I’ve always enjoyed Asian food a lot more than western food, be it Japanese, Thai or Vietnamese. Therefore I really cannot quite get used to food in the U.S even though Chicago is already considered quite a foodie paradise.
I’ve tried the famous deep dish pizza twice and both times I couldn’t finish simply cos it was way too cheesy and filling for me. In fact, both times my husband and I only ate half of the pizza even though we already ordered the smallest one. Another time, I went to eat in a relatively popular Japanese restaurant here, and in the end the sushi that was served had cheese in it too.!!??
Thankfully, there are still hidden Asian food gems in Chicago that serve authentic Asian food at affordable pricing and these are my go-to comfort food whenever I’ve had enough of my Chipotle rice bowl or my own not-that-delicious homecooked food.
1.Cheap Korean Eats and fresh sashimi – Joong Boo Market
I first went to Joong Boo market because of the $25 sashimi promo every Wednesday. At $25, you get about $70 dollars worth of sashimi if you were to buy it in Japanese restaurants. In fact there were so many pieces of sashimi that I even had enough to cook it for fish porridge the next day. At $25, the sashimi slices are decent and fresh.
Not just so, you can also get $2 korean dumplings at Joong Boo market which are quite filling and tasty. If I were to go to Joong Boo for grocery shopping, I will usually eat in at the every-busy Korean eatery whereby each dish is about $6 to $8. And you don’t even have to tip!
I love the soo doong boo served in Joong Boo market! Spicy, savory, and hot and piping!
2.Authentic Malaysian/Singaporean cuisine – Serai
How can I explain my joy when I discovered Serai in Chicago? Only opened in 2015, and helmed by Malaysian bosses and chefs, Serai is just way too authentic. I was so happy when I had my first plate of belachan kangkong (water spinach) in Serai. In fact, every single dish that I have tried in Serai tasted even better than what I ate in Singapore haha. I am still salivating over the Char Kway Teow. Located in Logan Square, the only con is that it is a bit too far from my house!
3. Aroi Thai food – JJ Thai Street Food
I love love Thai dishes. I love the assortment of flavors in each mouthful: the sweetness, the sourness, the saltiness and the spiciness in Thai cuisine. Unfortunately a lot of the Thai food I’ve tried in Chicago are either just plain spicy or plain sour. It is really one-dimensional in taste; not tasty, yet pretty expensive. Therefore I’m also really glad to find JJ Thai in Chicago. The dishes are not really what you will expect from Thai food, cos you don’t see the typical dishes like Pad Thai and pineapple rice but all the dishes sold are incredibly tasty with that authentic Thai flavor.
For me, I really like their papaya salad, which tasted exactly like what I bought off the streets in Bangkok, except that it is about 10 times more expensive of course. I also like their meatball rice noodle soup. The meatballs are slightly peppery and seems to be handmade. The plentiful beansprouts in the soup are a bonus and adds a slight crunch to each bite. The braised pork rice is good too! Sometimes the pork isn’t as flavorful as I like, but I think it is good enough. I must be contented.
I haven’t really tried a lot of sushi places in Chicago, cos I really don’t have that much money to spare but at least these two that I’ve tried tastes pretty good and they are not THAT expensive.
Actually both Ryo Sushi and Nami Sushi’s standards are about the same in my eyes. The rice is not dry or hard, and the raw fish in the sushi are juicy, thick and fresh. I like that Ryo Sushi has a lunch special whereby you can even get a sushi set at about 10 dollars, which makes it pretty affordable.
5.Affordable ramen with yummy braised pork – Noodles by Takashi
I’ve tried quite a lot of ramen places in Chicago, including those that are very popular, highly reviewed or those that have made into the top 10 list in Chicago. Even so, I wasn’t extremely impressed. Yet, surprise surprise, I find myself going back to Macy’s (State Street) food court many times just for their miso ramen.
Actually for food court standard, the ramen isn’t considered cheap at about 10 to 12 dollars each. However after factoring tips and all, it is still a few dollars cheaper than most ramen restaurants. To me, it tastes no different from the ramen I buy from Japanese restaurants here. It is flavorful ( though it can be a bit salty at times) and the braised pork is really tender. Oh ya, the fried rice sold at this stall is surprisingly good too. If you get a “member card” from the stall, you can also redeem a free bowl after 8 meals.
6.Flavorful hotpot – Little Lamb Hotpot
Even though Singapore is incredibly hot and humid, I still have a penchant for hotpots cos I simply love drinking hot soup too much. I love the process of slowly dipping my food into the tasty soup and chatting with friends as the food begins to boil.
And given that fact that Chicago is cold most of the time, it makes it all the more suitable to have hotpot. Thankfully, Little Lamb Hotpot never fails to disappoint me. With food ordered ala carte, it is slightly pricier than the other Chinese hotpot restaurants that offers buffet hotpot at about 16 dollars per person. However I believe that when it comes to hotpot, quality really matters over quantity at times.
Having tried out really cheap hotpot lunch specials at Chinatown, I decided that I rather spend 30 dollars more just so that I can have a very satisfying hotpot meal at Little Lamb.
Firstly broth is the most important part of a good hotpot experience and the Mongolian spicy herbal soup is really good. Not too spicy, but with enough kick to it, and there is a slightly exotic herbal taste. The mushroom soup is pretty good too. I could taste the mushrooms in the soup.
Unlike many hotpot restaurants that serves frozen food or meat that still have ice on it, Little Lamb Hotpot has more handmade and fresh items. I really enjoy their handmade fishballs, grilled potato and pork dumplings (or should I call it potstickers?) Their handmade noodles also taste very good after you cook it in the spicy mongolian herbal soup.
A hotpot meal for 2 costs about 50 dollars after tip. And usually I still cannot quite finish the food and will pack a few items back to cook for dinner. So if I think of it as 50 dollars for 2 meals, then it isn’t really that expensive afterall. Little Lamb Hotpot is where I go everytime I feel like pampering myself.
Another good hotpot – Little Sheep Hotpot
Recently, another contender for good hotpot popped up in Chinatown, it is very close to Little Lamb Hotpot, and even the name sounds similar! One is a sheep, the other a lamb. HAHA.
Actually, I still prefer Little Lamb’s broth and ingredients, HOWEVER Little Sheep Hotpot is considerably cheaper, and the thing is, Little Sheep’s broth and ingredients are pretty good too. It is not like it really paled in comparison to Little Lamb. (OMG all the sheep and lamb is making me very confused.)
One good thing about Little Sheep Hotpot is that they have a set meal which costs just $10.95. It includes the soup, lots of veggies, one type of meat, dipping sauces, and a few meatballs. I say it is a very good deal! Because half the time I can’t even finish it!
It also has an all-you-can-eat option, at $20 plus, however I don’t eat that much. The set meal is already good enough. The ACYE option would be really great for those with big appetites though.
P.S: realised that I typed this out long ago and forgot to publish. So I’m publishing it now!