Double M Burger at M Burger ($4.99)
River North is the land of gargantuan steakhouse burgers, the kind that require a serious investment to enjoy. The great exception is M Burger, which griddles up fresh beef with a minimum of fuss or pretension. The single cheeseburger ($3.49) makes for a nice snack, but if you need to quell some serious hunger, go for the Double M Burger ($4.99).
Just About Everything at Portillo's
Of all the hot dogs in the area, no other satisfies in quite the same way as Portillo's fully loaded Chicago dog ($2.45). Perhaps it's the unique blend from Vienna Beef, but the natural casing dogs pack an extra beefy punch with each bite. We're also fans of the overloaded Italian Beef ($4.85) and its slightly sinister cousin, the Beef-N-Cheddar Croissant ($4.99). If you need a break from all the beef, the grilled tuna sandwich ($4.99) is surprisingly good. And no visit is complete with a chocolate cake shake ($1.95). So, yeah: it's hard to go wrong here.
Serrano Ham Bocadillo at Barcito ($4)
One of the best items at Barcito is also one of the simplest and cheapest: the serrano ham bocadillo is nothing more than toasted bread rubbed with tomato and topped with thinly sliced serrano and manchego cheese. Thanks to the tomato, the crackly bread has just the right amount of tartness to stand up to the fatty meat and salty cheese. Read more here >>
Buttermilk Old Fashioned Doughnut at The Doughnut Vault ($2)
When has $2 ever bought you such joy? The offerings from The Doughnut Vault may cost more than your usual bakers dozen, but even with the bad hours and notoriously long lines, each and every gloriously fried circle of dough is a bargain. Plus, to help sweeten the deal, Metropolis coffee only costs a dollar.
The Doughnut Vault, 400 North Franklin Street, Chicago, Illinois 60654 (map)
Italian Beef at Mr. Beef ($6.50)
Mr. Beef is a classic in River North, but after a visit a few years ago to find the best Italian beef in Chicago a group of us believed its best days were probably behind it. Luckily, thats not the case. A recent visit showcased a beef that was juicy and extra beefy, with a distinctive black pepper kick. The giardiniera still kind of sucks, but that's a small price to pay for such a great version.
Mr. Beef, 666 North Orleans Street, Chicago, IL 60654 (map); 312-337-8500; mrbeefonorleans.com
Duck Fat Fried Chicken at Slurping Turtle ($9)
It's hard to think of visiting Slurping Turtle without trying one of the exquisite bowls of ramen, but if you're truly serious about staying under that $10 mark you'll have to look elsewhere on the menu. Again, the grilled items look enticing, and they are good, but to find real bang for your buck look for the duck fat fried chicken. The extra crispy coating gives way to a supremely moist interior, making it one of the best examples of fried chicken around.
Pork Belly and Kimchi Sliders from GT Fish & Oyster ($4)
"What better than the sharpness of the kimchi to cut through the fattiness of the pork belly? At GT Fish & Oyster, they sandwich this delectable duo between a buttery slider bun and finish it with crushed peanuts. For something so small to taste so good, it's no surprise that they goes through upwards of 3000 Pork Belly and Kimchi Sliders ($4) a month. On top of that, if you happen swing by the restaurant in the evening, they also prepare fried oyster sliders, too." Read more here >>
Grilled Cheese at Grahamwich ($7)
"Between the hunks of chewy cheese curds and the buttery crisp on the sliced pullman loaf, this sandwich sits solidly on the indulgent end of the grilled cheese spectrum. I have never understood sliced tomatoes on a grilled cheese—I mean if you're going to go all out and eat a meal comprised of cheese, bread, and butter, why ruin it with some wet tomato slices? But in this case, the tomato relish provides a bright sweetness that regular slices of tomato just can't accomplish." Read more here >>
Chicken Salad Sandwich at Snarf's ($5.50 for 5")
"With generous heaps of mayo-laden pulled chicken (caveat: mayo haters, this sammy isn't for you), a well-balanced spicy and acidic giardiniera (proprietary recipe) and ice cold tomato slices, onions, and lettuce, you wouldn't think that it would get any better... but it does. The warm, crunchy, and chewy baguette seals the deal as one of my favorite renditions of chicken salad in Chicago—sorry Potbelly's." Read more here >>
Woodland Mushroom Torta at Xoco ($9.50)
Most of the torta's at Xoco are over the $10 mark. Luckily, one of the very best just makes the cut. Here's what Roger had to say about the torta:
From the crisp bread, to the juicy, garlicky mushrooms, to the creamy goat cheese, this sandwich is packed with big flavors and achieves a superb balance of textures. The woodland mushroom torta also includes black beans (be sure to request the vegetarian ones when ordering; the cashiers usually ask which you want), a handful of spicy arugula, and a small dish of three-chile salsa for dipping. In a crowd of tortas featuring pork carnitas, chorizo, braised shortribs and the like, this filling and robustly flavored mushroom sandwich manages to more than hold its own. Every Xoco fan—herbivore or otherwise—should give this torta a spin.
