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.
Shuffling your tray down the line at Crescent City Beignets amid the Lamar High students, you can't help feeling like you're eating breakfast in the high school cafeteria. You also can't help wondering whether these beignets are going to be as good as the ones you get in New Orleans. And then you get to the cashier and see the very beignets you are about to eat bobbing around in hot oil. And you know they are going to be very hot and very fresh. So you sit and slurp your café au lait with chicory and patiently look at the old photographs of Louisiana on the walls until they call your name. And you snatch your beignets while they're still sifting powdered sugar on them, and you rush them to the table and burn your mouth because they're so good that you can't wait for them to cool off before you inhale them. It may be more fun to eat beignets alfresco watching the mimes and portrait painters on Jackson Square. And it's more elegant to have waiters with white paper hats carry your beignets to you. But thanks to Crescent City, at least we have excellent beignets in Houston now. Look on the bright side: Westheimer may not be as pretty as Jackson Square, but you don't have to listen to those annoying, bad street musicians while you eat your beignets either.
The twisted, splintery logs stacked in a pile behind Goode Co. Seafood right next to the barbecue pits are a good omen. Just in case anyone was worried, there will be mesquite-smoked catfish tonight. In a day and age where catfish just isn't considered any way but coated with flour or cornmeal and deep-fried, the mesquite-grilled catfish ($11.95) is a low-calorie, heart-healthy alternative that rivals its fried counterpart in the best department: taste. The eight-ounce fillet, intensely smoked for 15 minutes, has been a favorite on the menu since the railcar-turned-restaurant started serving it 16 years ago. It's best with just a squeeze of lemon, and it comes with a seafood empanada and a choice of side dishes that includes red beans, red beans and rice, french fries or vegetable of the day.
Finding a cheap steak dinner can be dicey -- if the price is right, the meal usually isn't. Small tough cuts of meat that have been sitting under a warming light for an hour or so ain't a bargain, no matter how inexpensive they might be. PJ's Sports Bar, on West Gray between Taft and Montrose, has a more appetizing alternative. Every Thursday is Steak Night at the bar, and the menu is straightforward: two steaks, two salads, two baked potatoes and a pitcher of beer, all for $20. P.J. Mastro himself barbecues the nicely sized steaks. There's nothing fancy here -- the bar is small and low-key, and the decorations consist mainly of promotional posters from beer companies -- but the food's good and so's the company. What more do you want for 20 bucks?
'Tis a monstrous thing, this double-decker piled high and sliced in substantial halves, not those traditional quarters. That single diagonal cut, though, is as far as Express Deli, the all-purpose lunch counter-grocery on the ground floor of Houston House apartments, strays toward the experimental. Sure, you can choose your cheese and take it on toasted white or wheat, but the time-honored recipe has little room for variation from the standard stacks of turkey, ham, lettuce, tomato and bacon, with mayo, thanks. And there, in that structural stability, lies its continuing value as comfort food. Few clubs are as comfortable as Express Deli's -- might have something to do with counter guys who remember your name after you've ordered just once. Long may it stand.
The $5.99 lunch buffet at this Pakistani hangout is an incredible bargain. The zesty curried goat features the softest goat meat you've ever eaten. Pakistani curry is spicy and much more exciting than most Indian versions. There also are plenty of chicken, beef and vegetable dishes on the buffet along with a great saag paneer and a steady supply of fresh-baked nan. The restaurant that occupied this space before Sheshahnen must have done quite a bar business, because the bar is the most elaborate and interesting part of the restaurant. But Pakistanis don't drink. That doesn't stop them from sitting around the bar, though, which makes for a funny scene. Men in white pillbox hats sit on barstools drinking tea and arguing in Urdu at a huge bar without any liquor. Sheshahnen's lunch buffet is served Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The dinner buffet is $7.99, and Sunday brunch is $6.99.
Time, an endless river, rolls along, as does the channelized stream of Brays Bayou, a few blocks south of Frenchy's Chicken. But this family-run operation just keeps on keepin' on. Opened in 1969 by Louisiana native Frenchy Cruzot, this small 99 percent takeout spot (a few metal tables are set out for those who have to have their chicken right now) is still doing what it has always done to perfection. There is only one kind of fried chicken, deep-fried in a spicy batter that never seems to drip with grease the way those chain operations' chicken often does. Sides are of the sort that God intended folks to consume with his yard birds: greens, red beans and rice, dirty rice and jambalaya. Located a few blocks west of the large campus of the University of Houston, the spot has fed generations of students attempting to find an alternative to cafeteria meals on such items as the "three-piece campus special" (three pieces of fried chicken, one white and two dark, a pickled jalapeño, a biscuit or a corn bread muffin, french fries and dirty rice for $4.09, plus tax). The last truly outstanding aspect of this Third Ward institution is the hours -- 10:30 a.m. until 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 10:30 a.m. until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
Iced tea is a gracious beverage. It hints of endless refills and an infinity of time, and it's the right thing to drink at funky, laid-back Kaldi Cafe, where no one is ever in a hurry. Kaldi offers tea drinkers a nifty selection of flavors du jour -- ginger-peach, say, or herbal mint -- and because you fetch your own refills, you don't even have to feel guilty about abusing your waiter as you drain glass after glass.

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