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Texas road trip cheap eats: Where to get tasty meals on a budget

On your next road trip, stop by Stanley’s, one of the oldest operating mom-and-pop barbecue joints in Tyler. | Photo by Todd Bennett/Courtesy Visit Tyler

Road-tripping around Texas—from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods and from the northern prairie plains to the Hill Country—delivers more than just memorable sightseeing. Whether you’re wheeling through small towns or exploring big cities, you can enjoy great food that won’t break the bank, if you know where to look. Stretch that travel dollar with some of our favorite, tried-and-true finds across the Lone Star State.

Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q in Tyler

Double-rubbed baby back ribs at Stanley's Famous Pit Bar-B-Q. | Photo by Todd Bennett/Courtesy Visit Tyler

Double-rubbed baby back ribs at Stanley's Famous Pit Bar-B-Q. | Photo by Todd Bennett/Courtesy Visit Tyler

Located about two hours east of Dallas, Tyler is home to Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q, beloved by generations of fans for its smoked deliciousness and rightfully famous mile-high sandwiches. For my money, you can’t do better than the Brother-in-Law, which consists of a grilled hot link with cheese piled with chopped prime beef brisket and sauce for $9.99; but the Mother Clucker ($9.99) is also hard to beat, thanks to smoked chicken thigh meat with spicy barbecue-mayo, cheddar, and an over-easy egg on toasted jalapeño-cheese-sourdough bread. Dress it up Cadillac-style, with candied bacon and guacamole, for a total of $12.49.

Info: 525 S. Beckham Avenue, Tyler. (903) 593-0311; stanleysfamous.com

Road trip tip: It’s a quick drive to nearby Caldwell Zoo (buy tickets online in advance), where newer arrivals include a baby zebra and a baby giraffe. Check on penguin encounters, among other programs, at this impressive zoo, which also has raptors, big cats, rhinos, and flamingos.

Cali Sandwich and Pho in Houston

A bánh mì at Houston's Cali Sandwich and Pho is the perfect road trip food. | Photo by Julie Soefer

A bánh mì at Houston's Cali Sandwich and Pho is the perfect road trip food. | Photo by Julie Soefer

In Houston, fans of Vietnamese cuisine point to Cali Sandwich and Pho as the place to enjoy an excellent bánh mì; a chef once told me this was his favorite in all of Houston. Yes, you can also order fine bowls of pho and vermicelli topped with grilled shrimp and egg rolls, but it’s the sandwich from this strip-center space that earns raves. Get the Thit Nuong, a perfectly crusty baguette framing a layered work of sliced, grilled barbecue pork with pickled carrot and cucumber shreds for tartness, and bright cilantro playing against the nip of fresh jalapeño, all mellowed by a swipe of mayonnaise. The perky Vietnamese lemonade is just the right accompaniment, all for just under $7.

Info: 2900 Travis Street, Houston. (713) 520-0710.

Road trip tip: On a pretty day, eat that sandwich across the street in the newly refurbished Midtown Park; or hop on the METRORail to Hermann Park to wander the beautiful gardens.

Los Barrios in San Antonio

Tex-Mex never goes out of style at Los Barrios in San Antonio. | Photo by Diana Barrios Trevino

Tex-Mex never goes out of style at Los Barrios in San Antonio. | Photo by Diana Barrios Trevino

Opened in a renovated Dairy Queen in 1979, Los Barrios remains a go-to for old-school Tex-Mex in San Antonio. The landmark eatery’s authentic dishes—including the specialty 
puffy tacos, chicken mole, carne guisada, and tortilla soup—warm hearts and please appetites. Many dinners are $13 or less; lunchtime deals are $9–$10, as are early bird specials, served from 3 to 5:30 p.m. Watch for margarita specials at happy hour prices, too.

Info: 4223 Blanco Road, San Antonio. (210) 732-6017; losbarriosrestaurant.com.

Road trip tip: Drive 12 miles south to the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. The four missions here—Concepción, San José, San Juan Capistrano, and Espada—plus the Alamo (downtown) make up Texas’ only UNESCO World Heritage Site. These beautiful relics tell a profound story of very early Texas people with a deep cultural footprint.

Kalachandji's in Dallas

Tasty plant-based dishes abound at Kalachandji's, Dallas' longest serving vegetarian restaurant. | Photo by Hari Chan

Tasty plant-based dishes abound at Kalachandji's, Dallas' longest serving vegetarian restaurant. | Photo by Hari Chan

In Dallas, even omnivores eat happily at Kalachandji’s, the city’s most enduring Indian and vegetarian restaurant. The recipes are said to be ancient and beloved in India for thousands of years. Here, you’re treated to exceptional curries, greens, squash, potatoes, and other vegetables, as well as soups, rice, and breads. Popular dishes also include vegan mac-and-cheese, soba noodle bowls, samosas, and lasagna. Take the buffet dishes outside to dine on the beautiful patio (at press time, all food was to-go); lunch is $11.95, and dinner is $14.95.

