Best Cheap Eats in Houston
Everything is bigger in Texas, but the bill doesn't have to be. We scoped out places to get the most bang for your buck — and to satisfy all your diverse food cravings — and came up with a list combining the tried-and-true with the hot and new.
Photo By: Jenn Duncan
Photo By: Jenn Duncan
Photo By: Jenn Duncan
Photo By: Jenn Duncan
Photo By: Chris Brown
Photo By: Jay Marroquin
Photo By: Jenn Duncan
Photo By: Ramesh Lulla
Photo By: Terence Tang
Photo By: Dragana Harris
Photo By: Srivastava'a
Photo By: Dragana Harris
La Calle Tacos
Tacos, tostadas and tortas — oh my! The spotlight is on Mexican street eats at this cantina in Downtown. Elote, a traditional street snack of mesquite-grilled corn dressed with mayo, Cotija cheese, chili powder and a squeeze of fresh lime, is presented directly on the cob here for just $5.99, and the choose-your-own-adventure Chilinga Tacos — you get five for $9.99 — make for a hearty platter with rice and chorizo beans. Visit on Taco Tuesday for the real bargain, though: Any taco, at any time of day, costs only $1.
This onetime taco truck turned brick-and-mortar spot keeps things simple with a menu of taco-house essentials tacked to the wall and tubes of housemade red and green salsa on the bar tops. At $2.50 a pop, asada and smoked pork tacos are a bargain even with add-ons like creamy chunks of avocado or beans, and the $4 mango slushie should most definitely be amped up with a shot of tequila.
The crowds pack into this unassuming sushi bar in Greenway and fill their tables with colorful jewels of raw fish and more. Yakitori and deep-fried shrimp tempura will run you $3.50, hand rolls are $2.50, and single pieces of flounder, Spanish tuna and whole scallop are just $1 each. Big spenders may even spring for the ice cream-topped fried banana for dessert — at $4.50, relatively steep compared with the $1.50 red-bean mochi.
In Houston, there are plenty of food trucks where you can score a falafel and gastropubs where you can indulge in a decent gyro, but for a no-nonsense Mediterranean meal with all the fixins, you go to Aladdin, in the heart of Montrose. For $12.99, you can fill your belly to the brim with the entree-and-two-sides combo; the challenge is deciding which entree and which sides to choose. Meat from the lamb shank glistens on its oversized bone, and the ultra-fluffy pita-pocket pillows are meant to be dipped in the extra sauce from the spicy lamb meatballs. Resist the urge to fill up on the spinach pies.
As a true melting-pot city, Houston boasts fantastic ethnic eats. Vietnamese food ranks high on the list, with tasty options at every turn, but few spots run as swiftly as Les Givral's in Midtown. Like a well-oiled machine, this high-traffic cafe shells out its famous banh mi sandwiches ($2.75) and Vietnamese iced coffees as soon as the line begins forming for lunch each day. Flaky buns are in and out of the toaster faster than you can say "chargrilled pork or tofu," and tall glasses filled with condensed milk and bold black coffee tower high against the wall like a work of art.
Al's Quick Stop
Part convenience store, part cafe, Al's is a one-stop shop for cigarettes, wine and a full-flavored Mediterranean feast. Find falafel with fragrant herbs and creamy tahini, and lemony hummus made extra decadent by being topped with olive oil and chunky pickle slivers; both are only $5.20. The gyro plate is vibrant in color, with a bright cucumber and tomato salad served alongside a hefty combination of roasted lamb and beef atop a bed of seasoned rice with tzatziki and pita. The price is eye-popping too — only $9.99.
The signature po' boys at this iconic sandwich shop make for a bargain lunch at just $6.95, but spring for one of the other 12 sandwiches under $10 and indulge in a meaty meal between the bread. The juicy Tex-Mex cheesesteak made saucy with chipotle mayo is finger-licking and messy, while the classic muffaletta is stacked high with salty salami, provolone and Antone's housemade olive mix.
Its late-night hours and proximity to Main Street's lively bar scene have made this no-frills pizza parlor a watering hole for Downtown partygoers — even more so with the recent addition of Frank's Backyard, the two-level open-air bar next door, which offers a spirits menu and more than 40 beers on tap. A wait in line is almost always guaranteed, not because a monster Hawaiian slice with chunks of sweet pineapple will most definitely hit the spot after a half-dozen Jagerbombs, but because the pizza is truly among the best in the city. A good old-fashioned New York-style slice of plain cheese pizza — thin and malleable at the tip, leading to a thick and crispy crust — is under $3 here and always hot and ready at the counter.
The colorful curries and stacks upon stacks of noodles are brimming with flavor at this traditional Thai cafe where most of the menu items are under $10. The mild and slightly sweet sweet, coconut milk-based Kang Massaman curry ($8.95) is hearty, with blocks of potato, tomato, and your choice of chicken, beef, pork or tofu (add $1 if you prefer shrimp or fish). And the large-enough-for-two platter of seafood pad Thai ($9.95) is packed with shrimp, fish, bean sprouts and a sprinkling of chopped peanuts.
Shri Balaji Bhavan
Nestled among the mithai shops and sari boutiques in Little India, Shri Balaji Bhavan is a favorite for vegetarian street eats, with a menu boasting papdi chat, dosas and milk-based drinks like mango lassi. Chaat dishes, served traditionally topped with raw onions, tomatoes, tamarind chutney and creamy yogurt, are all under $4, while larger dishes like the spiced potato-stuffed dosa served with peppery sambar are under $7. If any of the dishes prove to be too spicy for your blood, an order of syrupy-sweet gulab jamun (milky balls of deep-fried dough) is available to save the day for only $2.69.
