Delicious and inexpensive banh mi (Vietnamese mainstays jam-packed into classic French baguettes) can be found all over our fair city, but Cali brings the art of the cheap eat to new and awe-inspiring levels. A mind-boggling $2 buys you a big ticket to taste country. A foot-long, warmed baguette is stuffed with pickled carrots and onions, slathered in rich, homemade mayo and crammed with copious amounts of cilantro before your choice of protein is added to the mix. Should you have the barbecue pork, the pate, the tofu or the shredded beef? At prices this low, you can have them all. Buy five, and the sixth is free. Top that, Subway!
Readers' choice: Subway
El Rey Taqueria
Jeff Balke
In the battle to rule the drive-thru, the best weapon is smoke. A rich, heavy cloud of it floats across Washington Avenue every afternoon from El Rey, a small Cuban/Mexican restaurant that attracts a fleet of loyal subjects. They come for the chicken, which is skewered and baked for hours to golden perfection. On the side, red and green salsas add a layer of punch to the meat's roasted, marinated flavor. The chicken also fills sandwiches, tacos, burritos and terrific tortilla soup garnished with cheese and avocados. Take it all home along with some Cuban-style fried plantains and a Mexican-style cantaloupe-juice agua fresca. Now that's living like a king.
Hickory Hollow
Stringy, sinewy cuts of second-rate cow bathed in a blanket of pasty flour can come dangerously close to high school cafeteria levels in some joints. Cookie the trail-hand cowboy cook would be downright offended by some of the versions being rustled up. Not so at Hickory Hollow, where they truly know how to keep the wagons happy. Generous, thick portions of fall-apart beef are dredged in just enough flour to get 'er goin', then seasoned to perfection with salt and black pepper. Pour some from-scratch cream gravy over it, pick your side dishes, and wink to the cowboy gods.
Readers' choice: Denny's
Dot Coffee Shop
Dawn McGee
Why are the best greasy spoons always by the airport? Open 24 hours, Dot is off I-45 just down from Hobby. At times, it seems like the entire restaurant and everything in it -- including the hardworking waitstaff -- is covered in a thin layer of grease. Everything comes in hefty portions, and daily specials include fried catfish and pot roast. The marquee advertises shakes, steaks and pancakes. The Houston omelet, which is stuffed with bacon, ham and pork sausage, is delicious. And anything you order is available topped with homemade chili. If Dot were a citywide chain, we'd all need a Lipitor dealer.
This patisserie rocks the chateau. The almond croissants are thick and rich -- a dieter's nightmare. But live a little. Indulge in this buttery, flaky pastry topped with slivered almonds and stuffed to the seams with frangipane, the creamy almond filling. Heaven. Late sleepers might miss out on these because they often sell out. Run, don't walk.
The food at Indika is on a par with the fare served at the most innovative Indian restaurants in the United States. And unlike imaginative Indian chefs like Floyd Cardoz at Tabla in New York, Indika's chef and owner, Anita Jaisinghani, doesn't do fusion. Hence her menu, while impressively creative, isn't contrived. The Maple Leaf Farms duck tandoori in a toasted almond curry served with green beans and fluffy white basmati rice is purely Indian -- but made with the best American ingredients. The roasted eggplant filled with paneer and cashews may be the best vegetarian dish in the city. The samosas with papaya-ginger chutney are shocking. And the hot nan tastes like an Indian pizza. Even a lowly side dish like the yellow lentil mush called dal comes to the table electrically flavored with garlic, ginger and cumin. While the charming little cottage on Memorial may not be as impressive as Tabla's stunning headquarters on Madison Avenue, Jaisinghani is working on that, too. Her new location on Westheimer next to the former site of Marrakech Restaurant is under construction.
Readers' choice: Shiva Indian Restaurant
Cafe Montrose
Ahhh, potatoes, hot grease and salt -- the simple equation made so complex by so many. They aren't all that hard to make, so how do many places manage to screw up french fries? You know the problems: too greasy, oversalted, heat-lamp limp. That's why the Belgian eatery Cafe Montrose deserves mad, starchy props for its fries. Crispy, golden-brown exteriors give way to fluffy, white interiors. The salt and thickness (not too shoestringy, not too thick) must be measured in back with a triple-beam balance. So precise it all is. Munch them with ketchup or spice things up with garlic-tinged aioli.
Readers' choice: McDonald's
Green Pine Tree Bar & Grill looks a little like a Korean speakeasy. There's a neon-lit sushi bar on one side of the room and a half-dozen dining nooks with semi-secluded tables on the other. The attractive dining room in between features two rows of tables separated by a room-length divider and a sparkling mirrored column. These are the best tables in the house because of their built-in barbecue grills. To do your own cooking at the grill table, you must order two or more Korean barbecue items. The boneless short ribs and bulgogi (spelled "bool gogi" on the menu) are among the most popular. Or get a family-style Korean barbecue dinner for four. (Ask for one without offal, unless you're keen on intestines.) You grill your meats along with garlic and jalapeno slices, flip them right off the grill onto romaine leaves, and make yourself a lettuce taco with the hot sauce and condiments provided. The sushi, bibim bap and other Korean specialties are also excellent.
Frenchy's Chicken
Jeff Balke
Since 1969, Frenchy Cruzot has been consistently supplying the best Creole fried chicken in Houston. He's also been turning out the tastiest greens, the most satisfying andouille-studded red beans and rice, and some of the best dirty rice and jambalaya the city has ever known -- all sold in Styrofoam to-go containers for a veritable pittance. Frenchy, who is an old family friend of New Orleans Creole-cooking legend Austin Leslie, brought the spicy taste of Louisiana to Scott Street. Located near Texas Southern University and the University of Houston, the restaurant is popular with students and other night owls; it's open until 1 a.m. on weeknights and 3 a.m. on weekends. Don't complain about the long lines -- the fact that there are always people standing in line at Frenchy's guarantees that every piece of chicken you get has just come out of the fryer.
Readers' choice: Popeyes
It's late, and you're shit-canned. You need something to soak up all the booze in your belly so you can get home. Do yourself a favor and skip the drunken lovefest at "House of Guys." Instead, head to this seedy Montrose eatery. We love Late Nite Pie for the simple fact that the menu lists a pizza called the Stanky Whore covered in roasted garlic, anchovies and goat cheese. The garlic bread is to die for, and even traditional fare like the pepperoni and veggie pizzas are top-notch. You can also get a cold pitcher of Shiner. Here's a tip, though: Be extra-nice to the employees, and they won't be extra-rude to you. Some of those slackers think it's freakin' New York in there. If your pizza is taking too long, you can wax poetic with a Sharpie on the bathroom wall.
Readers' choice: Katz's Deli & Bar

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