How to Eat Well in Hard Times

It’s easy, really. Just go get yourself some shrimp tacos, a beef-and-cheese cachapa, grilled pork with green papaya, fried chicken, gourmet Frito pie, or any of the 25 finds on this list of my favorite dishes in Texas under ten bucks.

April 2009By Comments

Croque-madame, Chez Nous, Austin
Photograph by Craig Cutler

When times are tough, dining out is one of the first pleasures we curtail. Sadly, if it’s not eliminated entirely, it’s scaled back to include nothing more exciting than chain pizzas, fast-food tacos, bad burgers, buckets o’ fried poultry parts, and LuAnn Platters. Well, those may be cheap, but they’re boring, as is eating at home. Sure, you save some money, but what good is that if you end up in a gastro-existential funk?

So, being the helpful person that I am, I decided to come up with a short list of intriguing, delicious, unpredictable, and memorable restaurant meals for a pretax outlay of no more than $10 a head. I soon realized, however, that there was no way for the list to be exhaustive or comprehensive; instead I began thinking of it as a compendium of my personal favorites, with a few brand-new-to-me places thrown in for variety. I searched my own data bank and queried friends, colleagues, and our restaurant reviewers. Finally, I packed my Rolaids and hit the road.

My roundup includes everything from a sleek new Vietnamese restaurant in Houston to a boisterous Mexican cafe in San Antonio. Some are old standbys, some are new finds. A few are innovative, most are traditional (credentialed chefs cost money). Some are upscale, some are midscale, one or two require that you tune your attitude to “adventuresome.” They all provide quality food, but quantity was not a paramount consideration. These constitute meals, to be sure, but the goal here was not simply to fill bellies. The LuAnn Platter does that. If your heart thrills to the dyspepsia-inducing phrase “all-you-can-eat buffet,” you may find yourself disappointed.

The nineteenth-century French gourmet Brillat-Savarin famously opined that the discovery of a new dish does more good for human happiness than the discovery of a new star. I second that emotion (although I’ve always suspected that astronomers would disagree). This is a story about dishes that make me happy. Go give them a try and see if they don’t put a smile on your face too, even in hard times like these.

AUSTIN

Frito Pie
Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, Austin
$9

“Outrageous” barely begins to describe the Frito pie at Lamberts, an uptown, down-home dining destination. Here the trash-food classic—traditionally corn chips, chili, yellow cheese, and raw onions served in the Fritos bag—has undergone several key upgrades. The cheese has become four cheeses (cheddar, queso fresco, chèvre, and Lamberts’ homemade queso). The chili has morphed into brisket (be warned, it might be a tad fatty). The raw onions are now pico de gallo. And the chefs have thrown in two of their homemade barbecue sauces. Only the Fritos remain unaltered. The glorious mess is savory, sweet, and staggeringly rich—don’t schedule a cholesterol test the next day. Or anything, really. 401 W. Second, 512-494-1500. Lunch Mon—Sat 11—2. Dinner 7 days 5:30—11. Brunch Sun 11—2.

Croque-madame
Chez Nous, Austin
$8

We Texans are often quite smug about our abilities with a fryer (see the State Fair of Texas), but we’re Johnny-come-latelies compared with the French. These grease masters originated the fried-ham-and-cheese sandwich, the justly famous croque-monsieur. Then, in a thrilling display of joie de fry, they topped it with a fried egg to create the delectable croque-madame. At Chez Nous, Austin’s well-loved French bistro, both versions of the sandwich are grilled (a departure from tradition) and arrive hot and crunchy, but the madame—its egg like a jaunty beret—is the one you want. Be sure you order the egg “over easy.” I let the yolk ooze into the crust of the bread and run with abandon between the ham and the melted cheese. 510 Neches, 512-473-2413. Lunch Tue—Fri 11:45—2. Dinner Tue—Sun 6—10:30. Closed Mon.

