When I came to Chicago 11 years ago, a vegetarian from Pittsburgh, I was pale, underweight, and awestruck by how much there was to eat here. I'd had a few revelatory eating experiences back home--Thai, Indian--but I had no idea how poorly those meals would compare to so many in my future.
I regrew my meat tooth one day on a whole barbecued chicken from the late, great N.N. Smokehouse, and I never looked back, consuming everything in my path from ant eggs in a Laotian restaurant to bull's pizzle at a Nigerian place. There's a staggering variety of ethnic cuisines in this city. None require the consumption of insects and organ meats, and most are vegetarian friendly (but get over that). The biggest barrier to finding inexpensive and delicious representations of any of them is not language but knowing where to start and where to go next. Every week the Reader bites off a chunk, presenting a large selection of short restaurant reviews by writers who think while they eat. Online there's a constantly updated database of thousands of reviews, searchable by cuisine and geography. This survey is a small, by no means comprehensive taste of what can be found all over the city from the four corners of the globe.
It's amazing that Taco Bell can exist here when there are taquerias on nearly every block serving authentic food not squirted from tubes. We arguably have the best and biggest variety of Mexican cuisine in the country (yes, even better than LA). The Maxwell Street Market (at Canal and Roosevelt) runs every Sunday from before dawn until midafternoon and offers regional Mexican foods from earthy huitlacoche to rich stewed goat birria to fat banana-leaf-wrapped Oaxacan tamales, hot churros, rice pudding, empanadas, octopus and shrimp cocteles, and every possible taco you can imagine, most in fresh, hand-formed corn tortillas.
Between giant metal Puerto Rican flag arches in Humboldt Park, Division Street becomes the Paseo Boricua, the epicenter of the venerable Puerto Rican community. An older landmark within, the 46-year-old Latin American Restaurant and Lounge (2743 W. Division, 773-235-7290) has a daily buffet laden with comforting, heavy cocina criolla (Puerto Rican cuisine), including the fatty, crispy marinated pork known as lechon, blood sausages, plantains, stuffed potatoes, stews, and soups. Borinquen (1720 N. California, 773-227-6038) is the home of the Chicago-invented jibarito, a heart-stopper of lechon, sliced ham, steak, chicken, or veggies sandwiched between deep-fried, flattened green plantains.
Up north in Rogers Park, La Unica (1515 W. Devon, 773-274-7788), a Cuban grocery store, has a lunch counter in the back with a wide variety of cheap meals and daily specials including chicken and rice, papas fritas and yuca fries with garlic sauce, garbanzo soup, roast pork sandwiches, oxtails, and sweet, creamy Cuban coffee. But Devon's most renowned for its Indian and Pakistani restaurants, groceries, and banquet halls--you can smell the spices blocks before you hit the street. Khan BBQ (2401 W. Devon, 773-274-8600) is best for its chicken boti--juicy, tender pieces of bird marinated in yogurt and hung in the tandoor, a clay oven--but also plates other cheap eats ideal for soaking up a late-night drunk, like frontier chicken, rice greasy from the griddle, kebabs, and vegetable dishes.
On the outskirts of downtown there's a handful of small, utilitarian restaurants catering to Muslim cabdrivers who want Prophet-approved halal meals at any and all hours. The 24-hour Kababish (939 N. Orleans, 312-642-8622) has a few booths set before a steaming buffet of hearty north Indian and Pakistani dishes, notably a thick, stewy, slow-cooked haleem made from wheat, mutton, lentils, and spice; grilled charga chicken sprinkled with garam masala; and goat curry.
African cabbies have their spots too. Most afternoons you'll see lines of them pulling up alongside lunch trucks scattered in specific downtown spots. The one associated with Uptown's TBS African Restaurant (4507 N. Sheridan, 773-561-3407) passes out tins of fiery jollof rice accompanied by the meat of your choice for around $6. Richard, the driver, says he's usually parked at Chicago and Chestnut every weekday from ten to noon, then moves just north to Washington Square Park by the Newberry Library until 3 PM or whenever the food runs out.
You can find other lunch trucks doing a brisk business in jerk chicken and other island specialties, but some of the smokiest, most aromatic bird comes from the take-out-only Tropic Island Jerk Chicken Restaurant (1922 E. 79th, 773-978-5375). For a more relaxed knife-and-fork approach, Cafe Trinidad (557 E. 75th, 773-846-8081) is a spiffy sit-down spot with excellent home-style curries, brown downs (stews begun with a caramelized base), and jerk fish, goat, and beef.
