Photo by Houston Press Staff
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.
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.
Aron Danburg
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?
Jeff Balke
'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.

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