Lamb Sausage Pizza
Cipollina, Austin
$9

This recent addition to the menu at the West Austin bistro has quickly become one of my favorites (a small makes a perfect meal for one). The key is that two of the primary ingredients are made in-house: the robust, crumbly sausage (zinged with smoked Spanish paprika) and the chunky red sauce that sings of fresh tomatoes. Roasted onion and bell pepper, plus nuggets of feta from Brazos Valley Cheese, in Waco, seal the deal. Cipollina’s pies all have that thin, crackly crust that makes you feel somehow virtuous. The atmosphere—spare but with low lighting falling on small tables in a tall room—reaffirms the sensation. 1213 West Lynn, 512-477-5211. Open 7 days 11—10.

Mamma’s Meatballs
Mandola’s Italian Market, Austin
$1.50 for 3 balls

When in a delirium I decimate a paycheck or two on an ill-advised spree at Nordstrom, my next stop is always Mandola’s, where I assuage my conscience with my favorite quirky bargain dinner: a side order of meatballs. The recipe, recently tweaked and improved, blends ground beef, pork, veal, and a cabinet of aromatic spices, chiefly Italian oregano and thyme. Each meatball is about the size of a Ping-Pong ball and slightly caramelized on the outside. When you cut into its steamy interior with a fork, you can see nubbins of carrot and onion. Bread crumbs—invisible to the naked eye—fluff up the texture and hold in those delectable meat juices. The finishing touch is a splash of slightly chunky, not-too-sweet red sauce. Accompanied by free focaccia—all yeasty and hot and smushy—three meatballs are a perfect meal for me; six would make a big eater ecstatic. The Triangle shopping area, 4700 W. Guadalupe, 512-419-9700. Open Mon—Fri 8—10, Sat 9—10, Sun 9—9.

Feijoada
Sampaio’s, Austin
$8.75 lunch $9.95 dinner

The word is pronounced “feh-zho-ah-da,” and if you’re like me, somewhere around that slurred j you start to get hungry. Think of it as Brazilian chili—a traditional stew of smoked beef, pork, sausage, and black beans. In its home country every family has a recipe that they’ll defend to the death. The version at Sampaio’s takes the humble ingredients to magnificent heights through a long simmering that melds the rich, rustic flavors into a perfect proletarian potion. It comes with two simple side dishes—delicate basmati rice and near-fluffy sautéed collard greens. Garnishes add a touch of class:
sections of orange and a mound of raisin-studded farofa (like seasoned bread crumbs but made from yuca root). The combo sounds weird, but it works. And how. 4800 Burnet Rd., 512-469-9988. Open Mon—Thur 11—10, Fri & Sat 11—11, Sun 10:30—10.

DALLAS

Chicken Potpie
Cowboy Chow,
Dallas
$7

The success of the all-American chicken potpie depends largely on its not getting too big for its britches, and yet that very humility often dooms it to a predictable comfiness. Cowboy Chow has solved this conundrum. Its potpie comes in an adorable cast-iron kettle topped with a puff-pastry crust. Pierce the dome and steam rises from within. Inhale deeply and you can practically taste the potatoes, carrots, peas, and big pieces of chicken afloat in a creamy buttermilk base. There is nothing outré about this potpie, yet neither is there anything pedestrian. It is an excellent, filling, flavorful version of one of the most classic dishes of American hard-times cuisine. The restaurant’s kitschy setting—dish towels for napkins, two buffalo heads on the wall—is pure lagniappe. 2801 Commerce, 214-742-2469. Open Mon—Wed 11—2, Thur 11—2 & 5—9, Fri & Sat 11—9. Closed Sun.

Grilled Pork Over Vermicelli With Green Papaya
Bistro B, Dallas
$6.99

The skilled make Vietnamese lettuce wraps with the ingredients from the bountiful platter and bowl that comprise #105, the astonishingly good grilled pork and papaya. Because I am a klutz, I always request a small, empty bowl to render the whole operation more manageable. In the bowl, I lay down a foundation of rice vermicelli. I follow that with a layer of shredded carrots, sliced cucumbers, mint, and lettuce. Next come slivers of warm grilled pork topped with a few sweet slices of green papaya. And finally, I add the finishing touches: a splash of sweet-tart dipping sauce and a sprinkle of peanuts and scallions. I stir it all up with chopsticks, hold the bowl close to my chin, and shovel it in like the home folks do—or the many Americans who have gravitated toward this big, bright, bubbling place. 9780 Walnut, 214-575-9885. Open 7 days 8 a.m.—midnight.

