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.
Every week, my coworkers wait eagerly for the moment I say, "Guys, I think I'll do a review." Then they look at me, trying not to get excited, because they know one or two of them will get a free lunch, depending on how frisky I'm feeling. There's no science to it; I usually rotate around the office so no one feels left out of the fun. But this week, a new coworker arrived. Starting a new job can be pretty stressful, so I thought I would welcome her to the office by buying her lunch. That, and she'd just been shaken up by the nasty weather (she'd skidded her car into a ditch that very morning and she was a little shaken up).
Rather than be responsible and do some actual research, I pulled up Google Maps and looked for all the cute little fork and spoon icons near the office. I don't troll LTHForum, or even Yelp. I just go balls to the wall, look for those little icons, and dive in face first. Using that extremely precise method, one little place caught my eye: Halo Asian Mix.. Then I looked at the menu and my eyes got all round. Loco Moco? In the Loop? Hell yes! Pancit? Whoa. What the hell is tocilog? My eyes got really, really, round. Soon I had my Filipino coworkers hovering over my desk, and I had a crack food-ingesting team assembled.
Loco Moco ($7.99) is not something you see very often in Chicago, as it hails all the way from Hawaii. In case you're wondering what that hot brown mess is, it's two hamburger patties, two sunny-side up eggs, and a sh!tload of brown gravy, all served over white rice. Macaroni salad is almost always served on the side.
And this version? It'll do just fine. It's a hearty utility lunch, and I'm willing to overlook the fact that the hamburger patties have a rubbery and grainy texture, not unlike factory-made Salisbury steaks, due to that glorious blanket of brown. The gravy is salty, rich, and savory, and mixes in well with the rice. The eggs are perfectly handled, and after a single cholesterol-laden bite, you might be hooked, and your cardiologist will stay employed. Don't worry too much about the macaroni salad; it's not spectacular, but, hell, I can't say I've ever had a spectacular macaroni salad.
One of my Filipino coworkers had to explain what tocilog ($7.99) is; it's a sweet and salty cured pork dish, usually coated in a sticky layer of brown sugar. It's basically candied bacon without the smoke. It's typically served with a garlic rice, and this version has a fried egg served with it. A bite of everything mixed together becomes a mix of candied pork, soft starchy rice, and egg.
Pancit ($7.99) is the Filipino term for noodles and this version is fairly simple. They're slick vermicelli-style noodles seasoned with soy and are a bit too slick from a coating of oil. There's a sparse mix of crunchy snow peas, onions, and green onions thrown in for good measure, along with tiny infrequent bits of chicken. My coworker explained that he's used to pork in his pancit, so this version is a little curious.
As tempting as they might seem, skip the chicken bao ($2.25). They were out of the pork versions when I showed up, which are usually my preference. The bao are almost all bread with very little filling, and the little bit of filling is extremely dense and dry.
I've barely scratched the surface at Halo Asian Mix. The menu is varied—there's more Hawaiian (Spam Loco Moco, anyone?), more Filipino, which I'll be back to try, Japanese, Chinese, and even a whole Thai section. Not everything is a winner, but as they say, variety is the spice of life. Of course, so is whiskey.