Buffalo Bar-rito at Protein Bar ($7.29)
"For someone who has a a taste for all things Buffalo'ed, this wrap satisfies my oft-recurring craving without all the butter typical in a Buffalo sauce. Protein Bar's house-made vegan Buffalo sauce, while a little thin, packs heat. And I really like the blue cheese; it's bright and creamy with just the right amount of mouth-watering kick you want in a good blue cheese. The quinoa, for its part, does everything rice would do and more. It's moist, nutty, and fluffy, and each tiny kernel provides a popping crunch not unlike fish roe." Read more here >>
Epic Burger at Epic Burger ($5.99)
Chicken Salad at Brett's Kitchen ($6.75)
When's the last time anyone was enthused about a chicken salad sandwich? So often bland and wet, thanks to way much too mayonnaise, it's one of the sandwiches that's hard to remember ever tasting right. To spruce things up, some delis simple add random ingredients, like curry powder, to help it all go down. But the version at Brett's Kitchen avoids anything extraneous or trendy. It's juicy hunks of chicken tossed with just enough mayonnaise to help it stick together. Something of a revelation, I never knew doing the basics right with the sandwich could make it taste so good.
Portabella and Goat Cheese at Hannah's Bretzel ($8.59)
"My favorite vegetarian sandwich at Hannah's is the portabella and goat cheese, which is presented on the crustier, seed-filled whole grain bread. Juicy slices of portobello mushroom caps, rosemary-ed asparagus, roasted red peppers, baby arugula, white truffle oil, and spreadable goat cheese tucked between the halves. Texturally, the crunch of the asparagus spear pairs well with the easily forgiving marinated mushroom. The creamy, salty goat cheese brings in the mellowing, palate-coating element of dairy that slows your eating and encourages you to savor eat bite. Don't fight it." Read more here >>
Cha Soba at Ai Japanese Restaurant & Lounge ($9.50)
And squeezing in just under the $10 mark is the cha soba from Ai Japanese Restaurant & Lounge. Here's what Roger had to say about it: "The cha soba at Ai Japanese Restaurant & Lounge makes a strong case for small flavors. Not small in the sense of bland, but quiet—like secrets told through whispers. This bowl of delicate noodles and gossamer broth compels you to tune in, to listen closely to the hushed harmony." Read more here >>
Turkey Breast Sandwich at Potbelly ($4.60)
When we hunkered down with a box o' sandwiches to try every single offering at Potbelly , we knew certain sandwiches would be better than others. And there's no doubt you'll be happy with A Wreck or the smoked ham. But the one that surprised us the most was the plain-looking turkey breast sandwich. Flavorful but never overbearing, it's a strangely satisfying choice.
Falafel at Mezza Mediterranean Grill ($5.49)
"For a chain, Mezza gets a lot of the details right: its hot sauce is actually hot and tangy, its black olives are nice and pungent, and the feta is creamy and rich. Mezza's falafel isn't mind-blowing by any means, but it is very tasty, fresh, and consistently good. In the midst of more questionable foodstuffs in the Merchandise Mart, those are extremely welcome qualities." Read more here >>
Spare Rib at Union Sushi + Barbque Bar ($6)
Sure, a number of joints around the area serve skewers for under ten bucks, but most are little more than a two bite snacks. Often the only effect these have is to make me hungrier. But the grilled spare rib at Union Sushi + Barbecue Bar is something else entirely. Big, fat, and meaty, this item actually has the chance of quelling some serious hunger pangs.
Big & Little's Fish Taco ($3.50)
Though technically just outside the River North boundary, or so says Google Maps, Big & Little's is close and popular enough to make the list. A few months ago I set about trying to eat all the tacos on the menu. I failed, but I did find a series of great choices. My favorite is probably the eponymous taco, which features fried whitefish. At the time, I called it one of the best fish tacos in the city, and that still stands.
The Artisan Cellar's Artisan Cellar Sandwich ($7.50)
"You can tell the folks at the Artisan Cellar are proud of this sandwich—they named it after their shop, for one thing. And rightly so, this hearty stack of imported Italian meats and tangy spreads, tucked between fresh and crispy pressed bread, should be a role model for lesser panini to look up to." Read more here >>
Churros and Hot Chocolate at Xoco ($6.25)
Sure, we already included a torta from here, but when it comes to cheap meals in River North, it's hard to think of any meal as satisfying as an order of Xoco's freshly fried churros and freshly roasted and ground hot chocolate. Both are seemingly simple items transformed into crave-inducing wonders. It's hard to explain quite how great both are, but you'll just have to find out for yourself.