Fried Chicken Dinner
Bubba’s, Dallas
$7.45 dark meat $7.95 white meat

Where else but Dallas’s tony Highland Park neighborhood are you going to find fare fit for a Labor Day picnic alongside foil-wrapped pats of Plugrá European-style butter? At Bubba’s, a dapper black-white-and-red cafe, fried chicken is king. This is not some zany riff on the classic; it’s the classic done right (and cheap)—tender meat coated with a thick, crinkly crust, served with ultra-
whipped potatoes that have just a faint hint of sour cream in the blend. My favorite part of the ensemble, however, may be the cafe’s perfect yeast roll. I can never decide whether to devour it with dinner or have it for dessert with honey. 6617 Hillcrest Ave., 214-373-6527. Open 7 days 6:30 a.m.—10 p.m.

Chicken Sekuwa Temptation, Irving
$7.99

Thanks to Swanson’s 98-cent frozen TV dinners, most Americans shudder at the thought of compartmentalized food trays. But no
such prejudice exists in Nepal, or at Temptation, a neat-as-a-pin Asian fusion restaurant filled with faux flowers. I go for the chicken sekuwa, which arrives in a metal grid with six divisions. The largest contains a chunky stew. Every good dish has a nucleus. In sekuwa the protons and neutrons are the mustard oil and the chiles that bolster that spicy stew. When these twin heats connect, you know you are tasting something utterly distinctive. The other compartments are not too shabby either. I like the one with the salty, Rice Krispie—like thingies. 4070 N. Belt Line Rd., Ste. 138, Irving; 214-492-1229 or 817-715-3400. Open Sun—Thur 11:30—10:30, Fri & Sat 11:30—11.

Beef-and-Cheese Cachapa
Zaguán Latin Café and Bakery, Dallas
$8.95 lunch $9.95 dinner

Imagine a cornbread muffin somehow crossed with a crepe. Then imagine the resulting warm, flexible breadstuff folded around the filling of a roast-beef-and-cheese sandwich. That, in essence, is a cachapa, a comfort food staple in Venezuela and Colombia and a popular order at Zaguán, a blue-and-white-tiled bakery and cafe in central Dallas. Mild and moist, a cachapa must be eaten with a knife and fork (at least, this one must). It’s best the minute they put it on your table, piping hot, when the melted white farmer’s cheese is good and oozy and the shredded beef is tender and just a little chewy, like a Sunday pot roast. The room is busy at mealtimes with area businesspeople, expatriates longing for a taste of home, and, later, with students cramming for exams. 2604 Oak Lawn Ave., 214-219-8393. Open Sun—Wed 7:30—8:30, Thur—Sat 7:30—10:30.

Fort Worth

Fried Pork Chop Plate
Drew’s Place, Fort Worth
$8.49

The deep-fat fryers here hit on all eight cylinders, all day long. In my favorite order, two bedsheet-size pork chops take up the majority of the plate. These are just the way I remember my mother’s chops—she always bought thin ones (this was before chops became inch-thick monsters), and she always fried them well-done (just like every other dyed-in-the-skillet Texan). Peeking out from under them are the vegetables—I fancy the plain black-eyed peas and collard greens. A word of warning: You may have a Pavlovian moment when you lean over the plate and inhale the seductive aroma of pepper, salt, and batter united in holy matrimony by hot grease. Prepare to wipe your mouth before taking a bite. 2701 Curzon Ave., 817-735-4408. Open Mon 10:30—2, Tue—Thur 10:30—7, Fri 10:30—8, Sat 10:30—6, Sun 11—4.