Info: 5430 Gurley Avenue, Dallas. (214) 821-1048; kalachandjis.com

Road trip tip: Two miles south of the restaurant in Fair Park, you’ll find more than 30 beautiful buildings, including one of the largest collections of public-owned art deco architecture in the United States. The 277-acre park was built for the Texas Centennial in 1936. Among the museums to explore there, consider the African American Museum, a cultural repository with a significant folk art collection.

Black Cat Pizza in Fort Worth

Chef-owner Jaime Fernandez makes pizza from scratch at Black Cat Pizza in Fort Worth. | Photo by June Naylor

Chef-owner Jaime Fernandez makes pizza from scratch at Black Cat Pizza in Fort Worth. | Photo by June Naylor

Black Cat Pizza in Fort Worth distinguishes itself for its chef-driven creations on thin crusts with perfect texture. Sure, you can enjoy a classic pie with cheeses, pepperoni, sautéed wild mushrooms, and house-made tomato sauce, but you’ll also find adventuresome inventions like the pizza topped with broccoli, shaved brussels sprouts, tissue-thin zucchini, kale, arugula, provolone, mozzarella, pesto, and Marcona almonds. Want it spicy? Ask for one with Spanish chorizo and Thai chile honey. Elegant wines and craft beer make good pairings. Slices start at $3.50; get a half Caesar 
salad alongside for an additional $4.

Info: 401 Bryan Avenue, Unit 109, Fort Worth. (817) 489-5150; blackcatpizza.com.

Road trip tip: About 1.5 miles away, check out the lovely, handmade glass objets d’art at SiNaCa Studios, a glassblowing studio and gallery that offers classes, too. Or hop on one of the city’s bike-sharing rentals and pedal to nearby Trinity Trails to see the river on two wheels.

Sunset Grill in Fredericksburg

Locals in Fredericksburg flock to Sunset Grill to enjoy breakfast on a pretty covered patio with a lush garden. Signature breakfasts include The Josephine, a $9 deal presenting a handmade buttermilk biscuit split open and topped with a fried egg, creamy Brie, honey ham, grilled tomato slices, and fig preserves. For the same price, your sweet tooth will be slayed by the plate of vanilla-cinnamon French toast, crowned by caramelized bananas. Both meals are served all day on weekdays. (French toast is also available on weekends.

Info: 902 S. Adams Street, Fredericksburg. (830) 997-5904; sunsetgrillfbgtx.com.

Road trip tip: Those fortifications fuel you for a day of touring the famous Hill Country wine trails. In Fredericksburg and throughout the countryside immediately east—in towns like Stonewall and Hye—find dozens of wineries and tasting rooms to explore. Note that some require reservations, and several offer food pairings to accompany sophisticated tastings.

Pickett House Restaurant in Woodville

Feast on fried chicken and hearty sides at the Pickett House Restaurant in Woodville. | Photo by Carol Shields

Feast on fried chicken and hearty sides at the Pickett House Restaurant in Woodville. | Photo by Carol Shields

In the East Texas town of Woodville, where you’re surrounded by four national forests and the Big Thicket National Preserve, the Pickett House Restaurant serves an old-fashioned, family-style feast at lunchtime. For $12.99, the all-you-can-eat spread includes crispy fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, mashed potatoes and gravy, greens, country-style vegetables, coleslaw, pickled beets, pickled watermelon rind, jalapeños, biscuits, and corn bread. If you have room, dessert is peach cobbler.

Info: 206 US. Highway 190, Woodville. (409) 283-3371; fb.com/thepicketthouse.

Road trip tip: About 30 miles south, find the Village Creek Paddling Trail in the Big Thicket, near the town of Kountze. Bring your own kayak or canoe and paddle 2 to 21 miles along the tree-lined waterway. Great hiking abounds in the Big Thicket, too.

Youngblood's Café in Amarillo

Up in the booming Panhandle city of Amarillo, Youngblood’s Café serves as a beacon for diners who love stick-to-your-ribs comfort food. Situated less than a mile off historic Route 66, Youngblood’s pulls in a loyal clientele addicted to the toothsome chicken-fried steak adorned with green chile sauce and cream gravy, and served with a hearty helping of cheddar-jack mashed potatoes, for just under $10. Stacked enchiladas (I recommend the beef with red chile sauce), topped with a fried egg and perky pico de gallo will set you back $8.75.

Info: 620 SW 16th Avenue, Amarillo. (806) 342-9411; youngbloodscafe.com.

Road trip tip: Less than 10 miles west of downtown Amarillo on Interstate 40, find the storied Cadillac Ranch, where 10 vintage Cadillacs are buried nose-first in a pasture. You can bring spray paint to add to the visitor-fueled artwork on the cars. For something completely different, head 25 miles south of town to Palo Duro Canyon State Park for hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian trails coursing through a breathtaking canyon measuring 120 miles long by 20 miles wide.

June Naylor is an award-winning travel journalist, dining critic, and food writer based in Fort Worth. Follow her adventures at junenaylor.com. 

AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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