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Clip: Counter Offers

Written by Seth on June 22nd, 2009

This feature ran in Time Out: Chicago in June 2005.

Step right up for great food (and no tipping!) at these counters in ethnic grocery stores, bakeries and cafeterias By By Seth Zurer

Cafeteria Marianao (2246 N Milwaukee Ave at Fairfield Ave, 773-278-4533). If you want fast service at this dilapidated sandwich shack, it helps if you are a) female, b) hot and c) scantily clad; the rest of us have to wait in the mob for a counterman to get around to taking an order. But the steak sandwiches are worth it: A “double with cheese” gets you slices of hot steak piled on an eight-inch Turano roll and topped with melted white cheese, pickled onions and tomato. And don’t miss the cafe cubano: Fresh, strong and sweet without a trace of bitterness, it’s one of the great cheap espressos in the city.
Meal for a steal: Double steak sandwich with cheese and a cafe cubano: $4.50

Carniceria Leon (1402 N Ashland Ave at Blackhawk St, 773-772-9804). Thanks to Chicago’s massive Mexican population, carnicerias and supermercados are as common as Jewel and Dominick’s. In the back of these food markets, you’ll almost always find a little counter with minimal seating and a grill or spit set up for cooking popular taco fillings. This tiny storefront is one of the best for tacos barbacoa or al pastor. The smoky, shredded beef that goes into the former is fragrant with garlic and pepper, while the pork for the al pastor (literally “shepherd-style”) has a vinegary, orange-juice tang and is cut directly from the revolving spit onto fresh corn tortillas. Both are a bargain at $1.50 a piece.
Meal for a steal: Two tacos al pastor, two tacos barbacoa and a Jarritos tamarindo drink: $7

Chicago Food Corp /Joong Boo Market (3333 N Kimball Ave at Henderson St, 773-478-5566). Work through the pungent smell that washes over you when you walk into this Korean grocery store; it’s a test of your commitment to delicious cheap food. Behind the freezer of fish cakes and the Japanese eggplants you’ll find a lunch counter and a wall lined with back-lit photos of dishes that make for easy ordering. Bibimbap (a traditional Korean rice bowl with various additions) with spinach sprouts is good, as are the fried squid under the heat lamps. But the best deal is hwe dup bap, a bowl of rough-hacked sashimi with red chili sauce, shredded veggies, a tangle of puffy rice noodles and a pile of rice, served with chicken soup and kimchee. Grab a pack of Pocky (chocolate- or strawberry-coated cookie sticks) for dessert.
Meal for a steal:Hwe dup bap and Pocky: $8

Harold’s Chicken Shack #14b (1208 E 53rd St at Woodlawn Ave, 773-752-9260). On the South Side, Harold’s is the first name in fried chicken. The chicken is simple and superb—golden, brittle skin; juicy meat—and, thanks to constant turnover, your drumstick arrives fresh from the fryer, having never seen a heat lamp. Every meal gets fries, a medicine cup of coleslaw, hot or mild sauce, two slices of sub-Wonder–caliber white bread (extra slices: 10 cents each) and salt and pepper at no extra charge.
Meal for a steal: Five wings with a side of hot sauce: $4.85

Kababish Restaurant (939 N Orleans St at Walton St, 312-642-8622). This stretch of Orleans is a cabbie paradise: six all-night, inexpensive Indo-Pak joints in a row. This spot distinguishes itself with nice, fresh chapattis (wheat-flour griddle bread), and a rotating selection visible through the counter glass. Their haleem—a wheat, lentil and beef porridge with a slick of melted ghee (clarified butter) on top—is very good, but the highlight, when they have it, is the spicy whole fish (no head), marinated in chilis and fried to order. Deboned, wrapped up in a chapatti and topped with lettuce and yogurt or the tamarind hot sauce, it’s the closest thing Chicago has to a Baja-style fish taco.
Meal for a steal:Haleem, two chapattis, salad and sweet rice: $6.25

