Our only guidelines for the experiment were no fast food chains and no greasy spoons. ABC7 wanted to find places where you could sit down, have a hearty meal and get out for less than $10.
Our first trip is to Skokie, where a venerable Middle Eastern restaurant has one of the best lunch specials in all of Chicago.
Since 1982, the Pita Inn has offered one of the best deals in Skokie, if not the entire region. For a few hours each day, they offer the ultimate lunch combo, and the amount of customers who flock to the restaurant reflects its popularity.
"We only raised our prices twice in 26 years. We still have a combination special which has all the meats - shish kebab, kefta kebab, shawarma and falafel, rice, salad and pita bread all for $3.95," said Hazem Tabahi, Pita Inn.
It's one thing to offer a combo; it's quite another to make all of it from scratch on the premises. Consider one small element, the falafel. First, they grind up chickpeas with whole garlic cloves and white onions. Fresh parsley is added to give it color. Once the mixture is collected in a bowl, it's ground up a second time, but now they add cumin, coriander and sesame to the resulting blend. Finally, it's mixed up with giant hook, and almost immediately, it's whisked out to the front, where it's rapidly formed over a falafel spoon, then dropped into a deep fryer for about three minutes. Served solo or with lettuce and tomato in a sandwich, it's the perfect vegetarian meal.
"Everything is from scratch. My father, when he opened in 1982, he was the chef. He trained each one of our chefs in all of the other locations. So the recipe has been the same for 26 years," said Tabahi.
There's also ample amounts of homemade beef shwarma, sliced on the spit, as well as chicken. Tabouli salad is loaded with parsley, onions and tomatoes, surrounded by pickled turnips and briny olives while the hummus and baba gannouj are both smooth and ready for ample dipping by warm pita bread - which is made their bakery next door.
Kibbe is another tasty starter, loaded with ground beef and pine nuts.
Desserts are limited, but homemade as well: flaky baklava loaded with honey and nuts or kinafa, a syrupy-sweet phyllo concoction worthy of any Middle Eastern home.
Tabahi says whether it's lunch or dinner, his customer base is wide.
"We like to cater to everyone. Our clientele is students to the doctors, lawyers, any type of customer," said Tabahi.
Pita Inn also has locations in Wheeling and Glenview.
And at the original in Skokie, they also have an adjacent bakery and grocery store, where you can pick up all kinds of delicious Middle Eastern ingredients and snacks.
3910 Dempster St., Skokie
122 South Elmhurst Rd., Wheeling
9854 N. Milwaukee Ave., Glenview
Next Tuesday, in honor of Mexican Independence Day, the first ever Buen Provecho Pilsen gets underway:
Buen Provecho Pilsen
September 16, 5:30 - 9:30 p.m.
Sample signature dishes from more than 25 neighborhood restaurants
$20 in advance, $25 the day of the event
To get tickets in advance:
1843 S. Carpenter
1650 W. 18th St.