A September 2004 trip
to Houston by ssullivan
Quote: Visiting Houston on a limited budget? Want to know where the best places to eat a great meal for less than $15 (or sometimes less than $10) are? Take my advice -- Houston is one city where you can eat very well on not a lot of money.
Houston has gained a reputation as a city of great chefs and restaurants. I mean, where else do people consider eating out to be one of their major hobbies? It's true, we Houstonians love to eat out (no wonder we earned the dreaded "fattest city in the US" title from Men's Health magazine several times in the last few years).
Unlike some other well-known restaurant cities like New York and San Francisco, the good news is you don't have to carry a platinum card to afford to eat well here. Sure, we've got all the usual affordable chain restaurants, but why eat at those places when we've got great local choices like Barnaby's, Niko Niko's, Fadi's, Cafe Express, and others serving up large portions of very good food at affordable prices? So here's my own version of the Food Network's a Day with Rachael Ray. Read on to learn about some of the best restaurants you won't find in other cities where you can maximize your dining dollars.
METRO buses are slower and more difficult for out-of-towners who are not familiar with the city's layout to navigate, but offer an affordable alternative to a rental car. Taxis are plentiful but, outside of the downtown and Galleria areas, it's usually best to call a cab in advance, as your chances of standing on a corner and hailing one down are not as great here as they are in other cities. Where appropriate,e I have tried to include public transportation bus route numbers in journal entries. For current information on METRO routes and schedules, see the METRO website.
The folks who brought us Barnaby's Cafe have done it again! Brown Bag Deli is a funky little sandwich shop on Westheimer at Shepherd Dr., on the edge of Montrose and near the Westheimer antique shop district. Newer locations have also recently opened in Rice Village and Northwest Houston. The concept is simple. Pick up a clipboard and brown paper bag with the menu printed on it at the front door or counter and a pencil. Create your own sandwich by marking the menu on the bag with your choice of bread, meat, cheese, veggies, and condiments. Check off any side orders or beverages, turn in your bag to the cashier, pay for your order, and in a few minutes, your bag is returned filled with your order. Sure, it's a simple concept, but what makes Brown Bag Deli a wonderful place for lunch (or to get food to go for a nice picnic in Hermann Park) is the amazing quality the food, super cheap prices, and the fun and friendly staff.
To start, there's the bread. This isn't your ordinary plain white Wonder Bread. Sandwiches are served on freshly made buns that are unbelievably good. White, whole wheat, and jalapeño cheese choices are available. Sandwiches are made with your choice from a selection of meats, including Boar's Head ham, turkey, salami, and roast beef, as well as tuna salad with pecans (I'm pretty sure it's the same tuna salad recipe they use at Barnaby's), chicken salad (not the same as the recipe at Barnaby's but still very good), pimento cheese, and egg salad (a friend swears this stuff is heavenly). Top it off with your choices from a selection of cheeses, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, several types of mustard, mayonnaise, or horseradish sauce and you have a delicious, filling sandwich for $3.50. Side orders include Zapp's chips, Baked Lays, fruit, and a wonderful red skin potato salad. For dessert, a selection of cakes, homemade cookies, and wonderful pecan tarts are available, as well as Amy's Ice Cream. Sound like the perfect place? The deli closes at 6:00 PM, so this is a place to hit for lunch, not dinner. And the parking (as with all other locations in the Barnaby's family or restaurants) can be a pain when they are busy. Nevertheless, these are minor inconveniences. I challenge you to find a better, fresher, healthier, and cheaper alternative for lunch where you can stuff yourself for well under $10.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on September 2, 2004
Brown Bag Deli
2036 Westheimer Road
Houston, Texas 77098
This kitchsy little Montrose Chinese fast food place serves fairly large portions of very good Cantonese and Hunan cuisine. From the outside, Ming's looks like little more than a run down shack sitting near the busy Montrose and Westheimer intersection. Once inside, though, hungry customers are hit with a funky, Ikea-styled interior. Orders are placed and paid for at the counter, but the staff brings the food out to you at your table. The menu is posted on a large chalkboard above the counter, but printed menus that are easier to read are available on the counter. Be sure to check the dry erase board above the drink cooler for the daily specials.
