Jeff Balke
Families on a budget may have the best of all worlds: a casual counter cafe with gourmet flair. Soccer moms and dads flock to these cheery, Southwestern-adorned restaurants, both of which sport popular deck seating for adults who long to linger and video games for kids who must fidget with their fingers. The family-friendly menu features mesquite-grilled burgers, fried chicken tenders, salads and hearty chicken corn chowder. But real aficionados seize such daily specials as pork tenderloin, mushroom chicken, steak and garlic mashed potatoes, all prepared with a Southwestern zing. And don't miss the live music at the Shepherd location. Friday nights are "jam" packed with zydeco and bluegrass fans and the families who love them.

This place is so authentic there's hardly any English on the menu. Plus, it's filled with Chinese people -- always a good sign when selecting an ethnic restaurant. Here we recommend the pork with snow pea leaves and the chicken and asparagus. We always order too much and say we'll never be able to eat it, but we've never needed a doggie bag. The place is so damn good you'll keep shoveling it in your mouth. The iced tea is served steaming hot, and you ice it down yourself. If you want ambience, go to P.F. Chang's, but if you want good food that won't cost you much more than a Happy Meal, this is your place.

Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
Breakfast is not our favorite meal, because it happens to fall in the morning, which is our least favorite time of the day. But whenever we order the huevos rancheros at Baby B's, we are overcome with joy. Just thinking about this makes our mouths water. A friend of ours flew in from London wanting nothing more than runny eggs, beans and square-diced potatoes. This is the best breakfast ever. The small diner is located right next door to Barnaby's Cafe and is open only for breakfast. The portion is big, but we promise you'll scrape your plate. Add some coffee and a tall orange juice, and you'll feel ready to conquer the world. Or take a nap.
From the outside, this tiny Montrose-area counter cafe still looks like a delicious dive. In the dining room, however, recent renovations include dark wood panels of Chinese philosophical writings, track lighting and faux palm trees. Still, purists -- looking for dinner and a show -- wouldn't dream of eating in the dining room. They'd rather grab a wobbly stool at the Chinese-style open kitchen. Only there can you get an up-close and personal view of the wok chef's sleight of hand. Since 1978, Chicken n' Egg Roll has been swamped by regulars who devour sesame chicken, imperial shrimp, fried rice and General Tso's chicken. Those are good, but first try the specialty of the house: a tasty marinated, boneless chicken breast that is deep-fried and drowned in savory Asian-spiced brown gravy. It's served with an egg roll, but ask the cook to whip up some vegetable chop suey instead. It's a perfect foil to the crunch of the chicken.
In timid Thai fashion, the owners of Thai Cottage tiptoed onto the Houston restaurant scene four years ago, settled into a nondescript storefront between a sprawling H-E-B and a Domino's Pizza and quietly started cooking. They concentrated on the food, spending their money on the freshest ingredients rather than extensive advertising, flashy decor or fancy menus. It was a gutsy move -- first to hope to take on the Thai scene in Houston, and then to locate their establishment in the more mainstream Bellaire. They were successful in both. Today their menu is far from extensive, but each dish, from the much-loved chili mint shrimp to fried catfish cooked in red curry sauce, is cooked with flavor-fresh vegetables and herbs and with precision (no overcooked shrimp or chewy dumplings at this place). Even during their busy luncheon specials on weekdays and Saturdays, the entrées are individually prepared and promptly served. The attention to food over ambience has worked well for Thai Cottage, whose appreciative customers can now taste the same food in Sugar Land, where owners opened the successful Thai Cottage II almost two years ago.

The menu at Aries changes daily under the direction of chef-owner Scott Tycer, who improvises with the seasons. To call Tycer an artist doesn't do him justice. He is something even better. He is a culinary genius who has grown up and gotten over himself. Originally from Houston, Tycer spent several years in Northern California working his way up from line cook to sous-chef at Spago in Palo Alto under the famous Wolfgang Puck. But at Aries, Tycer exhibits none of the flashy cleverness that makes Puck's California cuisine look so dated these days. Tycer's food isn't just brilliant; it's brilliantly restrained. He insists on making remarkable ingredients his main subjects, and he complements and seasons them with an imagination that never loses its focus. But it is in the presentation that Tycer shows true self-discipline. There are no silly tentacles sticking out of things, no Jackson Pollock squeeze-bottle paintings and no extraneous garnishes. The food itself is the garnish. American cooking just doesn't get much better than this.

You want a hot meal served to you, and you want it now, and you've only got $5 in your pocket. So get your hungry self over to Andy's. When? It doesn't matter. The Houston institution is open 24 hours a day, and the friendly service is fast, fast, fast. The menu is packed with full meals and combination plates for a price that will make a starving artist or a family on a budget sigh with relief. Plus, it's good. Whether it's traditional Mexican meals like huevos rancheros or American favorites like a greasy hamburger and french fries, Andy's fusion of offerings promises satisfaction. But that's not all. Where else can you eat cheap food and load up on every free publication in town? That's right, folks -- Andy's. And if cheap reading material isn't your bag, check out the jukebox. Three songs for a buck, and it's Dean Martin, Selena and U2 all night long. Andy's: It's a library, it's a restaurant, it's a dance club. It's a value.
Housed in a vintage gas station (hence the name), the Food Filling Station should be included among Houston's funky folk-art environments on the Orange Show's Eye-Openers tour. Surrounded by colorfully painted wrought-iron fencing, interspersed with wine bottles overturned in cement, its authentic gas pumps stand at attention alongside such collectibles as antique toys, plaster chickens and a ceramic Big Boy statuette. But it's most likely the food that keeps this odd little patio spot buzzing as Heights locals squeeze in for a deli sandwich or belly-busting hot dog, all served on homemade bread. Chalkboard specials occasionally tempt them to try the gourmet dishes the owner has brought from her Heights cooking school, La Bella Cucina. Promising plate lunches include stuffed pork chops, Cornish hen with a raisin/rice stuffing, and manicotti with marinara sauce. Homemade sweets include cookies and slices of pie. You can also find rosemary biscuits and scones every morning, but -- like everything else here -- when they're gone, they're gone.

Best Place to Skip Dinner and Get to Dessert

Epicure Café

The problem with dining at the Epicure Café is that the well-lit case of desserts beckons during your whole meal. Sure, the lemon chicken is in fact quite lemony and generously seasoned, making your taste buds tingle. And the salads are nicely balanced. But these meals are no match for the legions of cakes, cookies and other sugary delights on display in the dessert case. How can you pay attention to chicken and wild rice when there's cappuccino raspberry cake, tiramisu, Italian cream cake, fruit tarts, pistachio cream cake, marble cheese cake, pistachio cheese cake and other fine European pastries in the same room? The baked goods here are so beautiful, and tasty, that other restaurants buy their desserts from Epicure. You might as well spoil dinner and start with cake, and don't miss the berry lemonade.
Our one reservation about picking this place is that once it's discovered, it might lose some of that tucked-away feel. Its strip center is in the middle of a residential area, anchored by a Hollywood Video. To find it, you have to look for the shaded patio hidden behind a barbecue. At first you might think the place is closed, but if you brave your way through the vine-covered doorway into this snug little eatery, you'll feel like you've entered an authentic little European bistro. They offer a variety of salads, pizza and pastas in addition to regular entrées, like the Toulouse mignon and catfish amandine. But the Sunday brunch menu is the perfect after-church indulgence with Florentine quiche, seafood benedict, salade niçoise, gazpacho and seafood bisque to choose from, and a glass of champagne for the proper accent.

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