Jeff Balke
There comes a time in every other week, generally toward the ass end of a paycheck, when budgeters careful and shoddy alike are faced with the dilemma of making $9 stretch just four more days until reinforcements arrive in the old checking account. It's at times like these that Cali proves itself a godsend with its array of $2 sandwiches, each on a toasted French roll, dressed with a smear of mayo, pickled carrots, raw jalapeos, cool cucumber slices and a squirt of soy sauce. We're partial to the grilled pork as filler, but all sorts of different tastes can be mollified with options from pâté to shredded grilled chicken to pork meatballs. All for just $2. If that won't feed you till payday, maybe you don't need a cheaper sandwich so much as a better job.

Talk about a French revolution. Frédéric Perrier, chef-owner of his namesake Cafe Perrier, has developed a delicious French twist on that all-American dish, macaroni and cheese. Befitting the country charm of the bistro, the gratin de macaroni is made of simple, yet sophisticated, penne pasta swimming in a rich, bubbly Parmesan-and-truffle cream sauce, topped with a dollop of goat cheese. Quelle comfort food! Perrier nearly lost his head once and tried to replace the popular side dish on his horseradish-crusted pork loin. His patrons revolted, however, so it's back and better than ever.
Robert Z. Easley
Cabrito, suckling goat, is hard to find here in the sublime al pastor form popular on the border and in northern Mexico. In those regions, the tradition of roasting kid over a mesquite-fired grill -- a practice with deep roots in the region's ranching past -- has acquired the status of an art form. Taqueria La Tapatia, a casual Montrose eatery, serves up a different form of the delicacy called bírria de cabrito. The heaping portion of grayish-pink meat is lightly seasoned, warm and very tasty. It separates easily, making it perfect for piling onto a tortilla with rice, beans and pico de gallo. La Tapatia also offers bírria tacos at $1.15 apiece and burritos for $2.95. But it's the $5.95 plate that gives you the most goat for your buck.
This Central American hangout has a unique Houston/Salvadoran decor. The booths sport custom-crafted vinyl upholstery in metallic candy-flake turquoise with silver candy-flake trim. A namesake deer head hangs from the wall in the dining room with some straw sombreros and other kitschy Central American bric-a-brac. Kind of a tropical hunting lodge motif with art car upholstery accents. But the wacky little joint has got some great pupusas. These stuffed homemade tortillas are a Salvadoran favorite; they're grilled to order and served with a sort of cabbage-and-pepper slaw. Try the cheese-and-loroco for $1.60. Loroco is a Salvadoran green that grows wild and tastes like chocolate spinach. The cheese seems to be mozzarella; long, gooey strings of it follow every bite. To make it a real meal, get an order of fried plantains on the side. They come with refried beans and sour cream for dipping.

Never underestimate chicken-fried steak. It may seem like a humble dish, but it is a humble dish that is taken very seriously by native Texans. Elouise Cooper, owner of Ouisie's Table, takes chicken-fried steak very seriously. The golden-brown, Southern-fried crust is so perfect that the cream gravy is served on the side with the mashed potatoes, the mustard greens and the custardy corn pudding. Your task is to pour the gravy at just the right instant. If you wait too long, the meat is not hot enough anymore; pour too early and you either burn your mouth or sit in frustration while that awesome crust goes soggy. Or here's a better idea: Cut off a piece of battered steak, put a little mashed potato and greens on it and then dip the whole thing into the gravy boat. Now savor it slowly -- Ouisie's chicken-fried steak in among the best in the state.

This hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant in a Westheimer strip center has seen better days. The flea-market carving of the Great Wall of China and the other sparse decorations on the walls are almost worse than nothing. You could argue that many other Chinese restaurants have similar, or even better, dumplings. But the Dumpling King's loyal subjects vigorously defend the crown. Their claim to superiority is based on the wide variety; the menu boasts 19 different dumplings, although many of these are just the same ones cooked in different ways. But there is one thing about this place that everybody ends up loving, and that's the do-it-yourself sauce. After you order your dumplings, the waiter brings you a plate and a collection of jars. They contain ginger, garlic, rice wine vinegar, ground chile peppers, soy sauce and sesame oil. With these ingredients, you concoct your own customized dipping sauces, and they're much more exciting than the watery sauces found elsewhere.
Jeff Balke
This bustling little Mexican seafood shop-turned-restaurant near the Farmer's Market serves some of the best red snapper in the city. There isn't any question about whether you're being served real Gulf snapper or how fresh it is, because here you walk up to the seafood counter and pick out the fish yourself. They weigh it and then grill it to order, along with fresh shrimp, scallops or anything else you want. Don't miss the seafood cocktails, parfait glasses full of fresh shrimp, octopus, calamari and other briny treats in Mexican cocktail sauce -- a combination of citrus juice, ketchup and chiles. Cold Mexican beers and tequila shots are the favored beverages here, but muy macho hombres drink micheladas. A michelada is a shot of hot sauce and lime juice in the bottom of a frosted beer mug -- you pour in the beer of your choice to create a drink that makes you thirstier with every sip.
It's crystal clear why the seviche is better at Urbana, the hip Montrose spot that's as cool as the blue ocean itself. The clean, crisp marinade of lime juice -- aided by a kick of jalapeos, cilantro, red onions and just a few diced tomatoes -- lets the flavor of the seafood swim to the surface. It's not to be confused with the version that drowns the featured attractions in a murky tomato juice, resulting in a Bloody Mary without the benefits of vodka. Instead, Urbana offers huge shrimp, chunks of fresh crabmeat and generous amounts of avocado in a retro soda-fountain glass, surrounded by whimsical red and blue tortilla chips. At $8, you can also get hooked on the price of this cup of crustaceans.
Although former owner and executive chef Don Chang has quit the restaurant biz and moved to Austin, his younger brother, Daniel Chang, continues to run this oasis of to-die-for food in west Houston just as his brother did, with artfully prepared dishes and leisurely service. Don was responsible for many of the creative fusion items at Nara, and his mark remains all over the menu. Take, for example, the Don No. 2, a specialty sushi roll with crabmeat and cucumber, topped with white fish and baked in an exquisite caviar cream sauce. The aptly named "Watch Your Butt" consists of tuna katsu topped with smoked salmon, cream cheese and jalapeo. "Lickety Split" is rolled with crawfish and tuna, topped with spicy tuna, salmon, yellowtail and avocado. More traditional fare, like regular sushi pieces, is consistently fresh and high-quality. Be sure to make reservations, as evenings often get crowded. And don't miss Nara's non-sushi dishes too, especially the baked mussels. These will probably come at the end of your meal even though they are listed as an appetizer, but they're well worth the wait.

Locals line up at the counter of this retro spot in the heart of West University Place's original business district -- not the strip-center sprawl now lining its perimeter. Edloe St. Deli's avenue of Americana includes the Little League field, the school, the grocery store, the library, the courthouse and the cafe. The favorite sandwich is the club, piled ridiculously high with turkey and bacon and served on thick slices of egg bread. We dare you to eat the whole sandwich in one sitting, much less the stellar side dish of homemade potato salad, chock-full of red peppers and parsley. It's a '50s flashback, all right, even more reminiscent of Pleasantville during moderate months, when diners can hit the great outdoors to watch the world go by from its patio.

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