While the food here is served quickly on Styrofoam plates and most customers eat with plastic forks (for the regular customers who know where to look, there is a somewhat hidden container of real forks located next to the more obvious bins of plastic forks and spoons), don't let the fast-food nature of the restaurant turn you away. The food here is very good, with some items outstanding. Ming's is known in Houston for having the best egg rolls in town, but other appetizers such as the melt-in-your mouth cream cheese crab puffs and pan-fried dumplings are some of the best in the city as well. Everything is made fresh from scratch after you order it (excluding a few items such as the soups) and is MSG-free. The hot and sour soup is some of the best I've ever had, although it is also probably the spiciest, and is guaranteed to clear your sinus passages. As for entrees, I particularly like the general jow's chicken (their take on general tso's), the tangy spicy chicken, and the orange chicken. All of the chicken entrees feature all white meat chicken breast, and the fried entrees are very lightly fried just until they are crispy but are never greasy. All entrees are served with steamed rice, with their very good fried rice available for a modest extra charge. A select group of entrees are also available as combo meals; with these you get the entree with fried rice, a small order of sweet and sour chicken on the side, fried wontons, and a soft drink or iced tea all for one set price. There are only about five of these choices, but some of the more popular entrees, including moo goo gai pan, general jow's chicken and the tangy spicy chicken, are available as combo meals.
Sure, you can get better Chinese food at some (sometimes) fancier places around town. But for the excellent quality, low prices, fast service, and Montrose location (which guarantees good people watching), you can't beat this place. And, if you happen to be on the west side of town, the owners have a second location called Three Dragons Cafe at 1910 Wilcrest that features the same recipes and menu as Ming's.
METRO Routes: 82 Westheimer, 34 Montrose Crosstown (Ming's); 19 Wilcrest Crosstown (Three Dragons Cafe).
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on September 3, 2004
2703 Montrose Blvd
Houston, Texas 77006
+1 713 529 7888
If there was an award for best "bang for your dining dollar" in Houston, Lai Lai Dumpling House would win it hands down. Tucked into a corner of an Asian shopping center in West Houston's bustling "new" Chinatown on Bellaire Blvd., this small Chinese cafe is just about the only place I know of where you can feed four people on less than $15 (including tax, beverages, and tip!) and still have enough leftovers for everyone to take home some. Lai Lai's menu is somewhat limited; do not expect the huge variety that some of the other Asian restaurants in Houston feature. Don't expect much in the way of ambiance either. But the owner is one of the sweetest people you'll ever meet and the Chinese food that comes out of her kitchen some of the best you'll ever taste. The house specialty is the dumplings, which are served either steamed or pan-fried. My personal favorites are the plump, juicy steamed chicken dumplings and pork buns. Be warned, all portions are HUGE. Do not let the tiny prices fool you into believing that one order won't go a long way. Dumplings come out in orders of ten, and each dumpling is so big that two orders of dumplings will be very filling for a table of four. Other excellent choices are the spicy hot and sour soup, which comes in a bowl so large that we've never finished it, and the general tso's chicken, which is arguably the best in Houston. When my office was located near Lai Lai, three or four used to go and order a bowl of hot and sour soup, two orders of dumplings, and an order of general tso's chicken. We'd all leave stuffed, and each with enough in our to-go boxes to provide a very filling full meal later at home.
The only downsides to eating at Lai Lai are the out of the way location (there aren't usually many reasons for tourists to be out in this part of West Houston and the place is a little hard to find), the lack of atmosphere, and the cash only payment policy. But, all of the food is very good, the service fast and super friendly, and the prices unbelievably cheap.
Lai Lai Dumpling House
9262 Bellaire Blvd.
Houston, Texas 77036
Restaurant | "Mission Burritos"
In recent years burritos (or when they're filled with non-Mexican food, "wraps") have become extremely popular, especially in Houston. Of all of the burrito shops in town, Mission Burritos remains my favorite, even if they did close the Westchase location close to where I used to live (although now I'm not too far from the West Alabama store!). This is the best place in town to go for huge burritos freshly made as you watch. Or, if you prefer something other than a burrito, tacos, quesadillas, salads, and soups are also available.
