It is tough to complain about the cost of living in Houston. Housing is fairly affordable and there is usually a food truck around the corner willing to sell you a filling taco dinner for $5 or less.
That being said, there are always those days when a meal out -- any meal out anywhere -- is out of your budgetary league. And that's where we step in. It is possible to fill yourself up here (and not by asking your more generous dates or friends to treat) for free. Eating out without your wallet can be a fun exercise too, but especially at the bars we recommend bringing a friend who might actually buy something or leaving before a half-hour is up.
If you have a membership, Costco or Sam's Club should be your first stop. I started my culinary scavenger hunt at the Costco on Richmond, where the portions -- though still served in Dixie cups -- are more generous than at your neighborhood grocery. The range is also staggering. There are food stands around the store promoting everything from frozen empanadas to lemon meringue cookies. I challenge you to make yourself a three-course meal.
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Take one lap around the shop before beginning your meal. Do this with a cart as not to raise the alarm. Start with an appetizer of chips and dip if there is a salsa or queso stand. On the Saturday I was there, a young man was offering warm flatbreads that made for filling hors d'oeuvres. Then move on to find suitable entrees and desserts. You can even wet your whistle between courses courtesy of beverage samples.
For those who don't have access to a wholesaler, check out your local H-E-B, but do so on a weekend as the selection greatly expands. You can find prepared foods like sushi available to taste, as well as flavored ground beef in tiny taco shells. Often there are even beer promotions that include tastings.
But if you really want to sample a beer without having to invest in a whole glass, head to The Hay Merchant or Poison Girl. Tact is key in these situations. Ask what's on tap before taking a minute to contemplate your order. You can now sample one or two beers, but not more. Step away from the bar for further rumination before backing out slowly. This technique can be used at most bars where there is a wide variety of brews on tap, but you have to be smart about it. There is no way a bartender will believe you want to sample his Lone Star, for instance.
If you prefer grapes to wheat, there is no better place to go for a wine tasting than French Country Wines. On Sundays the helpful sommeliers are happy to pour you a sip from 12 to 6 p.m. The wines are paired with cheeses, and the beauty of these duos is that they really are free.
Spec's Warehouse on Smith is the best of both worlds. You can taste local liquors, new wines, beers of all kinds and even chips and salsas on Fridays and Saturdays from around 4 p.m. Most stands offer mixers for their products, so you can take Robitussin cap-sized shots of tequila or indulge in tiny vodka and coconut water drinks. You learn a lot about various alcohols while getting tipsy without much pressure from salespeople to invest in booze to go.
For dessert, as in any good restaurant, you have the choice of a cheese course or more traditional sweets. For cheese, Houston Dairymaids should be your first spot. The friendly staff offer every customer the chance to sample six cheeses, many of which are from local farmers. The sextet changes every week and no matter when you go makes for a more satisfying cheese plate than you find in many restaurants.
If you want ice cream, the world is your oyster. I love Pinkberry, so heading there and asking to try the pomegranate flavor and then the mango is a great way to have two bites of dessert -- probably all I really need -- without spending a cent. If you prefer chocolate ice cream to plain frozen yogurt, most parlors will let you sample one or two flavors.
Eating for free is entirely possible in Houston. All it takes is a little chutzpah and a lot of time.
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