Caldo de Pollo
Esperanza’s Café, Fort Worth
$5.45

Be advised that audience participation is required. Ask for an extra plate so that when your bowl of steaming caldo arrives, you can dredge out the whole chicken leg and thigh and cut the meat into bite-size pieces. (I also like to slice up the huge chunks of fresh carrot and squash; among fussy eaters, I defer to no one.) Then I return the meat and vegetables to the fragrant broth and dive in. Real chicken, on the bone, is the secret to this Mexican culinary staple, which has brought legions of fans to both locations of Esperanza’s family-welcoming cafes. 1601 Park Place Ave., 817-923-1961. Open Mon 7—3, Tue—Thur 7—9, Fri & Sat 7—10, Sun 7—5.

Chicken in Peanut Sauce
Thai Tina’s, Fort Worth
$8.50 lunch $9.95 dinner

You may think you know peanut sauce, but the version at Thai Tina’s resembles that ubiquitous dip in name only. Silky and sweet, not thick and nutty, it’s a multilayered flavor bonanza made daily by chef-owner Amphone Tina Vorachack. Every time I’ve asked what’s in it, she’s smiled and simply said, “Curry.” Once, I managed to get her to expand, and she reeled off a list of exotic ingredients: both massaman and red curries, coconut milk, and a spice trader’s bounty of lemongrass, cinnamon, garlic, and ginger. And both whole peanuts and peanut butter. Not surprisingly, her brew does wonderful things to chicken, broccoli, spinach, and bean sprouts. The low-ceilinged dining room, with its red brocade curtains, seems scaled for hobbits, but that just makes it cozier. 703 N. Henderson, 817-332-0088. Open Mon—Sat 11—9:30. Closed Sun.

HOUSTON

Chargrilled Bone-in Pork Chop and Egg Cake
Huynh, Houston
$6.95

What I like about this Vietnamese blue-plate special is that while it is exotic, it is also familiar and reassuring. The thin-cut pork chop in item number 54 is sliced deeply in several places from the edge to the center (so it won’t curl up on the grill) and brushed with a sweet, tangy marinade, not American to be sure but resonating with echoes of barbecue sauce. The so-named egg cake is more like a cross between meat loaf and a pâté, with earthy dried mushrooms mixed in; its crowning glory is a smooth, bright-yellow egg-yolk glaze. On the side comes a tidy mound of steamed rice. If you stay here longer than five minutes, you’ll undoubtedly meet one or the other of the two owners, Cindy and Anny. They’re everywhere, taking orders, adding up checks, and entreating customers for feedback on their fledgling enterprise. The verdict, overheard repeatedly while I was there: You’re doing great so far. 912 St. Emanuel at McKinney, 713-224-8964. Open Mon—Sat 10:30—9. Closed Sun.

Malaysian-Style Shrimp With Eggplant
Banana Leaf, Houston
$6.95

Never mind if you’re a little vague about Malaysian food—the waiters at this new storefront operation will save you. Indeed, a tip from a smart server led me to item V3, a fabulous stir-fry of shrimp with strips of purple Japanese eggplant, red and green bell peppers, and scallions. The shrimp proved modestly sized but pristine, the peppers crisp, the eggplant pliant. There was a gentle glow from the chiles, too. But what raised the combination to the stratosphere was a sauce of rice wine and belacan, a spicy-sweet-salty red Malaysian shrimp paste. I like to separate the dish’s elements, having a bite of shrimp, then a mouthful of rich, oil-drenched eggplant. Then I nibble some bell peppers. And I repeat until the plate is clean. The dining room is pleasant, with a thatched awning across the kitchen. 9889 Bellaire Blvd., Ste. 311; 713-771-8118. Open Sun—Thur 11—10, Fri & Sat 11—10:30.

Smoked Chicken Tostadas
Barnaby’s Café, Houston
$9

I’m usually willing to ignore the precious interior design of Barnaby’s in pursuit of the exquisite (and exquisitely filling) smoked-chicken tostadas. They start out simple enough, their bright-yellow chalupa shells slathered with refried black beans. This foundation is followed by diced tomatoes and shredded lettuce—nothing unusual about that. Then, however, there comes a mountain of seriously smoky chicken and dollops of sour cream and guacamole, followed by the final glory, a dash of Parmesan cheese and a kalamata olive. Initially, I bridled at the Italian garnishes. But as the salty, cheesy, sour flavors burst in my mouth, I remembered how much Mexican and Mediterranean cuisines have in common. It’s a crosscultural train wreck, and I love it. 1701 S. Shepherd Dr., 713-520-5131. Open Mon 11—10, Tue—Thur 7 a.m.—10 p.m., Fri 7—11, Sat 8—11, Sun 8—10.

