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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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10.28.08

Beyond Ramen: Where to Eat Well (for cheap) on a Downtown Campus

Bites: News and Miscellany


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With the news of the recent Cup of Noodles recall, we sent our man from Robert Morris college, Matt Kirouac, to find some affordable alternatives for the loop college crowd.

The Cubano at Cafecito

Being a college student is a lot like being a carpetbagger. The look is there- tired, scruffy clothes worn well past their expiration date and in dire need of a wash. The exhausted desperation- ambling from one room to another, haphazardly trying to find one’s place in life. And the diet, unfortunately, also shares a hopeless similarity- scrounging through the cabinets and pinching pennies so as to reap a vacation to the vending machine.

It doesn’t help that the Loop’s melee of college campuses is saturated with rip-off deals and food court fare. The fast food juggernauts dominate. Students are constantly teased by the aromatic mirage of an affordable meal. But if you squint past the glare of the golden arches, a paradise of other options can be found. A paradise with a little ethnic zing; one that won’t make shards of your piggy bank or leave your credit card in tatters; and where the words “dollar menu” or “ramen” are not to be found.

For years, I rode the red line downtown to school armed with my very own carpetbag. Like my inescapable youth, it contained an apple, a granola bar, a bottle of water, and a sandwich (preferably fluffernutter on pillowy white bread). Then it occurred to me, one desperate day when I idiotically left the house without my trusty bag, that maybe there’s something actually worth trying around here.

If the Loop, and the subsequent streets that wind from it, is a barren desert for diverse taste, then Printer’s Row is Eden. A charming respite from the bustle of the train and the business-suited hordes, the stretch of Dearborn between Congress and Polk is as peacefully welcoming as a pop-up picture book; you can practically hear the birds chirping. Standing Room Only (610 S. Dearborn St.) hints from the outside to serve more than the typical frozen-and-fried menu. A quick scan of the lengthy (and borderline overzealous) menu will confirm that thought faster than the counter staff can shimmy you down the line. The “S.R.O.” runs the gamut with offerings that span the Middle East, Italy, Greece, and the good ol’ U.S. of A. I swoon for the self-proclaimed “Best in Chicago” falafel. While I may have had better further northwest, the warm and toasty whole wheat pita sandwich, cradling steaming hot rounds of fried chickpeas and with a generous drizzle of peanut-buttery tahini, is a most unexpected find in what initially appears to be an American-style dive. In league with the Middle-Eastern feel of the falafel, the hummus plate and the baba ghanouj, are also worth a pretty penny. And don’t pass up a side of their new crispy, cinnamon-scented sweet potato fries- who’s to argue that these orange lovelies don’t fit perfectly on the side of any plate?

Wouldn’t you know that right down the street, even more falafel can be found. Café Mediterra (728 S. Dearborn St.), resting on the far end of Printer’s Row, teases the line between quick-service grub and sit-down wait service. I like their endlessly free wi-fi and their BYOB option (it’s limited to wine and beer, but who’s coming here expecting a bloody Mary bar?). As mentioned, the falafel here is a great bet. Several fried legume patties come tightly wrapped in soft pita, absolutely erupting from the seams of the sandwich. The massive pile of extra-crisped French fries justifies any trepidation for the cost-conscious carpetbagger. Other sandwiches may not work as well, like the odd combo of marinated cauliflower and potato, but the mammoth salads with delicate balsamic dressings and market-fresh veggies are worth a healthy splurge. Open morning through night, the café recently added a college menu, with a selection of chalkboard specials under $5. Now that’s what I call catering to the clientele.

Outside of the “Row,” and a tad closer to tourist Mecca, is Exchequer Restaurant & Pub (226 S. Wabash Ave.). Around since 1969, this barfly institution manages to feel like a locals’ dining secret. Amid a sea of neighboring restaurant mediocrity, this place takes the “restaurant” portion of its name as a priority. The praise for their ribs and deep-dish, as made apparent at every available opportunity, are to be believed. My taste for pizza must agree with Roger Ebert’s, because, as did he at some point, I too give the pies four stars. I’d much prefer a 50 minute wait for a plain cheese pan pizza or their house favorite barbecue pizza with chicken, bacon, and ‘Q sauce here than at other tourist spots that litter the vicinity. Sandwiches and burgers make up the rest of the menu, with plenty of fried seafood thrown in. I’m oftentimes hard-pressed to resist the veggie burger melt- a hulking sandwich that one-ups the most typical “garden” patty via toasted rye bread, ample oozing cheese, and a complex, house-made patty.

In Chicago, there are two kinds of foodie juggernauts: the kind that just as commonly invades every highway and byway from here to Alaska, and the kind that’s homegrown. Lettuce Entertain You is the local juggernaut responsible for, in addition to a mélange of other Loop-friendly dining destinations, the pleasantly authentic surprise of Wow Bao (175 W. Jackson and 1 W. Wacker). For the longest times, I had resisted the lunch time urge to visit the quick-service place exalting their “hot Asian buns.” I prefer my Chinatown bakeries and Argyle haunts thank you. But after giving in to Melman’s Lettuce beast, I found that the bao is indeed “wow.” Sold in singles for $1.39, by the six pack for $7.99 or as a combo of two with one of three salads for $5.99, each and every unique bao packs a freshly-steamed punch of true oriental tang. The whole wheat edamame is my favorite; an earthy and nutty bun with a plump interior of al dente edamame beans and finely diced broccoli. For spice, the kung pao chicken and Mongolian beef aren’t messingaround. The coconut custard, as a perfect chaser to all that savory, is reminiscent of my mom’s best coconut cream pudding wrapped in bun. Besides the bevy of hot buns, Wow Bao hocks a respectable potsticker, fried or steamed, rice bowls with a variety of toppings, homemade soda drinks, and a newly-added breakfast menu; the extra-wholesome oatmeal buried in goji berries and red dates, while burning my tongue, made me forget I was in the Loop.

Seeing as I’ve compiled a run-down of foods ranging from pub-worthy American to Eurasia, I’ve convinced myself the Loop’s got some variety for the hungry carpet bagging college kid. Heck, I realize now that I could go on and rave about several more joints worth your allowance, Cafecito for great Cuban sandwiches and Epic Burger for a pretty darn good patty, for example. Most importantly, for the same coin it’d cost to guiltily binge on a bag of McD’s or a so-so foot long at Subway, it’s feasible to feast on an assortment of hot Asian buns, a half slab of tangy barbecue ribs served by a sassy waitress, or a healthy-sized falafel pita plate. See, the life of a carpetbagger ain’t so bad. Come lunch, there’s more to filling the stomach than ramen. Now the studying and the homework, that’s a different story.

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