Atmosphere is a deeply subjective thing. What may delight Zippy the Pinhead could depress Bug-Eyed Earl. Or vice versa on a different day. Additionally, Houston tends to celebrate the shiny and new and to destroy the mellow and old, where atmosphere has had time to develop. Thus, the recent opening of The Mercantile, a downtown brewpub and light menu restaurant, represents a near miracle of sorts. The building that houses it was built in 1912 as a silent-picture palace. The theater opened for business four days after the sinking of the Titanic. (Coincidence? We think so. But atmosphere is composed of such moody trifles.) It lasted as the Isis Theater until 1925, when half of the elaborate plasterwork was torn off the walls, a false ceiling put in and a clothing store installed. The retail operation foundered just before World War II, and the building remained untenanted and closed up for half a century. Scott and Lori Littlewood, owners of the recently shuttered Bank Draft brewpub in the Rice Village area, discovered the building and went about removing the false ceiling and restoring the remains of the plasterwork decorations from 1912. The result? Well, terrifically atmospheric.

Cahill's owner Martin "Cahill" Hammer honed his chops down the road at Kenneally's Irish Pub, where he was a bartender and chef. Now that he has had his own place for a few years, Hammer has taken a page out of Kenneally's steak night by having a Wednesday steak lunch: a ten-ounce New York strip cooked to order with mashed potatoes and a salad for $7.95. Beat that, if you can.

Best Place to Eat When You Can't Decide What You Want

Super Steak & More

When you're with a large number of people, or have the kids in tow, and nobody can decide exactly what they feel like eating, our suggestion is Super Steak & More. Sure, there are steaks on the menu, but where else in Houston can you get (all at the same place) chili dogs, cheese steaks and burgers, summer rolls that rival those of the best Vietnamese restaurants in town, crawfish étouffée and dirty rice that taste like they just arrived from Louisiana, duck à l'orange (with 24 hours' notice) and a fried Cornish game hen that's like fried chicken with a Ph.D. Melting-pot cuisine at its best -- American to be sure -- a heady mixture of Cajun and Vietnamese. "Cajunese," perhaps. Whatever you call it, though, it's sure to satisfy everyone.
Yes, your kids like those giant plastic Habitrails that loom over every fast-food burger joint. But wouldn't the little rowdies like a real playground even better? One that's outdoors? One with sand, shovels and buckets? One where they can keep their shoes on? Joe's Crab Shack has thought of all that. And it serves food on the patio next to the playground, so while you eat, you can watch your kids zoom down the slide and wobble across the little swinging bridge. They're reasonably happy; you're reasonably happy. And these days, when public spaces are designed either for kids or grown-ups but rarely for both, that mutual happiness seems an accomplishment.

