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Like That Chain Restaurant?

Try this local one instead.

Local Spotlight

In the last couple of weeks, we've explored fun and funky Texas wines to drink in lieu of old standbys like Cabernet and Chardonnay, and we've showcased local beers that can be enlisted to help wean your friends off adjunct lagers made by giant corporations. And just like we all have loved ones who won't drink anything other than Cupcake wine or Miller Lite, we — me especially included — all have loved ones who won't roam outside their comfort zone when it comes to restaurants.

Maybe they just really love the Cheddar Bay Biscuits at Red Lobster (I know I do), or they just don't want to take a chance on venturing into a restaurant and paying for a dinner they might not like. Maybe they're just stubborn. Either way, none of these are excuses for refusing to try something new.

Fresh pasta awaits you at Paulie’s.
Katharine Shilcutt
Fresh pasta awaits you at Paulie’s.

Instead of dragging your friends and/or relatives kicking and screaming to an Ethiopian restaurant, however, try introducing something new gently and kindly. If they just adore Big Macs at McDonald's, for instance, encourage them to try the delicious, fast-food-style cheeseburgers at Liberty Kitchen.

With that idea in mind, here's our list of ten local alternatives to popular chain restaurants. It's a chance for your loved ones to try something new and support their community at the same time.

If you like: Olive Garden

Try: Paulie's

Paulie's makes Italian comfort food classics like lasagna, shrimp scampi and chicken parmesan in an equally comfortable setting. Except that — unlike Olive Garden's — Paulie's pastas are made in house, just like nearly everything else the family-run restaurant serves (which includes inexpensive wine and absolutely terrific coffee and cookies). In fact, it may be even more approachable for someone who's dead-set on Olive Garden: The counter service is relaxed and casual, and the prices are right on point. Alternative choices: George's Pastaria, D'Amico's, Collina's

If you like: Pei Wei

Try: Khun Kay

As at Pei Wei, you order at the counter in this cozy Montrose restaurant owned by Thai expats Supatra Yooto and Kay Soodjai. And like Pei Wei's, much of Kay's food has been Americanized for a broader palate. (While this is one of the main reasons that some people don't care for Khun Kay, it's precisely the reason that others love it.) And just like at Pei Wei, there's a broad selection of pan-Asian dishes to choose from, including everything from pad thai and "Thai tacos" to shrimp fried rice and cashew chicken. Alternative choice: Jenni's Noodle House

If you like: Chili's

Try: Barnaby's

There are several Barnaby's locations scattered throughout town, and all of them feature the kind of wacky decor and menu items — gleefully giant salads, enormous burgers, grilled American standards like salmon and chicken and even baby back ribs — that make Chili's so popular. There's also standard table service here, too, along with appetizers and desserts that put Chili's to shame: Try the waffle fries with blue cheese fondue, bacon and green onions or the Chocolate Addiction Cake for dessert. Alternative choice: Baba Yega

If you like: Red Lobster

Try: Goode Co. Seafood

All right, there aren't any Cheddar Bay Biscuits here. But both locations of this Houston seafood joint offer friendly service and a deceptively casual feel in their respective dining rooms (I prefer eating in the train car portion of the Goode Co. Seafood on Westpark). And you'll find an array of dishes to please the pickiest palate, from fried catfish po-boys to mesquite-grilled rainbow trout. Alternative choices: Bayou City Seafood, Floyd's Cajun Seafood House, Joyce's Seafood and Steaks

If you like: Boudreaux's

Try: LA Bar

The same family that's successfully run Ragin' Cajun since 1974 recently opened a new, slightly more upscale version of the Louisiana classic right next door to the original Ragin' Cajun on Richmond. The Mandola family has taken the same Cajun favorites — boudin, gumbo, grilled oysters and crawfish étouffée — and added them to the menu at LA Bar along with additional entrées like barbecued blue crabs and seafood-topped pasta. It's approachable, fun and — thankfully — not too fancy. ­Alternative choices: Ragin' Cajun, BB's Cafe

If you like: CiCi's

Try: That Pizza Place on Ella

On Wednesday and Sunday evenings, this neighborhood pizza joint in Oak Forest has an all-you-can-eat pizza and salad buffet that includes not just regular pizzas but any specialty pizza you request. Like CiCi's, that buffet holds everything from slices of pepperoni to cinnamon-sugar-topped dessert pizza sticks. And like CiCi's, it has arcade games for the kids and lots of TVs for the adults. But unlike CiCi's, it also has an excellent craft beer selection and live music on the weekends. Alternative choice: Candelari's

If you like: General Joe's

Try: Kam's

You have no excuse for eating at the super-sad General Joe's in Montrose (where I personally had the worst Chinese food of my life) when Kam's is right across the street. First opened by Kam Cheung in 1988, the restaurant was sold to its head chef, Mr. Ho, five years later and has been run by his family ever since. Kam's does a brisk to-go business, but you can also sit down in the charming, elegant space and enjoy Americanized Chinese (as well as Vietnamese and Indonesian) classics from a wide menu, which even includes an excellent version of General Tso's chicken. Alternative choices: Heights Asian Cafe, Kim Son

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