7. Have a Picnic
When the Trader Joe's at 2922 South Shepherd first opened, several of us Eating...Our Words bloggers were given an assignment: Take $20 and figure out the most fun you can have with it with products from Trader Joe's. For my assignment, I chose a romantic picnic. I picked up a pre-made salad, a bottle of wine and some chocolates. It all worked just great and my husband and I had a lovely, romantic lunch. Even if you don't go to Trader Joe's, picnics are inherently economical. There's no premium to pay for a restaurant meal and no tip. Just don't forget to check the weather forecast and the rules of the park you are going to. Most ban glass containers and some prohibit alcohol.
5. Allô French Rotisserie, 126 Vintage Park
The quality of the rotisserie meats at this casual option in Vintage Park is consistently impressive. Allô is a welcome addition to Houston's few independent French cafes. It always offers rotisserie chicken ($12 for a half one; $14 for all-white meat) and one other meat that changes daily. (The herb pesto lamb, offered on Wednesdays, is especially tasty.) Even better, the rotisserie offerings come with two side dishes, which makes this a great deal. Choose from among sexy sides like dauphinois potatoes, ratatouille, mushroom duxelles, grilled asparagus and more. Increase the romance factor by adding a carafe or half-carafe of one of the house wines on tap.
4. Mala Sichuan, 9348 Bellaire
The spicy Chinatown darling of Houston food writers deserves a great deal of its positive press. It not only sports a menu full of flavorful delights but it also offers a wine list curated by Justin Vann of PSA Wines and Public Services Wine & Whiskey. It's recommended for adventurous couples who are not afraid of dishes with names like "Couples Lung Slices," a $6.95 starter that's a lot tastier than it sounds. It's marinated beef shank, beef tendon and honeycomb beef tripe tossed with spicy vinaigrette and topped with crushed peanuts. Most entrées here are $10 and under.
Paulie's is an unassuming Italian place that nonetheless takes great pride in what it serves. It makes most of its own pasta and not only has its own wine selection, but it's also next door to notable wine bar Camerata. So you have choices, depending on your budget. Have a cheese and meat platter with some wine at Camerata, and either stay there or make your way to Paulie's. Alternately, just stay at Paulie's and re-enact the spaghetti scene from Lady and the Tramp. Thursday is osso bucco night, but get there early as it can run out quickly. The peppery bucatini amatriciana may in fact have aphrodisiac properties -- or maybe it's just really spicy. Either way, it will get your blood pumping. For dessert, get an iced shortbread cookie and a cappuccino from one of their baristas (who receive a good amount of training to make the best espresso drinks possible).
2. Giacomo's Cibo e Vino, 3215 Westheimer
Chef Lynette Hawkins's casual Italian restaurant takes all haughtiness out of the dining experience. If the weather is nice, sit on the patio adorned with lush greenery and flowers. About half the entrées are $15 or less, and they include the cotoletta di maiale alla milanese: a loin chop of pasture-raised pork coated in seasoned breadcrumbs with frisée, fennel, Sicilian green olives, radish and vinaigrette. Not only is there a big wine selection, but you can order in increments as small as half a glass.