Sergio's Special at Hannah's Bretzel ($8.89)
The Sergio's Special ($8.89) is one of the best sandwiches on the menu. Salty French Madrange ham is paired with relatively dry and nutty gruyere, which are both countered with just a bit of sweet mango chutney. The surprising addition of sliced pickled jalapeños cuts through the rest of the flavors.
Mushroom Tofu Ramen at Noodles by Takashi ($9.95)
Noodles By Takashi Yagihashi is located in the same seventh floor food court as Marc Burger and Frontera Fresco, and it's another winner. In fact, the mushroom tofu ramen is so good we included it at number four in our list of the best ramen in Chicago.
Noodles By Takashi Yagihashi, 111 North State Street, Chicago, IL 60602 (map); 312-781-4483
Italian Beef at U.B. Dogs ($5.45)
The Italian Beef at U.B. Dogs uses freshly roasted beef—an all too rare sight these days. The slices are thicker than at a place like Al's #1 Italian Beef, but each piece is also juicer and more substantial. I would have liked a little more gravy, but I am nit picking here. When loaded with giardiniera, this Italian beef could stand up to most in the city, making it easily the best version of the overloaded sandwich in the Loop.
U.B. Dogs, 185 N. Franklin St., Chicago, IL 60606 (map)
Chipotle Chicken Tamale at Frontera Fresco ($3.95)
I honestly wasn't expecting a whole lot from Rick Bayless's quick-service outlet in Macy's. I assumed more care and attention was paid to the huaraches and tacos than anything as time consuming as tamales. I was wrong. The tamales at Fronera Fresco might actually be the highlight of the whole menu. Fragrant and light, they are beautifully presented and garnished with some remarkable salsa.
Buffalo Bar-rito at Protein Bar ($7.29)
Protein Bar's grilled Buffalo bar-rito ($7.29) has become a staple order of mine since the chain popped up in River North last year. 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. (The Buffalo bar-rito, with its standard all-natural chicken, like all menu items that come with meat, can easily be made vegetarian by asking for tofu instead.)
Turkey Sandwich at Potbelly ($4.60)
I went back and forth and whether I should pick the Wreck or the Turkey sandwich from Potbelly's, but since the former usually gets the most attention, I decided to go with this one. It may be basic and straightforward, but it's oddly appealing. Instead of slimy cold cuts, the turkey is fresh and flavorful. All the elements work well, and it's probably best not to go overboard with extras, though some hot peppers should be required.
Pistachio-Meyer Lemon Doughnut from Do-Rite Donuts ($2.75)
If it's available, go for the pistachio-Meyer lemon doughnut. Out of the flavors sampled, it was the most balanced: a bright, citrus glaze holds the toasted pistachios perfectly in place, but isn't too sweet as to overwhelm the actual taste of the old-fashioned doughnut itself. Unlike the cinnamon crumble doughnut, which was much too spongy and soft, the dough of the pistachio-lemon variety is the proper chewiness and stands up formidably to the hefty toppings of nuts.
Le Breton at Toni Patisserie & Cafe ($7.50)
Though it opened back in August, the charming Toni Patisserie and Café feels like it's been in the Loop for years. That's probably due to the focused menu of French classics that will never go out of fashion. Take the Le Breton ($7.50), which is basically just a ham sandwich with salted butter and cornichons. That's it. But thanks to the baguette that is at once soft and crackly, the those three ingredients are all you really need. Sure, you could add some gruyere cheese for a dollar, but that just seems like overkill.
Cubano At Cafecito ($5.49)
The ingredients work together beautifully—there's subtly spiced roast pork, two layers of ham, acidic pickle slices, piquant mustard, and Swiss cheese that melts into every crevice. It's all layered between two yeasty slices of bread that are pressed together to create a dense sandwich.
Single Cheeseburger at M Burger ($3.49)
For a couple years now, M Burger has operated a couple of establishments in River North, but the Loop lunch crowd finally got the chance to call one their own with this location in the Thompson Center. It features the same stripped down menu, but it somehow tastes better when you don't have to trek across the river to visit.
BBQ Pork Bun at Wow Bao ($1.59)
Half-Chicken Order at Chicken Planet ($5.47)
If you couldn't figure it out by the name, all the restaurant serves is chicken—grilled chicken, that is. If you peek in the storefront in the morning, you'll see the huge grill covered entirely in whole butterflied chickens. With all this in mind, you have lots of choices and they are all cheap! Seriously! The half-chicken order was a whopping $5.47. Quarter chicken plates are also available for just over four dollars. It's not the moistest chicken around, but the charred flavor from the grill is great. You can mix dark and white meat, go all dark, go all white, and no, this isn't the beginning of a Chris Rock joke.
Banana Pudding at Magnolia Bakery ($4.75 For 12 Ounces)
Perhaps the second most well-known sweet from Magnolia Bakery is their thick and decadent Banana Pudding. Why this isn't the first, I'll never know. The ultra-creamy texture of the pudding is interrupted with small chunks of banana and, best of all, Nilla Wafers that turn to tender cake after bathing in the pudding for a day or two.
Falafel at I Dream of Falafel ($6.40)
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.
The Fries at BenjYehuda ($1.79)
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.