In Chinatown there are restaurants representing the multitude of regional cuisines, including the more obscure. At Spring World (2109-A S. China Pl., 312-326-9966), in the Chinatown Mall, you can order something from just about everywhere off the huge menu, but it's the Yunnanese specialties--like the operatic "Across the Bridge" hot pot full of sliced meats and rice noodles or the daunting-sounding but terrific lamb stew and fish with sour-pickle casserole--that ought to remind you just how huge and varied China is.
After Chinese, Thai may be the most bastardized cuisine in America, and in Chicago there's no shortage of uninspired spots pushing bland pad thai, crab Rangoon, and canned curry. But the city has a great trinity of Thai restaurants in TAC Quick (3930 N. Sheridan, 773-327-5253), Spoon Thai (4608 N. Western, 773-769-1173), and Sticky Rice (4018 N. Western, 773-588-0133), which specializes in in the northern Issan style (you can eat bugs here). Each has a translated Thai-language menu that goes far beyond the offerings of any other place in the city.
On Argyle roughly between Broadway and Sheridan the Vietnamese have their own distinct neighborhood--one of the great food streets in the city. Tank Noodle (4955 N. Broadway, 773-878-2253) is the place for pho (say "fuh"), an intoxicating beef noodle soup with some 15 variations that's garnished with fresh cilantro, basil, chiles, limes, and bean sprouts. Just across the street, Ba Le Sandwich Shop (5018 N. Broadway, 773-561-4424) has over a dozen banh mi--an amazing sandwich of various combinations of meats, herbs, and chiles on a French-style roll--for just a couple bucks each.
Though there aren't many remnants of it, Division Street in Wicker Park used to be known as the Polish Broadway. Podhalanka Polksa Restauracja (1549 W. Division, 773-486-6655), across the street from the Nelson Algren Fountain, is a living memory, piling huge, cheap, meaty, starchy plates of pierogi, pork rolls, stuffed cabbage, bowls of tangy white borscht, and baskets of fresh bread, all under the approving portrait of Pope John Paul II. In the meantime, immigrants from other eastern European countries have become more visible. Fontana (3424 W. Irving Park, 773-279-9359), a Serbian bakery and deli, daily puts out fresh discus-shaped loaves of bread that are perfect for the chevapcici, fingers of unencased beef and pork sausage, griddled in the back.
Korean food may be one of the more impenetrable yet rewarding cuisines around town: some restaurants don't bother putting up signs in English, and many have the inhibitive habit of covering up their windows. One place that makes it easy is Garden Buffet (5347 N. Lincoln, 773-728-1249), an enormous room in a strip mall that serves as an excellent introduction to the depth and variety of Korean food: $18.99 buys access to dozens of standards, from noodles and soups to sushi, drinks, and an unlimited supply of meats to grill at the table. It's cheaper at lunch. Chicago Food Corp. (3333 N. Kimball, 773-478-5566), between the Kennedy and the Blue Line, is a huge store where, besides aisles of local and imported Korean dry goods, cosmetics, booze, produce, fresh fish, and meat, you'll find a well-stocked self-serve bar of panchan (Korean side dishes) and a "Snack Corner" dishing out bowls of soup, stir-fry, and rice dishes along with fried chicken wings, pork hocks, and dumplings.
Many purveyors mistakenly pass off gloppy parboiled or steamed ribs slathered in red sauce as Chicago-style barbecue. Much rarer are the craftsmen who slowly smoke pig parts at low temperatures over hardwood, casting a narcotic spell of caramelized, smoky, chewy porky goodness. Robert Adams Sr. of Honey 1 Barbecue (2241 N. Western, 773-227-5130) is a master at this art, a living treasure, and a crusader for the real thing.
The stretch of Kedzie Avenue from Wilson to Ainslie in Albany Park has a glut of great cheap places to eat, many of them Middle Eastern. Salam (4636 N. Kedzie, 773-583-0776) is always dependable for fresh falafel, shawirma, and the creamiest hummus on the strip.
Soul food is one of the oldest culinary traditions in the city, and some of its best-known veterans are still at it, cooking heavy, rich, elementary eats much as their mothers' mothers' mothers did. Miss Lee of Miss Lee's Good Food (203-05 E. 55th, 773-752-5253) honed her skills for 31 years in the late Gladys' Luncheonette before starting her own takeout joint on 55th and Indiana. Every day she rotates a menu of nine home-style classics--roast chicken, smothered pork, and roast beef with dressing, to name a few--which get packed to order in Styrofoam with a pair of corn muffins and a choice of two sides.