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Ethnic Island

In Clear Lake's sea of sameness, Cafe Nasa is a fine place to set aground

It doesn't matter how much you may like it, one can still digest only so much Tex-Mex and seafood and hamburgers before harboring an irresistible craving for a serious ethnic food fix. Luckily, in most of Houston, finding that fix isn't much of a problem. But in the ocean of middle American-style restaurants that crowd the streets and bayfronts around Clear Lake, making the culinary leap to another culture can prove difficult. That's why for area residents, discovering Cafe Nasa must be like being thrown a life preserver. This outpost of Middle Eastern food serves up exemplary versions of the sort of tart and nutty vegetable- and yogurt-based dips and soft, singed pita bread that make Lebanese food ultra satisfying. I could make an entire lunch out of three or four selections from their appetizer menu. It's pure gravy that Cafe Nasa also turns out substantial Lebanese, Greek and Turkish entrees, hearty and meaty enough to satisfy the most die-hard meat and starch lover.

The nautical-themed etchings on the mirror at one end of Cafe Nasa give away the building's former incarnation as an oyster bar. The name, too -- sounding for all the world like it should be attached to a restaurant holding the government concession in some anonymous administration building -- gives little indication of the temptations that appear on the menu. But try a smear of their hummus on a triangle of pita bread, and any doubts you might have had that a Lebanese restaurant that really knows what it's doing could appear behind such a funkily bureaucratic name and unglamorous, functional facade will quickly evaporate. It's creamy and thick, earthy and grainy. It has all of the sharpness that defines a successful hummus and none of the half-cooked bean flavor that might ruin same. The picture is made perfect by the spoonful of olive oil ladled over the top, and by the black olive peering out of the middle of the stuff like some cyclopean appendage.

Another Lebanese basic done right is that ineffably soothing eggplant dip, baba ghanouj. A pretty buff color, it's sharp and salty (just this side of too much so) with peanut buttery undertones (lent, no doubt, by the inclusion of just the right amount of tahini). It's definitive. Which is to say that it ranks among the best baba ghanouj I've sampled anywhere, anytime. I worry, though, that one more flick of the wrist belonging to the cook holding the salt shaker could nudge the sodium content of this baby into the hypertension zone.

There's an art to flirting with over-seasoning. And at times, Cafe Nasa comes dangerously close to crossing the line from coquettishness to outright assault. In fact, occasionally they do cross that line. The Greek salad, tantalizing to contemplate with its dusting of peat moss-colored dried herbs contrasted against the icy green of its lettuces, and with its snowy, clumpy nuggets of generously portioned feta cheese, is so salty as to be almost inedible. The neutral cushion of pita bread, served warm and fresh (fresh enough, anyway -- they buy it daily from Droubi's) at all stages of the meal, is a necessary palliative to such occasional episodes of heavy-handedness. So is a bottomless glass of ice water.

Yet another dish whose saltiness disappointed me was the seafood kabob. Here were near-perfect shrimp, fresh and superbly charred and seasoned (granted, the accompanying rice and vegetables were more or less pedestrian, but the shrimp's excellence more than made up for them) -- then in crept that stultifying salt factor.

Near oversalting similarly threatens to detract from the beef gyros, which are actually 60 percent ground lamb and 40 percent ground beef. Otherwise, though, these scandalously flavorful meat strips, dribbling with a puckery yogurt sauce, wrapped in a Frisbee of soft, hot bread and then wrapped again in a foil jacket are the ideal grown-up counterpart to a fast food burger. You want sophistication with an exotic twist, but messy enough to still appeal to the youngster inside? Help yourself to a beef gyro from Cafe Nasa. So, too, a chicken gyro will more than suffice when the thought of eating yet another drive-through fajita taco leaves you cold.

Happily, salt isn't an issue with the tabbouleh. The seasonings in this dish are a model of restraint -- so much so that one lunchmate wished she had a wedge of lemon to jazz it up. I, however, found the clean-tasting salad of parsley, cracked wheat and tomatoes exactly to my liking.

There are other inducements in the appetizer section. Skip over the spinach pies, whose pastry shell tends to be tough or soggy, and head straight for the dolmas. Fat and dry -- instead of skinny and wet, as are so many of the stuffed grape leaves served up in restaurants that should know better -- these are a version of a Middle Eastern basic that could set the standard for its species. The stick-to-your-fingers rice filling is given high spirits with flecks of spicy red pepper. I have a sneaking suspicion that some Middle Eastern restaurants pry open a can when it's time to dish out the dolmas. Not so at Cafe Nasa; all their Middle Eastern offerings, except the pita bread and pastries, are made fresh on the premises. And the proof is in the dolmas.

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