The year was 1991. Houston's devastating oil bust had only ended four short years ago, while the nationwide S&L crisis had only abated two years prior with the passage of the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989. And although things were on the rebound, times were still lean in the Bayou City. No big surprise, then, that Houston Metropolitan—a city magazine that launched in 1974 and ended its run two decades later, itself a victim of the recession—chose to spotlight Cheap Eats on the cover of its October issue.
The magazine's list of 50 wallet-friendly restaurants included such late, lamented Vietnamese staples as Midtown's Van Loc (which closed in 2014) and Montrose's Mrs. Me's (which is now occupied by worthy successor La Guadalupana) and cheap-eats classics Triple A (which closed this year) and Andre's (which once allowed you to dine on delectable desserts in River Oaks while only dropping a few dollars). And though many more restaurants joined them at that great diner in the sky over the years, a surprising number of Houston Metropolitan's favorites are still around a quarter-century later—23 of them, in fact, or nearly half the list.
Below, our updated takes on Houston Met's top cheap eats destinations as they stand today, 25 years on:
There's something that remains warm and welcoming about the glowing amber "Auntie Pasto's" sign in the window of this Bellaire family favorite. A 1998 Zagat guide described the plates of pasta here as "cheap, cheerful comfort food," which remains true today.
This is the first place I remember having a "grown-up" meal with my father, who had been attracted to the Montrose haunt from the moment he moved to Houston in the 1970s. Though it's expanded—and changed owners—over the years, Baba Yega's eccentric tropical bungalow charm and its famous Sunday brunch have remained blissfully intact.
It's difficult to express how groundbreaking Cafe Express was when first opened by chef Robert Del Grande and partner Lonnie Schiller in 1984. The chain of fast-casual restaurants more or less introduced the concept to Houstonians, while making the Southwestern cuisine of Del Grande's Cafe Annie accessible on a broader scale. Though there were still only four locations at the time, today 19 are spread across Houston and Dallas.
We still extol the virtues of the original Carrabba's at 3115 Kirby Dr., opened in 1986 by Johnny Carrabba III and his uncle Damian Mandola, and its excellent shrimp Damian (with requisite side of fettucine alfredo). Today, this location and its satellite outpost at 1399 S. Voss remain the only two still owned by the family; the 247 locations of nationwide chain Carrabba's Italian Grill are operated by Bloomin' Brands, which also owns Outback Steakhouse and Fleming's.
Like Carrabba's, Darband opened its doors in 1986 and still operates out of its original location. Houston Met was far from the first to recognize this Persian jewel for its affordable fare, however; the restaurant and its heaping platters of perfectly cooked meat, rice and vegetables have won multiple cheap eats awards from multiple publications over the years.
By my estimation, very little has changed about The Don'Key in the last 32 years since it opened, let alone the last 25. It remains a staple of the Pasadena community, packed at lunch and dinner, the only subtle changes over the years the accumulation of colorful customer-created graffiti on the walls and doors.
Somehow, some way, there is still a Doneraki in existence. It's near Gulfgate Mall, fittingly, where so much Houston history has managed to hang on. It's not very good, but each meal still starts with free chips and queso, which means it definitely still fits the cheap eats bill.
Critics have complained for years that El Meson ain't what it used to be; even that 1998 Zagat guide I mentioned earlier managed to get in a dig, exclaiming that it had "slid downhill." We disagree. Despite a white tablecloth atmosphere at the Rice Village restaurant, the Cuban-Mexican lunches are still both affordable and delicious; we even put El Meson in our own Cheap Eats guide earlier this year.
While I can't speak to the status of the drag shows in 1991, I can attest to the fact that they add to the overall feeling today that you're getting much more than you paid for with every visit to this stucco-clad stalwart on Irvington—including free queso. Thursday nights are the best time to come, while the drag shows move down the road to Hacienda La Esperanza on Friday nights.
Though I have no first-hand experience with Giuseppe's, it appears to be the Spring/FM 1960 analog to La Hacienda in Memorial: the food isn't terribly good anymore, but your family has been eating there forever so what are you going to do? Deny your mother her stuffed artichokes?
