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You’ll find stuff like tofu wraps, grain bowls, and avocado toast with orange slices, ricotta, and sunflower seeds - all ranging from $7-$15. It’s the kind of nourishing food that will make you feel like a responsible person, even if you spent your last paycheck on a party for your dog’s half-birthday. They have a few locations, but we prefer the Lakeview space for its beach house feel and outdoor patio.