The Blockbuster at Fontano's ($5.50 for 6")
The very first sandwich on the menu is the Blockbuster, and it's up top for a reason; this is a bold sandwich, featuring layers of ham, salami, capocollo, provolone, and Swiss. When piled together, these meats are admittedly difficult to discern from each other, but what you do get is a dense, salty, meaty, Italian sub. The shamelessly fat-flecked meat is rich and cradled in a Gonella sandwich roll, which makes the whole thing chewy in a good way.
Fontano's Subs, 20 E. Jackson, Chicago IL 60604(map); 312-663-3061
Italian Beef at Al's #1 Italian Beef ($5.99)
It's not the absolute pinnacle of the Italian beef arts, but the version you can score at this outlet of Al's #1 Italian Beef is still one mighty fine sandwich. Getting it dipped is the only way to go, but just make sure to be careful when eating, as a mess is absolutely guaranteed. I should note that you can also get a very good natural casing Chicago-style hot dog here, though it is only slightly less messy.
Milanesa Torta at Tortas Frontera ($8.95)
Frontera Fresco isn't the only Rick Bayless concept in the Loop. In fact, just two blocks west in the basement of the Chase Tower is Tortas Frontera. Joe checked it out soon after opening earlier this year, and had this to say:
"The Milanesa ($8.95) features a "crispy-crunchy chicken breast," pickled jalapeños, Chihuahua cheese, cilantro crema, and avocado, all pressed between a wide, flat bolillo roll. It's an engaging balance of flavors and textures: the crunch of the moist, panko-crusted chicken contrasts with the smooth, citrusy crema, while the rich avocado coats your tongue before the spicier-than-expected jalapeños get a few jabs in at the end."
Fried Chicken Wings Micky's Chicken and Fish
The fish is good, but you really visit Micky's Chicken and Fish for the chicken ($7.95 for 3 wings/fingers). Those beauties on top are the chicken wings. The crust is sublimely salty, crunchy, moist, and oily (in a good way) wing. All chicken orders come with barbecue sauce, which is the overly sweet and vinegary tomato-based kind, which is actually perfect for the fattiness of these wings. Mix the barbecue sauce with the hot sauce, and you're a pro.
Micky's Chicken and Fish, 408 S. Clark, Chicago IL 60605 (map); 312-566-0406
The Ghetto Burger at Peppers ($5.25)
The Ghetto Burger uses a quarter pound patty of fresh beef that is grilled and then topped with bacon, American cheese, grilled onions, chili, and mustard. If you're in corporate sales and you wear nice clothes to work, you may want to invest in a bib, or a really fashionable tarp. It is a really messy beast, but it packs a ton of impressive flavor, mostly thanks to the deeply flavored Coney-style chili. The bacon and grilled onions get lost in the chili, but the yellow mustard is a perfect foil to the heavier components, coming through with a slightly vinegary bite that polishes the whole thing off.
Peppers, 211 West Van Buren St, Chicago, IL 60607 (map); 312-566-9296
Chicago Mix at Garrett's Popcorn
Something strange happens when you mix the CaramelCrisp® and CheeseCorn™ together evenly. Garrett's dubs this the Chicago Mix, and it's a huge seller because it's salty and sweet, a combination one of my coworkers said "shouldn't work, but it does," as he took down a giant mouthful.
Char Dog at Gold Coast Dogs ($3.79)
It has absolutely no atmosphere to speak of, but the char dog at Gold Coast Dogs is an excellent introduction to the world of Chicago-style hot dogs. The ends are sliced, so that when tossed on the hot grill they flare out wildly.
Original Shell Cream Puff at Beard Papa's ($2.00, for one)
We ate all of the cream puffs at Beard Papa's so you don't have to. There are a number of surprisingly good options, along with a couple duds, but the winner turned out to be the original filling cream puff. As Lindsey wrote in the writeup: "Beard Papa knows what he's doing."
Turkey Sandwich at Jaffa Bakery ($5.95)
Jaffa's turkey sandwich ($5.95) is priced well, and you can specify whether you'd like white meat, dark meat, or a mix. Only then is the meat cut off the bird. Along with the standard toppings like lettuce, tomato, mayo, mustard, and cheese, you can also get... cranberry sauce! Oh, man. It's the perfect addition to the big round flavor of the turkey, and with a touch of mayo, a leaf of lettuce, and a slice of tomato, you've got Thanksgiving leftovers without having to deal with a giant mess in your own kitchen.
Jaffa Bakery, 186 W Van Buren St, Chicago, IL 60604(map); 312-322-9007
Falafel Sandwich at Oasis Cafe ($3.99)
One of the best kept secrets in the Loop, which also happens to be incredibly close to Grant Park, is Oasis Cafe. It's located in the back of a jewelry shop, so you'll have to pass some enticing options on the walk, but you'll be rewarded with one of the cheapest and most delicious lunches around. The falafel sandwich came in second place in my search for the best falafel in the Loop, and it's easy to see why.
Lamb Curry Wrap at Bombay Wraps ($5.99)
One of my favorite wraps at Bombay Wraps is the Lamb Curry. After I enjoyed it, the manager mentioned that it was one of his favorites too, and it's easy to see why. The lamb is wonderfully tender, a little gamy, but not distractingly so, mostly because the curry carries that gaminess quite well. It comes garnished with pickled red onions and a cilantro chutney.