Lamb Shank, Grilled Eggplant Salad, and Hummus
Fadi’s, Houston
$8.99

Aside from three shimmering bead chandeliers, few accessories identify Fadi’s as a Lebanese restaurant. It’s so generic-looking, in fact, that the first time I came here I was stunned by the richness and depth of the dishes in the buffet line. Three stand out: The lamb shank is sweet and tender at the bone; the grilled slice of eggplant encases a filling of its own savory flesh plus pimiento, mushrooms, and feta—deep, dusky flavors all; and the pleasantly grainy hummus boasts a bright spritzing of lemon juice (I like to have them drizzle the hummus with olive oil too). Put these three on a plate and don’t look back. 4738 Beechnut, 713-666-4644. Open Mon—Sat 11—9, Sun 11—8:30.

Sweetwater Duck With Sides and Jalapeño-Cheese Bread
Goode Company Barbecue, Houston
$9.95

Lightly smoked, tender, and surprisingly greaseless once you pull away the fatty skin, the half duck at Jim Goode’s barbecue empire is a revelation. Protein for protein, it’s one of the best and tastiest bargains in Houston. It’s even worth putting up with the cattle-drive feeling at the original, knickknack-crammed Kirby Drive location. The counterman will hack (and I do mean hack) your duck into manageable pieces. I always start out eating the meaty morsels with a knife and fork, but soon enough I abandon etiquette and rip in with my fingers and teeth. It’s good to be a cavewoman. 5109 Kirby Dr., 713-522-2530. Open 7 days 11—10.

The “Large Meal”
Yo Mama’s Soul Food Restaurant, Houston
$7.95

“The Feast of the Lord Is Going On” proclaims a sign on the pale lavender walls of Yo Mama’s. The cafeteria line, tended by two motherly ladies, dishes up a short list of soul food hits (the “large meal” gets you meat and three sides). Since I’m a meat loaf hound, I like the cafe’s just-firm-enough, well-seasoned version (it benefits from a few shots of the Cajun Chef hot sauce from the bountiful array of condiments on the table). From the lineup of vegetables, I prefer the sweet boiled cabbage (cooked until it begs for mercy, the Southern way); the utterly captivating homemade mac and cheese; and the falling-to-pieces candied yams, fragrant with nutmeg. When my tray is full, and I do mean full, I sit down at a community table with the rest of the faithful. I believe the Lord would approve. 5332 Antoine Dr., 713-680-8002. Open Mon 11—6, Tue—Fri 11—9, Sat noon—9, Sun noon—6.

SAN ANTONIO

Chalupa Burger
Big’z Burger Joint, San Antonio
$6.50

You want fusion cuisine, try this: In San Antonio the American hamburger mated with the Mexican chalupa and birthed a creation known as the bean burger. Then, at Big’z, created by renowned local chef Andrew Weissman, the offspring grew up. Here’s what you get: a toasted bun; a bright-red tostada shell; a layer of refried beans; a squish of melted cheddar; a splat of pico de gallo; an eight-ounce patty of Certified Angus beef; pickles, tomatoes, lettuce, and onion; and the top bun. I have to unhinge my jaw to get the thing in my mouth, but I’m always willing to give it a try. 2303 N. Loop 1604 West, 210-408-2029. Open Tue—Thur 11—8, Fri & Sat 11—9, Sun 11—8. Closed Mon.

