Thursday, April 17, 2008

Top 10 cheap restaurants in Houston

The cheap list

A few days ago, I posted my favorite "upscale" restaurants. Those were pricey. The ones on this list are cheap. You can eat well at all of these for under $15, and at many for less than $6.

Houston has so many great cheap restaurants of so many varieties. The cheap ones are even more fun to find than the pricey ones.

This list is completely subjective because I don't have enough time to eat at every cheap restaurant in town. So I list the taqueria I enjoy the most, but I have not tried even half the taquerias in Houston. Nor have I eaten at even one fourth of the Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants on Bellaire. These cheap restaurants just happen to be my favorites.

My top 10

1. Asia Market and Thai Fast Food (Cavalcade). I go once a week to this Thai food store with a small kitchen on the back wall. I am working my way through every item on the menu, and each one has been outstanding. Nothing is over $7. I reviewed it here.

2. La Sani (Hilcroft). Pakistani food. Great lunch buffet. More sheer spice (not heat, spice) than any restaurant I know. I reviewed it here.

3. La Jaliescience (Yale). Tongue tacos. Fish soup. For breakfast, a whole pork chop, two eggs, beans, and potatoes with chips costs $3.50. Best and hottest salsa in Houston. It helps to speak some Spanish. I discussed the tongue tacos here.

4. Cafe Mezza & Grille (Westheimer). Looks like a bad chain restaurant. It isn't. This Mediterranean-American fusion cuisine may be the least authentic and most creative food on the list. Everything is delicious. Plus they let you bring your own wine. I reviewed it here.

5. Vieng Thai (Long Point). Wierdest, spiciest, and most challenging Thai and Laotian food in Houston. (That's a good thing.) I reviewed it here.

6. Teotihuacan Mexican Restaurant (Airline). Houston has a lot of restaurants that serve massive Mexican plate meals for cheap. Teotihuacan just happens to be the best, and one of the cheapest. I recommend carnitas, anything grilled, and homemade corn tortillas. But everything here is better than the same dishes at every Mexican chain restaurant in Houston, even the taco salad with grilled chicken fajita. I reviewed it here.

7. Mary'z (Richmond). At the moment, my favorite Lebanese restaurant in town. Mary'z marinated grilled chicken is the best I have had.

8. Thelma's Barbecue (Live Oak). Best brisket, best fried catfish. One helluva wait. I discussed it in my post on barbecue.

9. Lankford Grocery and Market (Dennis). Unless CFK is the daily special, get the burger. Nothing else matters.

10. Udipi Cafe (Hillcroft). Vegetarian Indian food, which is completely different from other Indian food served in America. The lunch buffet is amazingly good, and amazingly cheap.

Runner Ups

Pico's (Bellaire) - Too cheap for my upscale list. Mostly too expensive for the cheap list. Still, Pico's is one of the best Mexican restaurants in Houston. Their moles are unbeatable.

Ko-Mart food stalls (Gessner) - Korean food stands in a Korean supermarket. I reviewed one stall here.

Mint Cafe (Sage) - fresh Middle Eastern food that is a step above most other Houston Lebanese restaurants

This Is It! (Gray) - Mmmmm. Oxtails.

Mai's (Milam) - My favorite Vietnamese food for so long that it is hard for me to branch out and try new places. I'm working on it, but haven't found anything I like more - yet

Cafe Montrose (Westheimer) - Belgian restaurant specializing in mussels. One large order with Belgian fries and mayo will feed two. Great beer made by monks. I talk about the mussels here.

the breakfast klub (Travis) - Very good breakfast food that is pricey for breakfast food, but cheap enough to make my under-$15 cut off. Grits are the best in town.

Oporto Cafe (Richmond) - Portuguese tapas bar. I reviewed it here.

Pepper Tree Veggie Cuisine (Richmond) - Who knew there were so many delicious dishes to be made with tofu? I reviewed it here.

Les Givrals Sandwich and Cafe (Travis) - Now that my favorite Banh Mi shop (Huang Banh Mi - The Original Givrals) closed, this is the next best one I know. It is only a matter of time before I find one better. My Banh Mi comparison is here.

