Serious Eats: Chicago
Lunch in the Loop: Cheap Rewards at Mr. Submarine
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 thing about my winter lunch choices in downtown Chicago is that they're highly dependent on the weather. If it's a nice winter day, I think: "Oh, hey, it's not too bad out, might as well take a stroll." If it's below 20°F out, then I think: "I'll eat anything as long as I don't die from either the weather or the food." When I picked Mr. Submarine for lunch, it was 17°F out with some pretty serious wind, and the only thought in my head as soon as I stepped out the door was a four letter word, over and over again. Well, technically it was two four letter words. One of them was "food." The other word also started with an F.
Now that I've bored you with the worst story ever, Mr. Submarine's Loop outpost actually happens to be right around the corner from my temp office, making it a pretty easy choice. Plus, after having lived here in Chicago for over ten years now, I figured I finally had to give it a try. According to their website, there's 27 of them in the Chicagoland area, and I've driven by them lots of times. I just never went in.
Mr. Submarine specializes in avant-garde one-bite lunches featuring exotic game meats. Naw, I'm just messing with you. They serve sub sandwiches. But not just any sub sandwiches, they serve really, really, cheap sub sandwiches. Case in point? The steakburger sub sandwich ($3.49 for regular). All the regular-sized sandwiches are 7", which is plenty of food for the price.
The closest approximation I can give for the steakburger sub is that it's kind of like a McRib. Just like a McRib likes to pretend it's a rib, the steakburger is a rectangular ground beef product that's pretending to be something fancier. It even has a similar consistency to the McRib, as well as the same guilty pleasure you get from eating one too. The salty pressed ground meat is a little chewier than a regular burger, and with the spongy and chewy sesame-seed roll, it also tastes, well, like a classic sub sandwich.
The ham sandwich ($3.49 for regular) isn't anything special—the ham is of the spongy, watery variety, with not too much flavor other than salt. If you ask for everything on your sandwich, they'll douse your torpedo with a bunch of sub dressing (oil and vinegar) so just be warned that your hands will probably smell like a sandwich shop for the rest of the day.
The namesake sub, the Mr. Submarine ($3.24 for regular) is filled with ham, salami, and spiced ham. I thought I'd like this better than the plain ham sandwich, but the spiced ham has adds a faint sweet spice (think cinnamon or allspice) that is distracting. But a full sandwich for $3.24 is outrageously cheap in downtown Chicago, so if you're hurting for your next paycheck (we've all been there), you could do worse.
The chili ($2.69 for small) is under seasoned, but it's not terrible, either. You could take it or leave it, but I did notice there's a generous amount of beef in each serving, which is good.
Even though the food at Mr. Submarine isn't necessarily the greatest, it's also not the worst, either. There's times when we all need a cheap, fast, and filling bite for when our wallets get thin. In fact, the total of all three sandwiches and that cup of chili ran me a whopping $14.65. That's three meals worth of food, and somehow, that makes everything taste a lot better.
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.