Rosemary-and-olive-oil focaccia was the bread special the last time we stopped by Whole Foods on Kirby. The flat, crunchy Italian bread dripping with olive oil didn't make it out of the parking lot in one piece. Day in and day out, Whole Foods stocks excellent European artisanal breads. The chewy Prussian rye is our favorite for ham sandwiches, and the pecan raisin bread is perfect for serving with gooey French cheeses. But the biggest sellers at Whole Foods are the large crusty ciabatta loaves. Ciabatta means "slipper" in Italian; the name refers to the flat shape of the bread, which gives it more crust area and makes it ideal for oversize sandwiches. The half-size ciabatta loaf is nice for smaller households (and smaller sandwiches). All three Whole Foods locations in Houston are supplied by the same central bakery, which is known as the Whole Foods Bakehouse.
One of the last of Houston's old-time tamale men was an American Indian named Walter Berryhill. Dressed in a white jacket and top hat, Berryhill sold tamales from his pushcart in River Oaks. He rigged the cart with a propane burner in order to comply with health department regulations and kept selling tamales long after most tamale men had disappeared. Berryhill's tamale cart is now chained to a pole at the corner of Westheimer and Revere in front of Berryhill Hot Tamales. The tiny restaurant sells five kinds of tamales based on Walter Berryhill's recipes: beef, pork, chicken, bean and spinach. These unique East Texas tamales are made with cornmeal, and they have a Southern corn-bread stuffing flavor and a satisfying heaviness. The bean and spinach tamales are both vegetarian, made without any lard. The beef, pork and chicken tamales have lots of meat, and Berryhill's chili gravy is served on the side.

First, you need to take into account the logistics of eating while driving. For the record, a car with a standard transmission is not the most desirable drive-thru vehicle, unless you have someone in the passenger seat to help out. Shifting gears complicates unwrapping and eating your dinner, and may even offset the benefit of efficient drive-thru food -- that is, food with a low soilage quotient. Okay, we made up that term, but we mean food that isn't likely to land on your lap, your tie, your blouse or your passenger (gotta watch those turns!). For years, the most efficient car food was the burger (and if you ever find yourself in Manvel, do not pass up the little shack with the orange roof that is Dilly Burger), but we have found a delicious Mexican twist to the meat-between-bread concept. The chicken torta from Taqueria Fiesta Guadalajara is held together with just the right combination of lettuce, tomato, guacamole, chicken and crema (glorious crema!). The fresh bolillos put a sesame-seed bun to shame. Taqueria Fiesta Guadalajara has been open just five short months, and there's no menu board or speakers to cut in and out while you place your order. You drive up to the window, a beautiful young woman hands you a menu, and you make your selection. The food is made to order and piping hot. The licuado de plátano hits the spot as you drive off -- searching the radio dial for some Tejano dinner music.
After five years of satisfying customers with his famous black-pepper crabs ($11.95), Kim Son owner Tan La became concerned that the restaurant's most spectacular menu item was becoming passé. So he sent his mother back to Vietnam to find another crab recipe. She returned with one for tamarind crabs ($11.95), a dish introduced last year that marries Kim Son's plump, succulent crabs with a sweet and tart sauce rendered from the fuzzy, knobby tamarind bean. The crabs are stir-fried in the oh-so-sticky sauce and served up, usually four to a platter. No matter how many extra napkins they provide, it's not enough. You don't want to miss any of the sweet meat tucked strategically inside the crustacean, but the sauce itself is so good you may find yourself licking the shells -- and your fingers, again and again. After a meal of these, you'll find yourself wishing Kim Son had just one more thing: a shower.
Great french fries are probably the last thing that come to mind when thinking about Cafe Annie (something we do a great deal), but since one of the keys to a great restaurant is the details, it should come as absolutely no surprise that its fries are first-rate. They are, in fact, the fries of your dreams: thin and crisp, seasoned with coarse salt, and tasting deeply of potato. They're so good, in fact, that at a recent dinner there, when we discovered that nobody's entrée came with fries, we ordered some for the table -- adding new meaning to the phrase "Do you want fries with that?"
The burgers at this downtown watering hole are the real deal: a half-pound handmade patty of 80 percent lean ground chuck that is never frozen and never more than two days old. The most popular burger at Market Square is the blue-cheese burger, but the restaurant also offers a bacon cheeseburger, Canadian bacon cheeseburger, a regular cheeseburger and a portobello mushroom burger, the McCool. Prices range from $5.75 to $6.75, but they're well worth it.
If you don't know what al mojo de ajo means, ask before you order. Loosely translated, it means Godzilla portions of garlic. But there must be a lot of garlic lovers out there, because Pico's camarones al mojo de ajo ($14.99) is one of the restaurant's most popular dishes. Six jumbo shrimp are lightly breaded then sautéed in olive oil and garlic. More finely minced fresh garlic is sprinkled on top during the short cooking process. The shrimp are butterflied so that more surface area can absorb the garlic, and served in the shell for still more flavor. The dish is served with a salad (a delicious vinaigrette comes on the side) and Mexican rice. It's not an intricate recipe, but in this case, simplicity is best.

