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.
Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, Austin
“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.
Chez Nous, Austin
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
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.
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.
$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