Treebeard's (various locations downtown) - If you have never worked downtown, you probably have not eaten at Treebeard's. That is a shame because Treebeard's has the most distinctive, though perhaps not the most authentic, Louisiana-based food in Houston. Some prefer Zydeco's Louisiana Diner, Rajin Cajun, and Brennan's. For red beans, etoufee, and corn bread, I want Treebeard's.

Chinese Cafe (Richmond) - Good cheap Chinese food. This is the cheapest place I have found in Houston to get good-quality, whole, steamed fish. The stranger-sounding Chinese dishes are pretty good too. Avoid the Americanized part of the menu, including anything fried.

100% Taquito (SW Freeway) - I may like the idea of this authentic Mexico-City-style taqueria on the edge of West U than I like the flavors. No one else has the guts to bring this sort of food to West U. Who knew it would be so successful?


Julep said...

Thanks! I love this list and your blog...I tend to agree with you on most places I've tried and love finding out about new places to visit. One of my favorites you haven't yet reviewed...London Sizzler on 59 and Hillcroft. It's an amazing British-inspired Indian restaurants with some North Indian spices thrown in for kicks. Also while Udipi is great, there are a couple of places nearby that I'd probably place higher on a list of cheap Indian places.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful list! I couldn't agree with you more, especially about Viet Thai and La Jaliescience. However, if you want to try some Vietnamese food that I think is every bit as good as Mai's, you should check out Pho One on Wilcrest at Westheimer. You won't be disappointed... :)

anonymouseater said...

Thanks julep and sheeats for the suggestions.

London Sizzler has been on my list of places to try for some time. I can't count the number of times I almost went there, but got sidetracked.

I will add Pho One to my list. Can anyone explain to me why so many Pho restaurants have a number in the name?

Anonymous said...

I agree on most of those. I work fairly close to Hillcroft and 59, but there are so many Indian and Middle Eastern restaurants over there I cannot choose one. Droubis on Hillcroft and Westheimer is the best lunch deal in town. Somewhere between 3.99 and 5.99 gets you an entree (kebab, schwarma, stews, lamb shanks) and 2 sides. It has always been consistent (except last week when it was strangely bad).
Vietnamese Coast in the same area is great.

Paulie's, La Vista, and Berryhills $1.99 fish tacos on Mon and Fri are three places normally a little more expensive that have reasonable lunch specials.

I would add Mandolas on Leeland and Cullen to the list, and Lankford has amazing breakfast tacos. La Guadalupana has the best service in town.

hags said...

Totally agree on burger at Lankford. Hard to believe El Rey didn't make it on the list?

Anonymous said...

"Can anyone explain to me why so many Pho restaurants have a number in the name?"

It's considered good luck, in Vietnam, to have a number in the name. The number 3 is especially lucky, hence the che ba mau drink (three color or rainbow drink).

The More You Know... ;)

anonymouseater said...

Thanks for all the great suggestions in comments. I had a few thoughts:

I forgot about Droubi's. The location on Hillcroft near Bissonet would make my top 20. I have not been to the Hillcroft and Westheimer location. The downtown location is quite bad.

Paulie's did not spring to mind, but it is good quality, inventive, and fairly cheap. Great tuna sandwich.

Berryhill's original fish taco is excellent, but overpriced, except on Mondays. To me the tacos and tamales pale in comparison to other more authentic, much cheaper taquerias.

Vietnam Coast - I hear good things and need to try it.

Mandolas - I haven't tried that location. I teach a class at UH every fall, so I will be in the area soon.

El Rey - I eat there often and considered it. But the taqueria competition is really tough in this city. The only food that really excites me at El Rey is: the Cuban taco w/beef, black beans and bananas; and the shrimp tempura taco. Everything else I have tried has been good, but nothing amazing. Their Ropa Viejo and Cuban sandwiches are good, but I have had much better in Houston.

anonymouseater said...

sheeats - thanks very much for the info on pho! I have been wondering about the answer to that question for years.

As for tendons and tripe, I'll try tendons, but I really don't like tripe. A friend of mine says I need to get the pho with "blood clots." Mmmmmmm.

One of these days, can you explain the different meatballs to me?

