Slideshow: Chicago Chain Restaurants That Don't Suck

Potbelly Sandwich Shop
Potbelly Sandwich Shop

Turkey Sandwich at Potbelly [Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

"First opened in Lincoln Park back in 1977, this toasted sandwich purveyor now has over 240 locations across the country, including a few overseas. But Potbelly never lost its Chicago focus, and it's hard to walk more than a couple blocks in the Loop without coming face to face with one. Not that I'm complaining. Potbelly offers a surprisingly consistent sandwich experience, probably due to the fact that it toasts each order, à la Quizno's (a comparison that is slightly unfair since Potbelly is technically older)." Read more here >>

Potbelly Locations

Portillo's
Portillo's

Chicago-Style Hot Dog at Portillo's [Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

"Portillo's is a local chain (though there are a few outlets in other states), and that it has a hot dog history as colorful and authentic as Gene and Jude's. Basically, it goes like this: In 1963 Dick Portillo converted a six by twelve foot trailer into the Dog House in Villa Park. Fast forward fifty years, and after a name change, lots of hard work, and some savvy business sense, Portillo's is now the 'largest privately owned restaurant company in the Midwest.' (If you want the full history, click here.)" Read more here >>

"You can scratch a shocking number of essential Chicago street food classics off your list with a stop by Portillo's. Need to try a Chicago-style hot dog? They have one of the best. Want to sample the Italian beef that won our 'Best in City' honors? It's here. Hungry for a grilled Polish sausage covered in caramelized onions? Don't pass this one up. Thirsty for a Chocolate cake shake? Oh, well, that's not on most lists, but you should get it anyway." Read more here >>

Portillo's Locations

Al's Beef
Al's Beef

Italian Beef at Al's Beef [Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

"It's not quite as good as the original Al's #1 Italian Beef on Taylor, but the Italian beef at this local chain is still an excellent introduction to the sandwich. Hot giardiniera is a must. Actually, the natural casing hot dog is also awesome, making this a great one-stop shop if you're looking to experience some classic Chicago street food in the Loop." Read more here >>

Al's Beef Locations

Harold's Chicken Shack
Harold's Chicken Shack

1/2 Mix Chicken Dinner at Harold's Chicken Shack [Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

I almost didn't include Harold's, because even though there are loads of locations with the name, most operate with a lot of freedom. And isn't consistency, even the banal kind, the essential hallmark of a chain? (For a far more in-depth explanation, definitely check out Mike Sula's extensive feature on the subject from 2006 in the Chicago Reader.) But then I realized it's impossible to discuss chains in Chicago and not mention this place, especially since most locations serve a truly excellent product.

Here's an excerpt from a review I did in 2010, which nicely sums up what I think:

"When the words 'fried chicken' are uttered in Chicago, it's a fair bet that the name Harold's Chicken Shack will usually follow. It's the most famous purveyor of chicken in the city with over 62 outlets, all of which have randomly assigned numbers that don't seem to correspond to anything. (The original is oddly titled #11.) Harold's Chicken Shack is the perfect example of a family-owned business that keeps quality controls high. Harold's chicken is tossed with seasoned flour, which comes out shatteringly crisp and blessedly ungreasy, with meat that's wonderfully moist. I was especially taken with the breast meat—it had a shockingly white appearance, near Mr. Clean white, and was not a bit dry." Read more here >>

Harold's Chicken Shack Locations

Protein Bar
Protein Bar

Buffalo Bar-rito at Protein Bar [Photograph: Roger Kamholz]

"Step into any of the Protein Bar locations slung across downtown Chicago, and the context clues are hard to miss: the tornado-whir of high-powered blenders pulverizing ingredients into earthen-colored smoothies; wall-mounted menu boards complete with nutritional information and calorie counts; and the slender, peaceful-looking ladies toting their yoga mats. Yep, you've ventured into health-food country. But it's OK, no need proceed with caution—the food is good." Read more here >>

Protein Bar Locations

Wow Bao
Wow Bao

Vegetable Bao from Wow Bao [Photograph: Roger Kamholz]

"Wow Bao, which is owned by Lettuce Entertain You, is an office staple of ours, because it's quick, easy, and portable. We can't be the only ones in the Loop to feel that way. There are now three locations in the area, which doesn't include the one in River North and the Bao Mobile. The signage just above the door says just three words: 'Hot Asian Buns,' (which, coincidentally, is my secret nickname for myself), and those three words are all you need to know. Bao are little steamed buns, typically made with a spongy and puffy wheat and yeast dough and are usually filled with meat or vegetables." Read more here >>

Wow Bao Locations

Intelligentsia
Intelligentsia

A V60 pourover of Kenya Kangocho at Intelligentsia [Photograph: Liz Clayton]

Though this Chicago chain now has locations in both Los Angeles and New York, each new outlet has its own unique style. The only thing you can count on is a flawless cup of coffee. I'm quite partial to the gorgeous coffee bar in Logan Square, mostly because I live nearby, but also because I love watching each cup of coffee being constructed right in front me.

Read more here >>

Intelligentsia Locations

Tortas Frontera
Tortas Frontera

Chorizo and Egg Torta at Tortas Frontera [Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

"The quick-service torta joint is a great way to experience Rick Bayless's restaurant empire for cheap. I'm definitely not the only one to recommend a stop. Kenji had this to say about the chorizo and egg torta: 'Not only was this the finest bit of food I've had at an airport, it sits proudly in the upper echelon of breakfast tortas I've had anywhere.'" Read more here >>

Tortas Frontera Locations

M Burger
M Burger

Double M Burger at M Burger [Photograph: Huge Galdones]

"M Burger griddles up fresh beef with a minimum of fuss or pretension, making it one of the best fast food-style burgers around. 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)." Read more here >>

M Burger Locations

Epic Burger
Epic Burger

[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

"Like M Burger, Epic Burger is a local chain that does things right. The burgers here are slightly bigger, but they are beautifully smashed on the griddle just the same. We also rather enjoy the fries." Read more here >>

Epic Burger Locations

Falafill
Falafill

Falafel bowl at Falafill [Photograph: Amy Cavanaugh]

"There are a surprising number of falafel joints in the Loop, each with its own identity. One of the newest, and best, is Falafill, which stands apart with its crispy falafel balls and fresh salad and condiment bar." Read more here >>

Falafill Locations
I Dream of Falafel‎
I Dream of Falafel‎

Falafel at I Dream of Falafel‎ [Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

"I Dream of Falafel's namesake dish is well-seasoned with a wonderful chickpea flavor. The pickles lend acid, the salad provides crunch, and everything else compliments the falafel. It's all housed on a laffa instead of pita, which is a surprisingly good carrying case. It's so good, the sandwich came in first in our look at The Best Falafel Sandwich in the Loop." Read more here >>

I Dream of Falafel Locations