Sweet Corn and Green Chile Tamale at Frontera Fresco ($4.50)
As I found on a survey of tamales in Chicago, Frontera Fresco serves some of the best around. I've already written about the amazing chipotle chicken tamale, but the sweet corn and green chile tamale also deserves some love. It's filled with strips of roasted green chiles, which are balanced by goat cheese and ricotta.
Italian Beef at Al's #1 Italian Beef ($5.99)
It's not the absolute pinnacle of the Italian beef arts, but the version you can score at this outlet of Al's #1 Italian Beef is still one mighty fine sandwich. Getting it dipped is the only way to go, but just make sure to be careful when eating, as a mess is absolutely guaranteed. I should note that you can also get a very good natural casing Chicago-style hot dog here, though it is only slightly less messy.
Falafel Sandwich at Oasis Cafe ($3.99)
One of the best kept secrets in the Loop, which also happens to be incredibly close to Grant Park, is Oasis Cafe. It's located in the back of a jewelry shop, so you'll have to pass some enticing options on the walk, but you'll be rewarded with one of the cheapest and most delicious lunches around. The falafel sandwich came in second place in my search for the best falafel in the Loop, and it's easy to see why.
Original Shell Cream Puff at Beard Papa's ($2.00)
We ate all of the cream puffs at Beard Papa's so you don't have to. There are a number of surprisingly good options, along with a couple duds, but the winner turned out to be the original filling cream puff. As Lindsey wrote in the writeup: "Beard Papa knows what he's doing."
Char Dog at Gold Coast Dogs ($3.79)
It has absolutely no atmosphere to speak of, but the char dog at Gold Coast Dogs is an excellent introduction to the world of Chicago-style hot dogs. The ends are sliced, so that when tossed on the hot grill they flare out wildly.
Milanesa Torta at Tortas Frontera ($8.95)
Frontera Fresco isn't the only Rick Bayless concept in the Loop. In fact, just two blocks west in the basement of the Chase Tower is Tortas Frontera. Joe checked it out soon after opening earlier this year, and had this to say:
"The Milanesa ($8.95) features a "crispy-crunchy chicken breast," pickled jalapeños, Chihuahua cheese, cilantro crema, and avocado, all pressed between a wide, flat bolillo roll. It's an engaging balance of flavors and textures: the crunch of the moist, panko-crusted chicken contrasts with the smooth, citrusy crema, while the rich avocado coats your tongue before the spicier-than-expected jalapeños get a few jabs in at the end."
Cubano at Cafecito ($5.49)
Chicago has some great Cuban restaurants far from downtown, but one Loop joint is managing to dish out what may be the best cuban sandwich of them all. It's so good Dennis even included it in his favorite five bites of 2011:
"I still daydream about this thing. It's pretty simple, featuring roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and yellow mustard. It's pressed while being grilled, which makes it flat, crisp, and dense. There's a deep flavor to the roast pork, the familiar taste of hot ham, melted cheese, and the vinegar from the pickles and mustard makes the entire thing a masterpiece."
Sergio's Special at Hannah's Bretzel ($8.89)
Pretty much all the options from Hannah's Bretzel are worth exploring, but Dennis picked his favorite on a recent Lunch in the Loop post:
"The Sergio's Special ($8.89) is one of my favorite sandwiches on the menu. Salty French Madrange ham is paired with relatively dry and nutty gruyere, which are both countered with just a bit of sweet mango chutney. The surprising addition of sliced pickled jalapeños cuts through the rest of the flavors."
Classic Burger at Marc Burger ($7.95)
Sure, the restaurant's namesake burger, the Marc Burger, is one massive meal, but it also costs $12.95, making it slightly out of range for our cheap eats list. Luckily, you can still score the plenty big classic burger ($7.95). Featuring a freshly grilled 6-ounce patty, lettuce, tomato, homemade pickles, and a great bun, this is a great deal.
Mushroom Tofu Ramen at Noodles by Takashi ($9.95)
Noodles By Takashi Yagihashi is located in the same seventh floor food court as Marc Burger and Frontera Fresco, and it's another winner. In fact, the mushroom tofu ramen is so good we included it at number four in our list of the best ramen in Chicago.
Noodles By Takashi Yagihashi, 111 North State Street, Chicago, IL 60602 (map); 312-781-4483