If you've ever been to another burrito place the format here will be familiar. Step up to the counter at one end and place your order. Burritos come in two sizes, regular and large. The regular is huge so I can't imagine how enormous the large must be, and I don't think in nearly five years of eating here I've ever seen someone actually order one. After your whole wheat or white flour tortilla is warmed, pick your meat (char grilled chicken breast, fajita beef, grilled shrimp or fish, beer battered catfish, or grilled vegetables), beans (pinto or black), rice, salsa (roasted tomato, serrano cilantro ranch, tomatillo, chile arbol, or habanero), and top it off with a selection of vegetables, cheese, sour cream, guacamole, and other goodies. Side orders of chips with guacamole, salsa, and queso are available, but trust me, you don't need these as your burrito will probably be more than you can eat unless you are really hungry. A burrito or a couple of tacos and a soft drink will set you back less than $8 here, but despite the low prices the quality food is quite good.
Mission Burritos has sangria, beer, and wine available in addition to non-alcholic beverages at both locations; margaritas and frozen sangria (my favorite) are available at the West Alabama location only. Both locations have a fun, southwestern atmosphere and outdoor dining areas, although I prefer the West Alabama location for its nicer patio and more spacious indoor dining area. One last hint - grab a fork. If you're a slow eater and the tortilia gets soft, or get a burrito assembler who's not very skilled in rolling the burrito properly, these huge burritos tend to fall apart as you get down the last half. But with a fork and knife you can eat the rest of it and it's just as good.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on September 5, 2004
Mission Burritos : Restaurants
2245 W Alabama Street
Houston, Texas 77098
Once again, I'm making a rare exception to my "no big chain places listed in my journals" rule. I've been eating at Jason's Deli my entire life, since the days when they had fewer than five locations, all in the Beaumont/Port Arthur area. The original Gateway Center location in Beaumont (it's still there) was a frequent lunch spot for us when I was a kid and we went into Beaumont on Saturdays to go shopping. There are now over 75 locations in 16 states, yet Jason's remains one of my favorite places for a good, affordable lunch or dinner.
Jason's Deli is a typical deli menu, with a wide selection of sandwiches, salads, and soups. The restaurant also features giant baked potatoes stuffed with a variety of toppings, wraps, and a large selection of reduced-fat and -calorie menu items. Jason's is one place where all of the "diet" food tastes as good, if not better, than the regular menu items.
My personal favorites on the menu are the all-you-can-eat salad bar, ranchero wrap, turkey muffaletta, Santa Fe chicken sandwich, deli cowboy, French onion soup, and spud lite. One of the best deals on the menu is the 1/4 Muffaletta Special, with your choice of a quarter of a turkey or ham muffaletta served with a cup of soup, red beans and rice, or chili. All sandwiches come with potato chips or Baked Lays; sandwiches with the heart healthy symbol next to them on the menu come with Baked Lays, steamed vegetables, or a delicious bowl of fresh fruit salad. A selection of homemade cookies, baklava, brownies, and other desserts are also available.
With such a wide selection of menu items, large portions at reasonable prices, and locations in many popular areas of town, Jason's Deli makes a good choice for lunch or dinner. The address above is for the Rice Village location on University, but there are also locations near Montrose, Downtown, the Uptown/Galleria area, and the Clear Lake/NASA area. For addresses and phone numbers of other locations, as well as menus, see the Jason's Deli website.
10321 Katy Freeway
Houston, Texas 77024
+1 713 467 2007
As a proud Houston resident set on doing my part to get rid of this wonderful city's mostly undeserved bum reputation as a tourist destination, I've centered my various Houston journals around certain themes. As a result, some very affordable dining options have ended up listed in other journals. Rather than reviewing the same places multiple times in multiple places (I doubt the IgoUgo editors would be very happy with that), I'm including here links to other restaurants that fit the "Cheap Eats" category but are listed in my other journals. And, as I complete my other Houston journals, this list will grow.
District of Columbia County, District of Columbia