The Hobbit Hole (now Hobbit Café)
All of my fond memories of The Hobbit Hole's original location on Shepherd—dining there on the sunny back patio with my mother, my favorite sandwich, the Thorin Oakenshield, stuffed with more alfalfa sprouts than one human could possibly eat—threatened to be replaced with an unhappy sense of nostalgia lost when the Hobbit moved to Richmond. Yet the vegetarian mainstay—one of the first in Houston!—maintained its charm and charisma despite the move, and all of those fond childhood memories are now accompanied by adult ones of enjoying craft beers with friends on a slightly-less-sunny-but still-altogether-solid patio.
See Giuseppe's above, but substitute Spring for Southside Place and stuffed artichokes for orange chicken.
Much like Mrs. Me's and Mai's (see below) introduced a generation of Houstonians to Vietnamese cuisine, this Long Point institution introduced Korean food to the city when it first opened in 1983. Koreatown naturally grew up around it in Spring Branch, and while other favorites have since moved into the area, nothing quite beats the crew of real-deal Korean grandmas in the kitchen here.
Another 1983 landmark opening, Lai Lai opened in Chinatown before Chinatown was Chinatown. Naturally, the thing to get here is the dumplings, which remain as incredibly inexpensive as ever—just remember to bring cash, as cards aren't accepted.
Many barbecue purists would argue that you're better off driving to Luling itself than eating at Luling City Market, which is unrelated to the original Hill Country joint, but that doesn't stop the Galleria-area joint from continuing to boast the same long lines every day at lunch that it's had since opening in the early 1980s.
If you haven't been broken up with over a bowl of pho at Mai's at 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning, you haven't lived (or maybe you've lived a better life than I have). Mai's first opened in 1978, when Midtown was still firmly Little Saigon, caught fire and closed in 2010, and miraculously reopened like a freaking phoenix in 2011. Long live Mai's.
While appreciably better restaurants line this stretch of Navigation, Merida is still to be commended for its all-day breakfast and reasonably priced Yucatecan dishes.
This nearly 30-year-old West U staple continues to boast of its dinner deals with painted signs on the very facade of the restaurant. The massive plate of $7.99 lasagna—a fan favorite here—has gone up in price by a couple of dollars over the years, but remains a solid bargain.
After moving to Afton Oaks in the late 1970s, my father quickly discovered the pleasures of Ragin' Cajun right down the street. The first link of boudin he ever bought me from the Cajun restaurant was the most exotic thing I'd seen at 9 years old, but by 16 I was regularly attending friends' birthday crawfish parties in the ramshackle party room. Houston's appreciation for and love affair with Cajun food—spicy boiled crawfish in particular—grew alongside Ragin' Cajun, was nurtured and encouraged by its party-like atmosphere and friendly staff. Unlike the rest of Afton Oaks, it remains mostly unchanged to this day, thankfully, as does the giant red crawfish on its roof.
If this wasn't the first place you ever drank a screwdriver in Houston (or, rather, the greater Houston area), it was probably one of the first. True to its name, this Seabrook cafe on the water has been a classic diner-style destination practically since opening in 1985.
Being old enough to drive to dinner at Star Pizza on 140 S. Heights (the second location of the Chicago-style outfit, which was originally opened by Windy City natives at 2111 Norfolk in 1976) then a show at Rockefeller's was the height of my existence in the mid-90s. (The show? Jackopierce, because I am nothing if not the product of my white, upper-middle-class, Texas suburban existence.) Though that location has since moved next door, to 77 Harvard, the deep-dish pies at both Star Pizza spots remain close to the hearts of Houstonians.
If there was ever a restaurant built to cater to both tired parents and their tiring children, this is it. The one remaining location of what was once a chain is the iteration on Dairy Ashford, which I grew up eating at after school, so I am obviously biased in stating that it was the best of the Sweet Mesquites anyway. Houston Metropolitan accurately pointed out back in 1991 that it's sort of a knock-off version of Goode Co. Taqueria and Hamburgers, which it is, but admirably so—and at half the price.
While there was clearly a time at which Vincent's was considered inexpensive, I'd now place its famous wood-roasted chicken (truly a Houston treasure) and crema rosa-topped mezzaluna firmly in the medium price range category; the fast-casual chain of Pronto Cucinino spots from the same family has now taken its big sister's cheap eats mantle. Still, for the price, it's tough to find a prettier and more romantic patio in Montrose.