Serious Eats: Chicago
Lunch in the Loop: BenjYehuda
Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
The first thing you'll notice when you step up to the entrance of BenjYehuda is the giant wolf logo on the glass doors. It's howling, just like your stomach during lunch rush. BenjYehuda describes itself as serving "Urban Street Food" with the same vibe you can find on Ben Yehuda street in Jerusalem. The restaurant is designed sparsely with an industrial warehouse feel, and at first it's sort of hard to tell what you're getting yourself into. But when you see the rotating spits of shawarma in the back, you know that good things are coming.
If you're a curious sort of person and want to try pretty much everything in one go, BenjYehuda offers the Yehuda Flight ($7.29), which features three miniature pitas, each stuffed with a different filling, including chicken shawarma, steak shawarma, and falafel. Each comes topped with shredded cucumber salad, tahini, and pickles, though as you can see from my photo, you can ask for some extra salad choices. You also get a hefty pile of deeply golden fries (more on those later).
In my opinion, this is the best value on the menu. Not only do you get a pretty big helping of each type of filling, you also get a pile of fries, and this is easily two meals worth of food. But just to forewarn you, while those tiny pitas are small and cute, much like yours truly, they fall apart quickly, so just make sure you eat with a slight hunch, especially if you're wearing your "power meeting pants."
My personal favorite is the chicken shawarma; it's got a yellow curry hue with the proper flavor to match, and is cut into little manageable chunks. It can be a touch dry, but with a stack of crunchy and fresh salad on top, it's a detail that you can easily overlook. I'm a big fan of the pickles in particular—they're a little soft, but tart enough to dial some sharp flavor into every bite.
Along with the pitas and laffas, you can also order your meal in a box on top a bed of romaine, for you calorie conscious, as well as a bed of rice. The falafel box ($6.49) is a neatly composed box of falafel and pretty much whatever sides and toppings you want piled in there too. There's ten topping/salad options in total, but my favorites are the carrot salad, the red cabbage, and the corn salad (try them piled on the hummus with hot sauce). The heavily parsleyed falafel is of a coarser chickpea grind with a thick, robust, and crunchy exterior, giving way to a relatively crumbly piece.
When you step up to the counter to order your lunch, it's hard not to notice the rotating upright spits of chicken and steak in back. The steak laffa ($7.49) comes on a flatbread much like a pita. I've met a variety of laffas during my tenure here at Lunch in the Loop. There's thin flour tortilla-like laffa, and then there's the thicker, pita type, and the thick one is the style currently being served at BenjYehuda. The thin strips of cumin and curry-spiced steak are a little chewy, but again, with the ten fresh choices you can use to top it off, it's a detail that's not a dealbreaker.
Now, the fries ($1.79 for 1 pound). The fries, the fries, the fries. These are really something—they're a relatively larger cut and are crispy with a uniformly thick and crunchy exterior, perhaps a little oilier than most, but they give way to a fluffy and pillowy potato center. Order the Merkt's cheddar ($0.99 per cup) which comes on the side, not on top, and your coworkers will be hovering over you like lunch vultures looking to get any fry that they think you've forgotten. That's when you break out a quick hand slap of justice to bat them away. They're that addictive. Then they'll fear your wrath over your fried potato sticks, as these are easily some of the best in the Loop. Anybody feelin' me on this one?
I do want to point out one of my favorite items on the overhead menu. I've never ordered it. It's a 1/2 pound bag of plain falafel balls you can order à la carte, and while that sounds innocuous in and of itself, it's called...wait for it...wait for it...the ball sac (sic). Yes, I'm 12. Apparently I will always be 12, because I haven't stopped laughing at it yet.
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.