In the last couple of weeks, we've explored fun and funky Texas wines to drink in lieu of old standbys like Cabernet and Chardonnay and we've showcased local beers that can be enlisted to help wean your friends off adjunct lagers made by giant corporations. And just like we all have loved ones that won't drink anything other than Cupcake wine or Miller Lite, we -- me especially included -- all have loved ones that won't roam outside their comfort zone when it comes to restaurants.
Maybe they just really love the Cheddar Bay biscuits at Red Lobster (I know I do) or they just don't want to take a chance on venturing into a restaurant and paying for a dinner they might not like. Maybe they're just stubborn. Either way, none of these are excuses for refusing to try something new.
Instead of dragging your friends and/or relatives kicking and screaming to an Ethiopian restaurant, however, try introducing something new gently and kindly. If they just adore Big Macs at McDonald's, for instance, encourage them to try the delicious, fast-food-style cheeseburgers at Liberty Kitchen.
With that idea in mind, here's our list of ten local alternatives to popular chain restaurants. It's a chance for your loved ones to try something new and support their community at the same time.
If you like: Olive Garden Try: Paulie's
Paulie's makes Italian comfort food classics like lasagna, shrimp scampi and chicken parmesan in an equally comfortable setting. Except that -- unlike Olive Garden -- Paulie's pastas are made in house, just like nearly everything else the family-run restaurant serves (which includes inexpensive wine and absolutely terrific coffee and cookies). In fact, it may be even more approachable for someone who's dead-set on Olive Garden: The counter service is relaxed and casual, and the prices are right on point. Alternate choices: George's Pastaria, D'Amico's, Collina's
If you like: Pei Wei Try: Khun Kay
Like at Pei Wei, you order at the counter in this cozy Montrose restaurant owned by Thai expats Supatra Yooto and Kay Soodjai. And like Pei Wei's, much of Kay's food has been Americanized for a broader palate. (While this is one of the main reasons that some people don't care for Khun Kay, it's precisely the reason that others love it.) And just like Pei Wei, there's a broad selection of pan-Asian dishes to choose from, including everything from pad thai and "Thai tacos" to shrimp fried rice and cashew chicken. Alternative choices: Jenni's Noodle House
If you like: Chili's Try: Barnaby's
There are several Barnaby's locations scattered throughout town, and all of them feature the kind of wacky decor and menu items -- gleefully giant salads, enormous burgers, grilled American standards like salmon and chicken and even baby back ribs -- that make Chili's so popular. There's also standard table service here, too, along with appetizers and desserts that put Chili's to shame: try the waffle fries with blue cheese fondue, bacon and green onions or the Chocolate Addiction Cake for dessert. Alternative choices: Baba Yega
If you like: Red Lobster Try: Goode Co. Seafood
All right, there aren't any Cheddar Bay Biscuits here. But both locations of this Houston seafood joint offer friendly service and a deceptively casual feel in their respective dining rooms (I prefer eating in the train car portion of the Goode Co. Seafood on Westpark). And you'll find an array of dishes to please the pickiest palate, from fried catfish po-boys to mesquite-grilled rainbow trout. Alternative choices: Bayou City Seafood, Floyd's Cajun Seafood House, Joyce's Seafood and Steaks
If you like: Boudreaux's Try: LA Bar
The same family that's successfully run Ragin' Cajun since 1974 recently opened a new, slightly more upscale version of the Louisiana classic right next door to the original Ragin' Cajun on Richmond. The Mandola family has taken the same Cajun favorites -- boudin, gumbo, grilled oysters and crawfish étouffée -- and added them to the menu at LA Bar along with additional entrées like barbecued blue crabs and seafood-topped pasta. It's approachable, fun and -- thankfully -- not too fancy.
Note: Although it has five locations across Houston, Boudreaux's is also locally owned and operated -- so don't go writing it off.
If you like: CiCi's Try: That Pizza Place On Ella
On Wednesday and Sunday evenings, this neighborhood pizza joint in Oak Forest has an all-you-can-eat pizza and salad buffet that includes not just regular pizzas, but any specialty pizza you request. Like CiCi's, that buffet holds everything from slices of pepperoni to cinnamon-sugar-topped dessert pizza sticks. And like CiCi's, it has arcade games for the kids and lots of TVs for the adults. But unlike CiCi's, it also has an excellent craft beer selection and live music on the weekends. Alternative choices: Candelari's
If you like: General Joe's Try: Kam's
You have no excuse for eating at the super-sad General Joe's in Montrose (where I personally had the worst Chinese food of my life) when Kam's is right across the street. First opened by Kam Cheung in 1988, the restaurant was sold to its head chef, Mr. Ho, five years later and has been run by his family ever since. Kam's does a brisk to-go business, but you can also sit down in the charming, elegant space and enjoy Americanized Chinese (as well as Vietnamese and Indonesian) classics from a wide menu, which even includes an excellent version of General Tso's chicken. Alternative choices: Heights Asian Cafe, Kim Son
If you like: TGI Friday's Try: Shepherd Park Draught House
Like TGI Friday's, Shepherd Park Draught House has a bunch of stuff scattered all over its walls. Unlike TGI Friday's, that stuff is actually cool, such as copies of the owner's personal handbill collection from the 1970s and 1980s. The menu at Shepherd Park Draught House is similar to TGI Friday's in the sense that there's a smattering of everything for picky people to choose from, whether it's Jamaican jerk chicken or Korean short rib tacos, roasted turkey melts or big, beefy burgers. The atmosphere is like a grown-up version of TGI Friday's, too, although you won't find any cocktails here; just good wine and beer. Alternative choices: Gordon Street Tavern
If you like: Maggie Rita's Try: El Tiempo
It's true: Several Ninfa's locations across the city are about to be transformed into Maggie Rita's. But we all know that Ninfa's went downhill after the Laurenzo family sold it years ago. So don't mourn Maggie Rita's taking over an already dying empire; go visit the original Laurenzo family at El Tiempo, where the Tex-Mex food (and margaritas) are as good as ever. Alternative choices: Spanish Village, La Mexicana, Lopez Mexican Restaurant, Molina's Cantina
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
If you like: Bennigan's Try: McGonigel's Mucky Duck
With news that Bennigan's is opening back up in Houston, an alternative to the dire food there is needed once again. So head to McGonigel's Mucky Duck, which is right down the street from one of the now-closed Bennigan's locations. The Irish pub features Bennigan's-style food -- a combination of Irish and American pub grub -- such as beef Guinness pie and quesadilla rolls. It also features some of the best live music in town at night. Hell, McGonigel's is even more fun to say than Bennigan's. There's no real comparison. Alternative choices: Red Lion, The Bull & Bear Tavern