Khan BBQ (BBQ Tonight) (2262 W Devon Ave between Oakley and Bell Aves, 773-274-8600). Strangely, the TV in this no-frills Little India spot specializing in smoky tandoori broadcasts Arabic-language satellite channels from Brooklyn. But don’t let that distract you from the superb kebabs. The chicken boti, marinated in yogurt and mint, slightly charred on the edges and bursting with juices, comes with rice or a huge nan fresh from the oven. You can also order it as a “bread roll,” wrapped up in lavash. Tandoori chicken by the half or whole and behari kebab (spiced ground beef) are just as good. Dessert changes every day, but recently it was a perfect, understated carrot-pistachio rice pudding.
Meal for a steal: Chicken boti dinner, with nan, salad and rice pudding: $7.75

King Sweets (2308 W Devon Ave at Oakley Ave, 773-262-8001). Devon Avenue is lined with chaat houses, places that offer informal counter service and a combination of sweet and savory snacks. If you’re after sweets, don’t miss the ras malai (pillows of cheese curds floating in milk with pistachios and cardamom), gulab jamun (fried milk doughnuts in syrup) or mango barfi (a milk-based sweet with a texture similar to fudge). On the savory side, cashews coated in black pepper or cayenne are satisfying and fiery. For more substantial snacking, samosa chaat is a formidable Indian appetizer: a crispy samosa topped with tamarind sauce, chopped onions and stewed chickpeas, all mashed together.
Meal for a steal: Samosa chaat, pink Kashmiri milk tea and one pound of mixed sweets: $10

La Unica (1515 W Devon Ave between Bosworth and Greenview Aves, 773-274-7788). The menu at La Unica’s cafeteria counter is like an encyclopedia of the pan-Latino kitchen. Cuban sandwiches and home-style stews appear alongside arepas (Colombian corn-meal fritters) and more standard taqueria fare. The Cuban sandwich is among the best around. It stays in the hot press until the edges of each roast pork slice caramelize and the pickles and cheese combine into a searing molten mass. Other good bets are the cod Creole (spicy fish stew) and congri (Cuban-style beans and rice), and a family of four could feed themselves to excess on a single order of the large ribeye steak for nine bucks.
Meal for a steal: Cuban sandwich, black beans and rice, and an order of fried yucca: $5.57

Lo Banh Mi Phap Hung Phat (4940 N Sheridan Rd at Argyle St, 773-878-6688). From one end of Argyle to the other, you can get wax-paper–wrapped banh mi: Vietnamese sandwiches with barbecue pork, pate, southeast-Asian bologna, pickled daikon (a type of radish), carrots, cucumber, cilantro and jalapeno on a fresh rice-flour baguette. The best is at this storefront bakery that shares space with Vinh Phat BBQ House. Their banh mi come with the standard fillings or with roast pork, or sometimes stuffed with oversized Chinese shu mai dumplings. Round out your meal with a shockingly good butter-cream-icing–filled brioche, topped with toasted coconut. 
Meal for a steal: Barbecue pork bahn mi and butter-cream brioche: $3.25

Saint Anna Bakery (2158 S Archer Ave between Cermak Rd and Wentworth Ave, 312-225-3168). This Chinatown bakery touts itself as a full-service restaurant, so you’ll have to tip your server, but the prices for the food are so low you won’t mind. Start with a couple of deep-fried rice-flour fritters filled with pork and mushroom, or a barbecue-pork steamed bun. Then go for the congee (rice porridge) with pork and preserved duck egg, and end with the creamy, sweet egg custard tarts or a custard bun that’s just as satisfying as a Boston cream donut.
Meal for a steal:Congee, four mini egg custard tarts, two custard buns: $6.50

Tensuke Market (3 S Arlington Heights Rd, Elk Grove Village, 847-806-1680). This pristine Japanese grocery store offers killer sushi and noodle bowls to flagging shoppers. At the sushi counter, located between the sashimi display case and refrigerated ginseng drinks, you can score eight pieces of implausibly good nigiri for $10—the kind of fatty tuna, yellowtail and salmon you’d kill for at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Fill your tinfoil saucer with soy, and help yourself to free green tea. 
Meal for a steal: Beef noodles, spicy yellowtail roll, two pieces of salmon nigiri: $9.95

Time Out Chicago / Issue 17 : Jun 23–29, 2005

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