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Monday, April 1, 2013

Eating Gluten Free in Chicago on the Cheap

Huevos Rancheros from e.leaven in Chicago

Last week I spent 3 days in and around downtown Chicago, IL.  After the ridiculously tall buildings the second thing one learns pretty quick about downtown Chicago is that it ain't cheap

So I thought I'd share how we managed to eat gluten free on a budget in downtown Chicago! 

I've got some tips, restaurant reviews, a list of some sources I found helpful in finding locations, and some of the wonderful suggestions you, my resourceful and helpful readers, provided before and during my trip.  

Gluten Free Chinese food from P.F. Chang's

Normally I do a lot of research before traveling somewhere to make sure I know where to find decent GF food.  This time I didn't do so much because hubby and I were meeting up with the in-laws in downtown Chicago (they are also not from there, but decided to stop over for a few days before heading north to visit with us in Wisconsin) and I didn't want to direct things too much in case they had other plans.  I had a couple of vague ideas but nothing for sure. 

Ha.  Always do your research!!

 After their long flight and our long bus ride, we were all hungry.  We wandered up "Magnificent Mile" (Michigan Ave) to look for a restaurant.  First let me say that this is magnificent primarily because it is several long blocks worth of clothing and accessory stores.   

Magnificent only if you are not on a budget and believe that buying ridiculous amounts of things is awesome.

I am neither of those. So in the end we found it best to eat a little ways away from all that magnificence.  

Well there wasn't a whole lot to be found along that strip that didn't cost at least $20/plate (more like $40).  We did stop in to the Purple Pig, as one of you lovely readers recommended it, and I thought it looked good.  Alas, there was at least an hour long wait and it was so packed that we literally almost couldn't make it out the door as people kept thronging in it. 

The pier at night

Eventually though, after  doing some more research while gazing out our hotel window at the lovely view of the pier, I found a few places.  Here are my reviews and some tips for eating on the cheap. 

P.F. Chang's 530 N. Wabash Ave, just off Michigan: Um, can I have one of these here please?  I would go back in a heartbeat.

For those of you gluten free folks who miss Chinese food, P.F.Chang's is awesome.  Great ambiance, awesome awesome service, very decent prices and the food was, well, like Chinese food!  My lovely in-laws split 3 dishes with me so I could have some variety and I tried the Go Gai Pan, Lemon Chicken, and some vegetable dish I can't recall the name of!  The server actually brought a separate dish of GF sauces for me to use! 

I never once felt like I was a burden.  In fact, I kinda felt like I got special attention for being GF, which was quite nice for once!  I wish I could remember the name of the server so I can give him accolades here... sorry... you'll see why I don't remember things so well in a minute...

Gluten Free Sauces from P.F. Chang's

Oh, and did I forget to mention I had the gluten free, nut free chocolate cake for dessert?!  Oh man....

Gluten Free Chocolate Cake from P.F. Chang's

Over the course of dinner my lovely mother-in-law and I split a bottle of very reasonably priced wine, too. 

As you can see, I'm not much of a drinker and the next day after breakfast and a visit to the Bean (aka Cloud Gate in Millennium Park) I was ready to go back to bed.  Hubby thought this was rather funny as I went right for the bed after we walked in the door...

Me, face down, going back to bed after a rough night on the town ;)
So please forgive my memory lapses from P.F. Chang's...

Moving on...

Big Bowl Another great Chinese - Thai place with a very decent GF menu on Ohio Street, also just off Michigan Ave.  The ambiance was louder, younger and less chill than P.F. Chang's, and you kind of want to eat and head out, rather than drink a bottle of wine (probably a good thing after the previous evening at P.F. Chang's).  I had a very decent orange chicken dish and some chocolate ice cream mochi for dessert. 

Chocolate Ice Cream Mochi at Big Bowl, Chicago

Street Water Grill on Michigan Ave: Good enough when you're hungry!  Better prices than most others in town.  FYI: the place is kinda noisy, it's a grill and bar atmosphere.  Streetwater has a menu with GF options noted in asterix.  What this means is that they will make you a sandwich or burger without the bun, but no GF bread options.   

It kinda irritates me just a little when a restaurant charges the same price for a dish without any bread. It's not that I'm being cheap, I just think it's almost like being punished doubly by having the allergy and having to pay for it... 

Emerald Loop on Wabash (south side of the river)- really good breakfast buffet on the weekend.  For $10 there's eggs, potatoes, sausages, yogurt, fruit, and best of all, an omelet station!  I love omelets, it was awesome and the service was good, too. 

FYI: This is a pub under a hotel and when we were there the area was under construction, so you might not spot it right away, just keep an eye out for it. 

e.leaven This place isn't specifically gluten free, but it's one of the cheapest breakfast places in downtown we found, and you can just order something without the bread.  At the top of the page you'll see the huevos rancheros I got there, sans bagel.  I also had an omelet the next day.  Good food.  Watch out, the freshly squeezed orange juice is like $5 and will catch you by surprise. 

Trader Joe's - you know, the market?  It's a good place to grab snacks for lunch.  We saved $$$ by making a couple of runs to the Trader Joe's on Ontario Street.  I tried two of their different pre-made salads, and some seaweed snacks and that was definitely filling.  Lunch for $4 can't really be beat. 

The Signature Lounge on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Building  Psst... This is the budget bet.  It's $20 to buy a ticket for the top floor of the John Hancock building to check out the view, but for the much cheaper cost of an overpriced drink ($5.50 for a hot chocolate or tea) you can see almost the exact same view from the lounge.  Just sayin'...

View of Chicago from the Signature Lounge

Places I would have tried if I had time: 

Mariano’s market just on the south side of the Chicago River has a40page long list of their GF items here.  I didn’t make it there so I don’t know about the prices, but it was recommended by one of P & GF’s readers for their GF red velvet cupcakes (thanks Nicole!)

If you happen to be in the Evanston area, apparently Rose's Bakery is well regarded.  According to reader Christina, "everything there is gluten-free and they have all kinds of delicious breads, cookies, and cupcakes, as well as a full cafe menu."   

Wildberry Pancakes and Cafe on Randolph Street - GF pancakes in a restaurant? Wish I'd had time to check this out.  

Helpful blogs for finding GF dining options and reviews in Chicago

Gluten Free Nosh
Gluten Free in Chicago

And when to splurge:

Do an architectural tour of Chicago by boat.  Seriously.  It's worth the $27 / person.  Really amazing to see Chicago by boat and hear the history.  We took a tour with Wendella Boat Tours and the narrator was wonderful (even stood outside in the cold with us when it started to snow because some of us diehards wouldn't go inside!)  - Again, I wish I could recall her name, she was lovely and had a funky green jacket on... said she'd been doing this for 5 years...

I hope that helps if anyone is planning to go to Chicago anytime soon!  I'd love to go back again when the weather is nicer (40km winds and snow made too much walking around and sightseeing a bit rough!)

A view of Chicago during the Wendella boat tour


  1. Ha, I live in Chicago and have only done the Architectural tour..which I agree is awesome. And I have dined in the Signature Room, but not on my dime..LOL. But wow, what a great tip!

    When I was in college and worked down town, I went out to eat more often, but we rarely ever do anymore. And the only time we go downtown (we are in the burbs just outside the city), it's to go to the museums or the aquarium.

    Glad to hear you enjoyed it even if the weather wasn't so great! :)

    Margaret @ Live Like No One Else

    1. Lol, for an even cheaper bet - I noticed some people took the elevator up to the 96th floor just to see the women's washroom (it has a windowed wall with a decent view, too), although my husband said the men's room didn't have a window ;)


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