New York Bagels and Coffee Shop
If Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer were to pick a Houston "coffee shop" to perch at on the regular, this would be it. Tucked away in a retail strip — as many of Houston's best places to eat are — this Meyerland-area diner dishes out all the traditional breakfast classics, from bagels and lox and corned beef hash to loaded Western omelets with home fries (ask for extra crispy!). Each is under $10 and served all day long.
Don't let the name fool you; this canteen discreetly nestled among the many vendors in the Greenway Plaza food court offers far more than burgers with its fully customizable menu of hot dogs, chicken sandwiches, loaded fries and fried fish. Burgers begin at under $4 with a 2-ounce 44 Farms beef patty — an upgrade to a 5-ounce patty is just a couple of bucks more — and there's no charge for swapping the standard bun for a protein-style one, or sweet sourdough or rye bread. A dog will set you back just $3, plus a couple of dollars for a hefty slathering of turkey chili, but additional toppings like raw onions, tomato, and pickled jalapenos are all complimentary.
Tacos A Go Go
In a city where Taco Tuesday is widely celebrated, knowing where to score is a must — and Tacos A Go Go should be part of your regular routine. Open early each morning and into the wee hours of the night, it offers breakfast tacos with toppings like grilled potato and chorizo scrambled into eggs for $2.59. Pure Mexican street tacos like the Pastor, with tender slices of guajillo-marinated pork fajita meat topped with juicy bits of pineapple, are under $4. Add on an order of chips and queso and a mango-flavored Jarritos for a well-balanced Taco Tuesday.
The line moves fast at this down-home country-style cafeteria where a menu of comfort classics is imbued with Louisiana flair, and daily specials like the chicken-fried chicken and blackened catfish are best paired with heaping sides. At this Houston institution since 1978, diners pour in on weekday afternoons — all five locations are open for lunch only — and can count on a belly-filling bargain lunch. A large helping of the signature red beans and rice with link sausage is a modest $5.75 here, and the spicy shrimp etouffee, loaded beef-and-bean chili, and chunky jambalaya are all under $8.
At famed pitmaster Ronnie Killen's 1950s-style diner in Pearland, burgers are piled high with traditional toppings between fluffy potato buns and tightly wrapped in paper pockets to ensure minimal spillage. The off-the-menu cheeseburger basket is a steal here; for $7, it delivers a wagyu beef cheeseburger with all the fixins, Killen's staple crinkle-cut fries and a beverage. Adding on a 44 Farms all-beef dog or an order of crisp, golden hand-battered onion rings may be tempting, but save room for dessert. Killen's handspun apple pie milkshake is thick, creamy and finished off with a generous drizzle of pie crumble and warm cinnamon spice.
Tracking down bargain Tex-Mex eats in the Space City isn't exactly rocket science, but where to start? Taco stand or taqueria? Tamale guy or empanada hut? The possibilities are endless. At El Real, a flashy 1930s-era Montrose cinema hall-turned-restaurant, all of these questions are answered (and more) in the way of a true Tex-Mex menu with plenty of authentic platters under $10. A sampling of three fiery pork tamales topped with chili con carne is presented in the Tamale Skillet for $7.99, and a duo of Suave Tacos — with savory pulled pork, smoked chicken or tender ground beef, in a soft flour tortilla — are served with the traditional accompaniment of beans and rice for $9.99.
Perhaps the only thing lacking at this Memorial-area fast-food house slinging Indian street eats is a drive-thru window. Orders come out in a jiffy, but you can be certain that much care is taken in the preparation of dishes like the Dhania Murg Shorba ($5), a slow-simmered chicken soup fragrant with fresh cilantro, and the Ajwaini Gobi ($8.49), a bold dish of crispy fried cauliflower in a carom seed sauce with a sharp, pungent flavor. There are also the grab-and-go kati rolls, a lunch favorite, for under $10.
Since 1993, this neighborhood gem by Gr8 Plate Hospitality's Paul Miller has been serving up a menu of classic Texas fare for diners with Texas-sized appetites. Today there are three locations, and with a 100-percent-from-scratch kitchen and grilled specialties cooked over the restaurant's live-fire mesquite grill, dishes are never boring. The Jax Burger, a longtime best-seller and a bargain at $5.25, is piled high with a fresh, never-frozen beef patty, lettuce, tomato, pickles and sliced red onion on fresh-baked bread that's toasted to order.
Raul Molina opened a Mexican restaurant in the early '40s and became one of the pioneers of Tex-Mex, a cuisine that has since become the primo pick for many Houstonians. The eponymous Molina's — still family-owned and locally run — boasts classic platters like the oh-so-cheesy Lady's Special ($9.95), which groups together a melted cheese-topped enchilada with a guacamole salad and a chili con queso puff. It ain't easy being cheesy, but Molina's pulls it off quite well, and at a price you won't mind.
Last Concert Café
Dig your feet into the sand, kick back to the sounds of Houston's latest and greatest indie-rock band, stroll the night market in search of a quirky trinket or two, and then order from one of the tastiest Tex-Mex menus in town. For $11.95, the Baby Mama dinner at Last Concert Café has it all: a single cheese enchilada, crunchy beef taco, and loaded tostada with rice and beans. Stop by during the day, too, and score heaping lunch-menu platters for under $10.