Former Department of Streets and Sanitation worker Dennis Foley may know Chicago's roads like the back of his hand, but what really set his heart aflutter while riding that big blue truck was lunchtime. From the far north to the very South Side, there isn't a road he hasn't traveled. And when the crews gathered each morning to receive their daily assignments, they'd also swap tips on where to score the best cheap, fast and above all tasty lunch, even mapping their day's work around that noontime meal.
So it seemed only natural that this Chicago native, who grew up on the South Side and got an MFA from Columbia College, record those years of road-tested eats in The Streets and San Man's Guide to Chicago Eats. We grilled this local expert—who gave his first reading using an overturned garbage can for a podium and tiki torches for lighting—about his hands-down favorite spots. He served up an answer for each part of the city and each day of the week.
Monday: Humboldt Park's Borinquen Restaurant
When you go in there's about 10 people lined up behind the counter, just chopping away. I always get the steak jibaro, a skirt steak that's chopped up thin with grilled onions. What makes it good is they slap on this creamy garlic sauce and a little cheese, then lettuce and tomato, and it's all thrown on fried plantains, which are pretty darn good all by themselves. The whole sandwich costs $4.95 and it fills you up, too. There's a small room off to the side and a big room in back so you'll never have a problem getting a seat.
Tuesday: West Loop's Bari Foods
This Italian store just stinks of old school, with people barking at each other in such a friendly way that you can tell it's a family-run place. One day one of the brothers made a sandwich and was eating it behind the counter and someone asked, "Do you guys sell subs here?" And the brother said, "Uh, yeah. We do." So from that point on they've made subs. I always get the Italian—capicola, mortadella, salami, provolone on good, hard bread from D'Amatos—and add the homemade giardinera. It's $4 for a nine-inch sub or $5 for a foot. This is not a sit down place but I'm an old time kind of guy and sit up against the wall outside.
Wednesday: South Side's Vito & Nicks
This place has the ultimate thin-crust pizza—so thin and sliced into tiny melt-in-your-mouth bites—but not much else. The salad is some lettuce and one cherry tomato, you know? It's like a comedy show when you walk in. One of the owners of a nearby funeral home hangs out here all the time with his hearse parked outside and the waitress is about 84 years old so when you order be prepared to wait awhile because she has to use her walker to put the order in. Before you leave make sure you rub the carpeted walls. A large pizza costs about $12.
Thursday: North Side's Frank and Mary's
I stumbled across this place by just asking someone what was good around there. It's a tavern that only serves foods between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., no dinners. A brother and sister run the place and Mary makes all the food in the back. She says the only thing that's not homemade is the vegetables, which come from a can. Only two dishes are made each day and on Thursdays they serve corned beef and cabbage and Italian sausage and mostaccioli. It's great food and the helpings are really good; soup costs $1.50 and the meal is $4.50.
Friday: East Side's Club 81 Too
Part of the fun of this place is trying to find it—it's out in the Hegewisch area, near the old steel mills. Much like our own version of a north woods Wisconsin supper club, there are deer running around in back, a small lake, a tavern in front and a restaurant in back. This place is a charmer. On Fridays there's nothing like a nice little fish fry and it does a perch fish fry with fries and a spread of green onions, beets and radishes for $9. If you want to save a few bucks you can get a beef sandwich with grilled onions on rye bread for $2.25.
Looking for more lunchtime tips? Buy Foley's book.