If you ask the owner of Ciro's Italian Grill, Ciro Lampasas, how the delightful Italian nachos came into thankful existence, he'll tell you it's what you get when an Italian restaurant owner and his Mexican kitchen manager cross culinary wits. This appetizing amalgam of ingredients is one of the finest examples of the fusion cuisine that can be created in the kitchens of a city where so many cultures unite. The foundation of this ample appetizer is baked focaccia-style flatbread "chips" that are hearty and earthen in flavor. Its strength, however, lies in the array of toppings. Fresh, verdant spinach, delicately sautéed in olive oil, may command more space on the plate than any of the other vegetables, but it's really just one of many accompaniments. Whole roasted cloves of garlic are combined in a skillet with small bits of roma tomatoes, slices of kalamata olives, fresh kernels of corn, black beans, green onions and -- get this -- tiny cuts of ziti pasta. This mixture joins the spinach atop the bed of chips. Melted mozzarella cheese and cilantro finalize this unlikely but divine dish.
As much as we love the pasta explosion of the past 20 years (lighter sauces, Asian pastas, Cajun pastas, pan-cross cultural pastas, you know the rest), sometimes it's nice to eat the kind of pasta that reminds us why we loved it so much in the first place, and for that, we recommend the chicken lasagna Alfredo at Josephine's. Tender noodles are layered with flavorful chicken and cheeses, the whole thing bathed in a rich, creamy, luxurious Alfredo sauce. Trendy? Hardly. But as comfort food extraordinaire, it takes you back to a time before pasta became inventive. Back to a time when pasta simply needed to be good, and hearty, and satisfying. And let us tell you, there's hardly a plate of food in town more soul-satisfying than this one.
The "East" in this spiffy, clean little restaurant, housed in a former fast-food outlet, does not refer to its location in Houston (it's actually on the far west side of the city), but to the Russian word for east, vostok. In Russia, east is a shorthand term for the Moslem regions of the former Russian Empire. Owner Ayat Ilyakhunov, a native of Almaty, Kazakhstan, and his friendly family serve up a variety of shish kebab dishes -- lamb, salmon, chicken and a ground beef version of the national dish of Azerbaijan, the lulya kabob ($6.99 or $8.99). For those who have not had the chance to nibble a fresh skewer of mutton -- purchased from a street vendor in the Green Bazaar of Almaty or served at a family meal inside a felt tent along a windswept Caspian Sea beach -- these kabobs are a superb substitute. Some of the classic dishes of other regions of the old empire -- Georgia, Siberia, the Ukraine, even the Uigur regions of Chinese Turkestan -- also are represented on the menu. On weekend evenings, there's music courtesy of Cafe East's one-man band, Sergey.

Best Of Houston®

Best Of