This is one of the oldest barbecue joints in the city. When legendary pit boss John Davis founded the place in the early 1930s, it was called Shepherd Drive Bar-B-Q. Davis's secret recipe for zingy sauce died with him, but the business, including the original pit, was sold to Jerry Pizzitola, who kept up the hickory-smoking tradition. Pizzitola added an air-conditioned dining room to the old barbecue joint that he decorated with his favorite fishing photos and Aggie propaganda. Pizzitola's brisket is fork-tender and smoky, and the deboned chicken sandwich is one of the city's favorite git-it-'n'-go lunches. If you like your ribs dry-style with a chewy texture, you'll love the ones they serve here. The sausage, which is from V&V in Flatonia, is a well-spiced beef-and-pork blend. Pizzitola has done his best to replicate the old barbecue sauce recipe, and old-timers say he has come pretty close. Save room for the famous coconut cake.
Opa! You can't go wrong ordering Greek food at Mykonos. The only thing the restaurant doesn't have is crashing plates. The traditional dishes of this long-standing mom-and-pop eatery are all top-notch. Start with the skordalia, a blend of garlic, potato, olive oil and lemon for $4.50. This flavorful "Greek caviar," served with toasted bread for dipping, is so light it doesn't endanger your appetite before you get around to the entrées. Appetizers such as the spanakopita (spinach-filled pastry, $3.95), the keftedakia (Greek meatballs, $3.95) and the stuffed grape leaves ($3.95) also can be found on the restaurant's whopping Greek combination plate for $13.95. All are killer. Mykonos offers to perfection the traditional Greek dishes of moussaka ($9.95) and pastitsio ($9.95), but let your eye wander down to the lamb Riganato ($14.95), a giant lamb shank slowly simmered with olive oil, lemon and oregano. This is lamb at its best: very tender, with a deep and deliciously dark flavor. And the owners aren't shy about touting their signature dish, simply called Mykonos Best Seafood Dish ($24.95), which is red snapper cleaned and deboned and charcoal-broiled with shrimp and fat, juicy scallops in a special Greek sauce that is an old family recipe. Even the hungriest Greek-seeking restaurantgoer may be packing a to-go box out the door with this one.
Someone has written a comment in ballpoint pen on Seoul Garden's menu: "Yum!" It's right beside the thinly sliced, marinated beef ($12.95). They might as well have gone down the entire menu, writing the same comment. Other favorites in the barbecue section of the menu are the beef ribs ($14.95) and the sliced pork marinated in spicy sauce ($10.95). The latter is deceiving to the mouth. At first taste from the sizzling platter, the pork seems sweet; the spicy kick is delayed, but it's nothing to push the fire alarm about. With all these dishes come a dizzying array of side orders: miso soup, kimchi (fiery hot marinated cabbage), marinated seaweed, watercress, bean sprouts, panfried potatoes in a gentle chili sauce, fried tofu in a hot chili sauce and a big bowl of rice. Also wonderful are the lightly crusted soft-shell crabs ($5.95), and the shrimp and vegetable tempura ($12.95). The pork dumplings, which come both deep-fried ($3.95) and steamed ($4.50), are terrific appetizers. Full-size entrées are enough for two. And the lunch special is heavy on the appetite and short on the pocketbook. It includes one entrée from a choice of six, served with two pieces of California roll, fried rice, chef salad and miso soup -- all for $5.95. Untried, so far, is the pine-nut porridge ($8.95) and the fish-egg casserole ($10.95). True Seoul food.
Jeff Balke
There are so many fabulous little taco places in Houston, it is difficult to single one out. And so we picked a fabulous big taco place instead. Gorditas Aguascalientes makes antojitos of all kinds, not just tacos. The fresh masa huaraches and gorditas are real stand-outs. And the soups are great too. But the tacos here are sensational. All are prepared with fresh handmade flour tortillas, and all cost $1.25. The taco de carne deshebrada (shredded meat), topped with lots of hot sauce, is the one that Mexico City citizens like the best. Tejanos are fond of the taco de barbacoa (steamed beef head) and the taco de nopales (prickly pear). Breakfast tacos include eggs with carne deshebrada, ham, bacon and chorizo, and also cost $1.25. The cool tile interior and cheery decorations make this a very pleasant place to hang out and sip aguas frescas ($1.80, large; $1.08, small) and smoothies ($1.95) or sample the ancient Mexican corn-and-chocolate breakfast drink called atole ($1.39).
If ever there was a "temple of cuisine," this cutting-edge American restaurant located in a former church must be it. There are stars painted above the former altar, and the bar runs where the communion rail used to be. Here, in this Montrose church-turned-restaurant, an un-solemn congregation of convivialists meets nightly to enjoy the culinary inspirations of chef-owner Mark Cox. Cox, a former chef at Tony's, has paid his dues. Now, at the peak of his career, he has his own restaurant and enough experience to know what to do with it. Cox is the rare chef who has attained an equilibrium in which imagination, enthusiasm and skill all work together in a perfect balance. American food is Cox's genre, and his dishes are bold statements. A stunning appetizer of air-cured venison and raw, thin-sliced buffalo steak drizzled with olive oil is an ingenious American answer to Italy's bresaola and carpaccio. Seafood entrées the night we visited included such rarities as ivory salmon (which lacks pigment), black sea bass from Virginia and gulf soft-shell crabs, each served with a vibrant sauce and spectacular garnish. An excellent wine list includes top wines by the glass, so diners can get different wines without sacrificing quality. The knowledge of the waitstaff is the restaurant's only flaw. While the service is excellent, the waiters we encountered all had a propensity to bullshit when they didn't know the answer to a question. Nobody's perfect. But Mark's comes close.
This is a no-frills experience all the way. These two little Heights-area huts have been around forever and, despite occasional turnover in staff, continue to serve up the best greasy burgers in town. You can either walk up or phone in your order. Most people get their food to go, as there's no place to dine inside. If you feel like eating outside, picnic tables are available.

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