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Not where you'd expect to find a bargain lunch.

Image: Alice Levitt

On a list of things to slide into conversation when 35-year-old El Meson Restaurant is the topic, there are several options toward the top of the list: The dining room's white tablecloths and wrought-iron details are one. So is attentive service and a wine list that seems to regenerate itself purely through its frequent award wins.

More recently, chef-owner Pedro Garcia's status as the Great Houston Restaurant Association's chef of the year might be reason enough to visit El Meson. Very few people are likely to bring up the Rice Village stalwart's inexpensive, comforting lunch. But those not in the know are missing out.

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Masitas, $11.

Image: Alice Levitt

At lunch, the most expensive offering is the $12 Cubano—single tapas plates at dinner go for the same price. Today, surrounded by servers eager to refill our water glasses, my lunch companion and I had the kind of full-flavored Cuban almuerzo I'd usually expect to eat out of a styrofoam container.

The masitas, tender, seared chunks of pork, sang with lime and garlic. Sweet, chewy-edged plantains were bounteous enough to almost be a meal on their own, and I loved spooning garlicky black beans over the mound of rice.

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Pollo al ajillo, $11.

Image: Alice Levitt

Chicken is almost never a better choice than pork, but the wallop of piquant garlic (you'd better love garlic if you're dining at El Meson), soothed with sweet onion, made the pollo al ajillo a one-two punch of flavor atop an enviably grill-marked chicken breast.

Often, my preference is to dine in dives, but when I find a socially acceptable destination where the food is just as good as at my latest down-scale discovery, that's a keeper. El Meson, I think we've got a standing lunch date.

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El Meson

$$$ Cuban, Latin, Spanish 2425 University Blvd.

Pick and choose your way through Spain, Cuba and Mexico with ease as El Meson combines all three cuisines on their expansive menu. For an excellent group din...