Friday, April 10, 2009

Houston's Top 10 Cheap Restaurants

These are the cheap restaurants that I enjoyed most over the last year.

By "cheap" I mean an average food price of under $20 per person. You can eat well at most of these places for under $10.

The list is considerably different from 2008's list. I spent more time exploring Asian restaurants, and it shows.

Top 10

1. Asia Market. I ate at Asia Market more than anywhere else on the list, and I am still working my way through the fascinating menu. Although this "restaurant" is no more than 5 tables in a Thai convenience store, it serves some of the most flavorful and unusual Thai and Laotian dishes in town.

2. Pico's. Although the Tex-Mex and grilled items are fine, the real standouts are the authentic Mexican dishes like mole (3 kinds!) and the sublime chiles en nogada. Don't forget to check the specials board before you walk in the front door. When available, osso buco and soft shell crabs are outstanding, but not so cheap.

3. La Jaliscience. Mexican food is different when you eat in places with few gringo customers. La Jaliscience plays Mexican TV and waitresses speak to me (so obviously a gringo) in Spanish. But the food stands out most. La Jaliscience serves a generous Mexican breakfast, fantastic soups, tacos with wierd meats, and the hottest green salsa I've had.

4. Mint Cafe. Mint Cafe reveals its charms slowly, over many visits. Standard Middle dishes - from gyros to baba ghanouge are high quality. The best dishes include the kids' kafta burger and two quintessential Egyptian dishes - foul (fava beans with lemon and olive oil) and molokhia (a soup with chicken and Egyptian greens served only on Friday).

5. Himalaya. Spicy Northern Indian and Pakistani food. Get recommendations from Chef Kaiser, one of our most colorful food personalities.

6. Mary'z. The best Lebanese food in Houston. Mary'z chich tawook may be my favorite marinated chicken dish.

7. Vieng Thai serves some of the strangest, and spicest food in Houston.

8. Sandong Noodle House. The noodles are good, but Sandong is most famous for pan fried dumplings.

9. Tan Tan. Bright neon, garish moving photos of water falls, fake palm trees with stuffed monkeys, and an encyclopedic menu of Chinese and Vietnamese food. Nothing else is quite like Tan Tan.

10. Mandola's Deli. You probably didn't expect to see a Mandola's restaurant on this list, but this one is different. Frank Mandola's grungy dive south of downtown only serves lunch, and it is a cheap, fabulous lunch - Italian and New Orleans style po-boys, a killer eggplant parmesan, and Italian immigrant pasta dishes.

Runners Up

11. Burns Barbecue. Despite appearances, Houston really isn't a barbecue town. Because of air quality regulations, barbecue in the city just isn't as good as in small Texas towns. Currently, my favorite is Burns in Acres Homes.

12. Thien An serves good bahn mi sandwiches and a killer bun bo hue. Thien An is a reminder that you can still get great, cheap Vietnamese food in Midtown.

13. Turquoise Grill. The setting in a former office snack bar on Kirby is hardly enticing, but Jim Dokuyuku and his family draw you in for a family meal. Several authentic Turkish dishes are only allowed to be cooked by Jim's mom. The grilled meats have a remarkable flavor, and the gyro meat is the best I've had in Houston. Empire Grill has better bread. Pasha is in a more attractive setting. But Turquoise is my all-around favorite Turkish restaurant.

14. Huynh. Reasonably-priced Vietnamese food is served in an attractive modern setting. Most Houston Vietnamese restaurants seem to work off the same standardized cookbook. But some of Huynh's dishes, like cha giao and pork spring rolls, are decidedly different -- and better.

15. Sichuan Cuisine. The strangest Chinese food I've had in Houston. Don't expect a standard American Chinese menu. Do expect pig snout, duck tongue, and mouth-numbing peppercorns.

16. New Filipiniana. Filipino food is less Asian and more creole than I expected. This place gets a huge Filipino crowd, and has a huge lunch buffet that lets you dive in to a unique blend of flavors.

Other runners up: Que Huong, Pho Danh II, Avenue Grill, Barbecue Inn, Teotihuacan, Ko-Mart food stalls, Alfreda's Cafeteria, Pepper Tree Veggie Cuisine, Udipi Cafe, La Sani, Triple A Restaurant, Cafe Mezza, Xiong Cafe, KL Malaysian, Mandarin Cafe, Cafe Byblos.


Skip Foreplay said...