Alaska Crepe
Cool Café, San Antonio
$8.95

Why do things taste so great stuffed in a crepe? At the Cool Café the French pancakes are hanky-thin, with lacy edges and seductive brown splotches from the pan. My favorite is the Alaska, which is packed with smoked salmon, red onion, capers, melted dill Havarti cheese, Dijon mustard, and a garden of beautifully sauteéd spinach. There are no sissy flavors here—the sharp, salty capers give the smoky salmon a run for its money, while the red onion has a tingling bite. I get it with the soft, hashbrowns-style potatoes to help mop up the bits of cheese and spinach that inevitably squeeze out onto the plate. Of Cool Café’s two locations, I really like the one on the north side, with its zany murals and hookahs (don’t worry: the smokes are legal and consumed outside). 12651 Vance Jackson Rd., 210-877-5001. Open Mon—Thur 10—11, Fri 10—midnight, Sat 9—midnight, Sun 9—11.

Tomato Duet Pizza
Rome’s Pizza, San Antonio
$6.50

Pizza may be the most perfect budget food ever to walk the earth, and when I think of my favorite cheap pies in Texas, the Tomato Duet immediately springs to mind. Winey sun-dried tomatoes supply the base notes; fresh tomato slices chime in at a higher register. Rounding out the tomato fest are dollops of melty feta and mozzarella, a scattering of fresh basil leaves, and liberal sprinkles of dried oregano. A blizzard of sesame seeds supplies crunch; a quick drizzle of olive oil binds the flavors together. At eight inches in diameter, the individual size makes a nice vegetarian meal. 300 W. Bitters Rd., 210-490-0700. Open Mon—Sat 11—10, Sun 11:30—9.

Shrimp Tacos
Rosario’s, San Antonio
$7.98

Here’s an insider’s tip: Shrimp tacos aren’t listed on the menu, but you can order them—and you should, because they are absolutely seductive. Served two to an order, these tacos begin with tender, piping-hot corn tortillas, made to order. To each tortilla, a generous swipe of sweet-hot chipotle mayo is applied, followed by mounds of sharp pickled red onion and tart lime-marinated cabbage slaw. Ribbons of queso fresco come next, followed by cubes of fresh avocado, then the pièce de résistance: a sextet of perfectly grilled medium-sized shrimp, heady with garlic. Your gaze falls upon them, and suddenly nothing in the world matters but you and the night and the tacos—Rosario’s big, boisterous dining room disappears. Try to stifle those moans. 910 S. Alamo, 210-223-1806. Open Mon—Thur 11—10, Fri & Sat 11—11, Sun 11—9.

Reggie’s Weekend Special
Torres Taco Haven, San Antonio
$6.75

That server groaning under the weight of a massive tray, the one who is staggering toward your table? He’s delivering Reggie’s Weekend Special, a platter laden with barbacoa, two eggs cooked however you want them, a pair of quesadillas packed with melted white cheese, a big ladle of refried beans, and a mound of chunky potatoes. I begin by making a barbacoa taco with one of the hot, freshly made corn tortillas in the basket already on the table, plus some of Torres’s tomato-chile salsa and a dollop of beans. Then I pick up a quesadilla in the other hand and go for it, alternating bites of taco and quesadilla—it’s crazy, like talking on two phones at the same time. Afterward, a nap is usually in order. (And by the way, don’t worry if you can’t get there on the weekend; they sell Reggie’s every day.) 1032 S. Presa, 210-533-2171. Open Mon—Sat 6:30—4, Sun 7—4.

Banh Xeo (Vietnamese Crepes)
Vietnam, San Antonio
$7 lunch $8 dinner

At few places in San Antonio are the rice-flour-and-coconut-milk delicacies known as bahn xeo done as well as they are at this odd little ex-house with fifties-era American wallpaper. Thicker than French crepes, thinner than pancakes, they come two to an order—a generous pair of toasted golden crescents with dark-brown, filigreed edges (a dash of turmeric in the batter imparts the yellow hue). If you unfold one, you will see how the crispy exterior gives way to a soft interior cradling thin slices of well-seasoned pork plus a handful of small shrimp and bean sprouts. Most Americans tackle them with a fork, but the best way is to roll them up in lettuce leaves. Tuck in a few sprigs of mint and basil too and savor the contrast of cool against hot and crunchy against lush. 3244 Broadway, 210-822-7461. Open 7 days 11—9:30.

Watch a slideshow of delectable dishes.

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