Anonymous said...

good list! hopefully you will be able to try the full gamut of chinatown- lots of great cheap eats-

santong snacks, fu fu cafe, xiong's cafe- for your dumpling fix/noodle soups

china gourmet (in dynasty plaza) for taiwanese dishes

pricier but worth it:
saigon pagolac, jasmine - for famous vietnamese 7 courses of beef/or fish

malay bistro/ KL Malaysian- great inexpensive noodle soups

hong kong city mall- lots of little vietnamese sandwich/pho shops- too many to name

other places to visit (more West Houston)
Phoenicia Specialty foods- the mega grocery store of all things Middle Eastern/Eastern European- reasonable prices too.

Cafe Caspian/Kasra Grill- Persian food

Manena's argentinian bakery shop for great pastries/sandwiches/empanadas

anonymouseater said...

Last commentor --

Thanks for the suggestions. I have tried quite a few of the places that you list -- Saigon Pagolac, KL Malaysian, Hong Kong Mall shops, Cafe Caspian, Phoenicia. They are all good -- especially KL -- but none make my top 20 list.

I have set out to go to Santong Snacks at least 3 times, but they were always closed.

The others I will add to my list of places to try: China Gourmet, Jasmine, Malay Bistro, Manena's.

Thanks again!

zorra said...

Mmm, I love Cafe Montrose. Their marvelous and enormous hot fudge sundae (Dame Blanche) is the best inexpensive late-night, after-the-show dessert in town.

As the first "anonymous" said, what about some of the Indian restaurants on Hillcroft near 59? In years past one could get a delicious serving of chicken curry, enough for two people, at Raja for about $5.99.

tram said...

ahhhh! Mai's? a travesty!

it's not terrible, but i feel like it's discrediting your otherwise great list! the only time most vietnamese people eat at Mai's is because it's 3AM and you could probably drive yourself there after clubbing in midtown/downtown without dying. it's one of those "only good when you're drunk" type of places. and even then, i'd go to Tan Tan before going to Mai's.

as far as a "better" vietnamese restaurant? it depends on what you want. pho? family-style plates? sandwiches? 7-course beef? steamed rice cakes? you'll rarely find a vietnamese restaurant that excels at more than one thing.

the places my family/friends frequent include Thien An, Bodard, Saigon Pagolac, Thien Thanh, and Tan Tan (when you feel like having a heart attack).

happy eating. =)

anonymouseater said...


A Vietnamese-born friend of mine says the same thing as you: different restaurants are better for different dishes. So I have tried Saigon Pagolac and Tan Tan, and Thien An is high on my list of restaurants to try.

So I don't disagree with you.

The problem is that, if I am going to do a top-10 list that represents the diversity of Houston, I don't have room for 5 Vietnamese restaurants. I have to pick one. Mai's may not have the best of anything. But it has a big menu with a lot of good dishes. If I had to pick one restaurant to introduce a visitor to a wide range of Vietnamese food in Houston, right now I would pick Mai's. But then again, Tan Tan might be a good alternative.

Thanks for the suggestions!

Lord said...

I agree Mais is kind of gross, even when drunk. But with that information, I wish I knew which Vietnamese restaurants were good at which dishes. Vietnamese Coast is delicious (not the sandwiches, but the Vietnamese Coast Beef is unreal as well as almost everything I've tried), but it is kind of the Tacos-A-Gogo of Mexican food. Sometimes I want bastardized ethnic food, and for that I thank the Coast. Les Givrals has good sandwiches, but I assume there are better.

I once ordered a dish from a special section of the menu at Van Loc described as beef with onions and lemon, and the waitress double checked with me to make sure I wanted it. I should have known to try something else, but I acted like I knew what I was doing. She brought it out and the description had been apt if not spot on. It was sliced raw beef (raw, cold beef of unknown quality) amidst sliced white onions with lemon wedges around the plate. That was it. I put it down so as not to lose face, and it wasn't terrible, but the nervous tick I had for a week after I ate it about getting deathly ill wasn't fun.

Mercedes said...

Thien An - Hands down the best Pho Tai in Houston. They're sandwiches and eggrolls are pretty good too.

Shaina Adora said...

Great site! I miss Houston so much...esapecially the diverse people and diverse FOOD!

Beatriz said...

We love the list of Houston's cheap restaurants you have created. It seems a very good choice to eat for little money without sacrificing quality food. We have made a more visual guide that includes the proposed spots, you can see it here -->
Thanks for inspiring

Anonymous said...

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