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.
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.
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.