Best Of :: Food & Drink
"This is an African restaurant," Uzo Ebenebe Ibekwe cautions newcomers to Genesis Restaurant. The native Nigerian relaxes into a broad smile when the visitors tell her they are eager for a culinary adventure. The menu is a tour of her country's favorite dishes, from fufu (pounded yams) to stockfish and hen pepper soup. The key is matching a particular meat with the right sauce, called "soups." The goat meat, awash in pepper-based nsala soup, is tender and flavorful. The bitterleaf soup, however, is pungent and vaguely disconcerting to the unschooled. Fufu is the anchor of any good Nigerian meal. At Genesis, it arrives softball-sized, and is smooth and delicious when dipped into a variety of sauces. The ambience is laid-back, all earth tones and soft lighting, and alive with the exuberant sounds of Afro-beat legend Fela. Ibekwe, with her easy smile and beautifully braided hair, makes an ideal hostess. She explains that kids under age five eat free "because I want to encourage Nigerian families to eat Nigerian food instead of hamburgers every day."
Zimm's has been a wine bar; it's been a coffee-and-wine bar; it's been all but burned out in a fire last year; and it's been flooded by Tropical Storm Allison. Still, it endures, and it makes a damn good martini. The drinks are helped by the seductive ambience of the place -- dark and agreeably louche, with not-too-loud music, which one staffer describes accurately as "always calm and sexual and jazzy." The crowds on the weekends can get a little too pretentious for some tastes, but the weeknight vibe is more amenable and the martinis are just as good.
These sublime concoctions are undoubtedly best enjoyed alfresco, and to do so there is no place better than the Guatemalan/Mexican surf-and-turf, El Pueblito Place. First, there's the marg itself, which is tartly delicious as any in town and comes in large, extra large, and call-a-cab sizes. Then there are the cabana-comes-to-Montrose surroundings of the restaurant's new back patio, in which riots of pastel shades delight human eyes, and hanging plastic bags full of water bamboozle those of the flies. Accompanied by the restaurant's legendary pineapple salsa (or its severely underrated red companion) and the relatively cool breezes of the Gulf Coast evening, the El Pueblito Place alfresco margarita experience is not to be missed.
Houston's unique brand of spontaneous fusion is in full flower on Telephone Road. Formerly home to the white middle class, now part Asian and part Hispanic, Telephone crosses all the lines. Shipway began its life as a run-of-the-mill doughnut shop, and then it was purchased by a Hispanic family who expanded the place. So now the glass cases are filled with the usual chocolate-frosted and plain-cake doughnuts, along with brightly colored Mexican pastries. There's also a full menu of Mexican breakfast items like bacon-and-egg tacos, chorizo and egg plates. You can also order a tres leches cake for your kid's birthday party. And if that's not enough of a selection, Shipway also sells some of the best homemade pork or chicken tamales in the city on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings. A hot foil package containing a dozen tamales sells for $5. Better get two: one to eat on the spot, slathered with hot sauce, and one to take home for the family.
Old-timers remember the era when Sunday afternoons meant post-church meals where anything but fried chicken would constitute outright heresy. Now the special repast is almost strictly the domain of fast-food joints. Fox Diner pays due homage to the heritage of fried chicken on Sunday. While the cooks of past eras never would have dreamed of coating the chicken in corn flakes, they'd be more than a little pleased at how this place does it with spectacular results -- the crust is properly crunchy and tasty. And the chicken itself stays oh-so-moist and flavorful. Have faith. This is one Fox you want in the henhouse.
When we say plantains, we aren't talking about those crunchy chips you find in a bag of trail mix. No, we're talking plantains here, the ones you peel and fry up in a pan. Most restaurants will serve up slabs of fruit from plantain purgatory, soft and pretty yellow on the outside, with a stiff, flavorless center. But Cafe Piquet is a place that understands Caribbean cooking. The tostones, fried when the fruit is still green, are thick and dry, and add the right touch to certain dishes. But the maduros are what keep us coming back. Sweet and gooey, they almost glisten as they drip off the fork. They aren't much to look at, with none of the pretty cinnamon sprinkles or frilly garnish. They're misshapen, blackened lumps that leave it to your taste buds to be the final jury. But don't let the discoloration scare you -- that's proof that this place knows the one secret to serving up good soft plantains: Pick 'em when they're ripe.