Chicago is one of our nation’s culinary epicenters, and that’s no different with the local fast-casual scene. While that includes long-time staples like Italian beef chains Portillo’s and Buona, it also encompasses several startup brands that have sprung up around the city serving everything from Indian fusion to fresh-caught seafood and Argentinian empanadas.
We traveled to Chicago in February for QSR’s Fast Casual Meet Up, and braved the freezing winds to explore the city’s fiercely independent fast-casual scene. Here are some of our picks for the most exciting fast-casual brands ready to explode out of the Windy City. (This is far from an exhaustive list; Chicago is home to hundreds of homegrown limited-service concepts. What brands do you think belong here? Head to our Facebook page, Twitter or Linkedin page to share your favorite Chicago fast casuals!) Pictured is the Chicago Cheesesteak at Pork & Mindy's.
Founder Mary Aregoni worked for several years at Procter & Gamble before she decided to leave the corporate life and open the first Saigon Sisters in the Chicago French Market food hall. The concept has a hybrid service model—counter service by day, table service by night—and today boasts four locations serving authentic Vietnamese dishes like banh mi and pho. Aregoni is busy hosting pop-ups around Chicago and building out a catering arm, but hopes to scale Saigon Sisters across the U.S., and possibly internationally.
Au Cheval, in Chicago’s trendy West Loop neighborhood, is a mega-popular casual burger brand from Hogsalt Hospitality that often has an hours-long wait. Small Cheval offers a more accessible and laid-back experience—think picnic tables and old-fashioned letter boards for the menu—paring down the menu to just a few burgers and fries, along with beer, cocktails, and boozy milkshakes.
Cofounders Jeremy Klaben and Kolter Livengood opened Brightwok Kitchen as a place to instill a fine-dining pedigree in a fast-casual format. The Asian-centric bowl concept features house-made sauces and marinated meats, and the entire menu is gluten-free, dairy-free, and peanut-free. Options include the Everyday Eat Right with Thai basil, brown rice, chicken, onions, broccoli, bell peppers, and carrots, and the Earth, Curry, and Fire with chili coconut curry, white rice, tofu, kale, onions, carrots, bell peppers, and crispy egg.
Indian street food has never been so accessible. Cofounders Falguni and Ali Dewjee opened Bombay Wraps in 2010 as a place where they could serve the street foods of their native Mumbai; today that includes dishes like chicken tikka and lamb curry in bowls and wraps. Bombay Wraps has two brick-and-mortar locations and one food truck.
Husband-and-wife founders Rick and Ashley Ortiz give tacos an upscale flourish in three Chicago Antique Taco locations. The vibe is decidedly homely, with antiques serving as not only the namesake, but also the décor. Rick Ortiz—a Kendall College culinary arts graduate—is in charge of the menu, which elevates the standard Mexican fast casual fare. Taco options include the Sweet & Spicy Chicken with chicken, yogurt, cucumber, jalapeno, pink onion, and mint, and the Potato & Poblano with potatoes, queso, chipotle crema, scallions, and potato skins. There’s also the Fried Chicken Burrito, the Antique Taco Salad, and desserts like the Horchata Milkshake and the Abuelita Poptart.
Brown Bag Seafood Co.
Chicago isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of charming, breezy seafood shacks, but Brown Bag re-creates the experience to a tee. The brand, which has three-soon-to-be-four locations in Chicago, dishes upscale seafood offerings in dining rooms splashed with a nautical theme that doesn’t feel too heavy-handed or out of place. The menu boasts proteins like salmon, crispy or grilled shrimp, and a rotating “daily catch” in salads, boxes, or plates. There are also fish tacos, lobster rolls, chowder, and other options that would be right at home on the New England coast.
This food-truck-turned-fast casual offers empanadas like Malbec Beef and Chorizo and Patatas Bravas for $2.75 each. The founders named the concept after the international dialing code for their native Argentina and have expanded 5411 to five locations in Chicago and one in Houston.
Asian buns are the star at this small-footprint fast casual with 11 locations. Wow Bao recently introduced a new prototype with the Eatsa technology, wherein customers order on kiosks and pick up their dishes in assigned cubbies. President Geoff Alexander says this new model will help the brand’s employees focus more on customer service, and will also give the company flexibility in its real estate decisions.
Naf Naf / Jordan Balderas
Now led by veteran executive Paul Damico, Naf Naf is out to create a market for Middle Eastern fast casual. The concept lets guests customize their dishes, choosing either a pita or bowl with bases like basmati rice or hummus, and then adding proteins, salads, garnishes, and sauces. Naf Naf has 38 locations and plans to franchise the concept later this year.
Chicago’s original poke purveyors, Aloha Poke opened its first location in the Chicago French Market, but it’s since expanded to 10 locations across Chicago, Minneapolis, and Southern California. The brand will soon add a presence in cities like Denver, San Diego, and Washington, D.C., slinging bowls like the signature Aloha with pineapple, cucumber, scallion, jalapeno, Maui onion, sesame vinaigrette, and a choice of Ahi tuna, salmon, or tofu.
Hannah’s Bretzel focuses on organic ingredients and sustainable operations, and while that strategy is mainstream today, Hannah’s has been championing it for over a decade. The brand has conquered downtown Chicago with nine locations that serve a variety of premium sandwiches, salads, soups, and more.
The Eastman Egg Company
When, in the future, better-breakfast fast casuals become the next big thing around the U.S., many will point to The Eastman Egg Company as one of the movement’s founders. The brand features customizable breakfast sandwiches and omelets made with premium ingredients, along with bites like a parfait, fruit salad, and pastries. There are also artisan coffee and espresso beverages, and even a burger for those who want to drop in after the morning rush.
Pork & Mindy's
Cofounded by Food Network Star Jeff Mauro and friend Kevin Corsello, Pork & Mindy’s is a pork-lover’s dream, with sandwiches like the Bao to the Pork and Pig Candy BLT. There are also chicken and beef options, and a Buffalo Cauliflower sandwich for those who are vegetarian inclined. The Totty Bar, meanwhile, gives guests a unique side option, with a range of toppings available atop tater tots. Pork & Mindy’s has grown to four locations—one of which recently opened in Minneapolis—and has plans for further growth inside Chicago and out.