It maybe "passe" but Niko Niko's has always been and is still my favorite Greek & cheap place in town. Authenticity be damned.

anonymouseater said...

I really like the atmosphere at Niko Niko's. Plus it was the first restaurant where I discovered Greek food. Yet Niko Niko's dishes just don't compare well with some other Mediterranean restaurants in the area, including Biba's Ones a Meal, La Fendee, and even Aladdin.

For instance, the greek salad, souvlaki and gyros are much better at Biba's. The felafel and tabouli are beter at La Fendee. And the hummus and lamb shank are better at Aladdin. In my last five visits to Niko Niko's, I have not found any dish that is better than its competitors. And I am consistently disappointed with their ingredients, such as pale white iceberg lettuce, instead of the green lettuce used at Biba's.

I wished I liked Niko Niko's more than I do.

Dr. Ricky said...

I commend you on defining your terms for a cheap meal - at a budget of $20 a person, by my own standards, isn't exactly cheap. BTW - the restaurant is called New Filipiniana, and I think at the moment makes the most consistent Filipino food in town. Not that there are many to choose from.

Anonymous said...

May I suggest a new place for you to check out for this list? Consider Bodegas Taco Shop, recently opened in the Museum District, for a wonderful meal at an excellent price.

Perry Dorrell, aka PDiddie said...

I eat breakfast at Turquoise after every quarterly diabetes checkup, next door at Baylor Family Medicine. Not just because I'll have three months to work on lowering the lipid scores, but because -- as you note -- it's one of the best restaurants in the city.

johnathan said...

Oh man, La Jaliscience's green sauce is hot!

Anonymous said...

Mandola's is grungy?


anonymouseater said...

Last comment - Yes, Mandola's Delis is grungy -- not in the sense of cleanliness, but in the sense of style. The walls are covered with poorly framed, faded photos and cheap college sports posters.

It doesn't look like it has ever been touched by an interior decorator. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Perhaps you are thinking of a different Mandola's restaurant?

Rubiao said...

I'd probably stick Pico's (and the deliciously versatile Cafe Mezza) in some sort of mid-range category, especially considering La Jaliscience is (appropriately) on the list. It has to be the best deal in the city, though the last few times I've been there the green salsa has been less hot.

Himalaya is amazing but the tab always comes out a little high, possibly because of how many dishes I order and the ensuing leftovers. I always found Droubi's down the street to be a steal.

I think Chilosos is a great cheap breakfast/lunch. Great tortillas. La Guadalupana works too and vies against Himalaya for nicest owners. Givrals Bahn Mi blows Thien An out of the water. Brazil, since their menu change, has been off the charts good, especially breakfast.

Mandola's! So good.

Note: no burgers. I now consider this a vendetta.

According to this list, I must see you 3 times a week.

Nord said...

Although it pushes the outer boundaries of your cheapness scale (cheapnosity?), I have recently become a big fan of the new Ruggles Green. Of course, I haven't ventured too far off the salads lists yet, but their hydro butter lettuce wedge is phenomenal. Even as a take-home, which salads rarely are.

Anonymous said...

Niko Niko is okay. But really wish they had a waitstaff. I really like Zake's for sushi though. It's pleasant, even if the help is sometimes slow and won't seat in certain areas until after dark (stupid).

Anonymous said...

I would encourage you to try again by focusing on the truly cheap restaurants. Pretty much ANY restaurant in town can feed ya under $20 per person. That definition probably fits 95+% of places in town.

Please make a list of under $10 each. Then, try again for $5 per person. It can be done.

anonymouseater said...

Only one place on this list is over $10 - Pico's.

I raised my limit this year to include Pico's. It is one of my favorite restaurants in Houston. And Pico's fits on this list better than my list of 10 upscale restaurant.

Anonymous said...

Bodega's? the prices are low enough to warrant inclusion on this list but the flavor and portion size definitely keep it off.

Anna said...

what is the best inexpensive italian in houston? Fratelli's is too far..

viagra online said...

I love mexican food I've visited a to many restaurants from Houston, but anyone as La Jaliscience. It has the best food, that I've tasted. Burritos, Nachos, Chile Relleno, Quesadillas, everything is delicious there I agree with you because it had to be in this list, prices are cheaper that to many restaurants I've gone.

Anonymous said...

Ones A Meal is soo much better than Niko Niko's and is one of my favorite 24 hour places... you should try there is literally a block away from Niko Nikos

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