Chicago's Best Cheap Ethnic Joints, A Quick Guide

Ed Levine made ethnic and cheap eats safe for America, or at least New Yorkers, anyway. In some ways, his seminal work, New York Eats, put pastrami and pizza on the same table as foie and truffles. It's precisely why I've been excited to contribute to this site, as my personal philosophy is that haute cuisine and the antiquated starred review system panders to people who are more likely to equate the cost of a meal with the quality of a meal, the same people who shove food in their mouth but never taste it, the folks rocking mediocre Cristal because that's what Jay Z clued them in to. I believe that the Italian beef sandwich should be as vaunted as a Waygu beef, and that's why I'm here. So in the vein of Mr. Levine, I've put together a short primer below on some of Chicago's truly best and relatively cheap ethnic joints that are as relevant as our four-star palaces like Alinea and Charlie Trotter's.

Taqueria Puebla | 3619 W. North Avenue, Chicago IL 60647 [map]
20070920puebla.jpgAt Taqueria Puebla, the ceilings are plastered with Mexican soccer and vintage Oscar De La Hoya boxing posters and the errant hockey trading card or two. The door mounted air condition hosts a garland of dried garlic, and there's a subtle dinginess to the otherwise clean dining room. The spot might look like any other taqueria, of which there are thousands in Chicago, but it's truly one of the most authentic. I wrote about their Taco's Arabes this month for Saveur (, but I didn't get an opportunity to discuss their other specialty, the Cemita.

The Cemita Milaneza reflects the melting pot of Puebla, which was settled not only by indigenous cultures, but by Northern Italians. It's a sesame-crusted bun filled with a thin breaded pork chop, papalo--a leafy green similar to cilantro but with a much bigger herby bouquet--smoky chipotle peppers in adobo sauce and a mozzarella-like string cheese, queso Oaxaca. The sandwich is an Italian-Mexican fusion that resembles a smoky spicy veal Parmesan sandwich. The papalo is grown in the Anteliz backyard, the Cemita rolls are baked fresh by a local baker according to a traditional recipe, and the owners travel to Puebla, Mexico every two weeks, bringing back local chipotle peppers (commercial brands fall apart in the restaurant's adobo marinade) and queso Oaxaca from a small Poblano town called Chipilo.

Sabri Nehari | 2502 1/2 West Devon Avenue, Chicago IL 60659 [map] If you're looking for a bit of brain, you won't find a better version in Chicago than the sauteed creamy masala, studded with fragrant ginger, pungent garlic, and spicy chilis, served here. Or you're taking a break from a recent appearance on Fear Factor, the house special, Sabri Nehari, is like the ultimate Pakistani pot roast--a fork tender beef braised in a succulent, fennel-infused sauce studded with fragrant ginger and spicy shaved jalapenos. Whole roasted chicken charga bathed in tandoori spice, or dal laden in thick ghee are also satisfying.

Khan BBQ | 2401 West Devon Avenue, Chicago IL 60659 [map]
20070920khan.jpgLocated down the street from Sabri Nehari on Chicago's Indian and Pakistani Broadway, Devon Ave, you'll find the path to tandoor nirvana. Owner Amjad Khan who never cooked a day in his life before immigrating to America, relies on his sense memory to make the food of his youth. Chicken boti, with flakes of char from the natural-wood-charcoal-fired tandoor and neon green streaks from crushed peppers, is crispy and succulent. Seekh kababs, skewered round cylinders of ground beef, onion and coriander, are crunchy outside and moist inside here. Khan's Karai gosht, a thick brown curry of braised lamb shank gets sopped up nicely with the house naan, a blistered carmelized pillow of chewy interior and crunchy crust.

Spring World | 2109 South China Place, Chicago IL 60616 [map]
20070920springworld.jpgThere may be no such thing as a free lunch, but at Spring World for $3.95, you get a cup of broth, enough rice to feed the Red Army, and a choice of two entrees including Ma Po Tofu in a zingy red chili sauce dotted with fermented black beans, or Kung Pao chicken studded with red chilis, bright scallions, and wafer thin slices of ginger - the best in the city. Spring World strength though is its Yunnan-style cuisine. Yunnan province, with frigid Himalayan peaks in the north and tropical river basins in the southwest, is one of most climatically diverse provinces in China. As a result, it is home to 600 of the world's 2,000 known edible mushrooms including familiar fungi like Shitake, Porcini, and Oyster, and more obscure versions like Black Diamond and Wooden Ear. The Beef and Special Mushrooms dish is a good way to sample the earthy cuisine.

Spoon Thai | 4608 N. Western Avenue, Chicago IL 60625 [map] Their Kai thawt, or thai fried chicken, which has a glistening mahogany crust flecked with lemongrass and chiles, made me kick the bucket forever. A few years ago, one of Chicago's intrepid foodies translated the Thai "regulars" menu into English, and so instead of being forced to gorge on another heaping bowl of cloying pad thai, American regulars have their choice of authentic eats like limey banana blossom salad, funky fermented Issan sausage, jungle curries that'll blow your head off, and néua tàet dìaw, or rich jerky style meat served with a tamarind dipping sauce.