Captain Benny's Half Shell Oyster Bar
Jeff Balke
Some people refer to journalists as bottom-feeders. Well, as long as there are crustaceans like the ones served up at the Captain's around, we will consider ourselves in good company. Since the restaurant is best known for its oysters on the half shell, the cold boiled shrimp sometimes get overlooked, but not by us. Never overcooked, these large pink beauties are spiced just right, always firm and fresh, and always cold. Make your own dipping sauce with condiments that include ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, horseradish, Tabasco, lemons, salt and pepper.

Ocean Palace
Being new, big and shiny, Ocean Palace has a few obvious advantages over its competitors: a ballroom-size dining room with 100 tables, a pond in front of the restaurant garnished with lily pads, and substantial hype that keeps people waiting every Sunday morning for a table -- for good reason. Ocean Palace serves the largest variety of dim sum in Houston. Where the average Chinese restaurant serves two kinds of rice porridge, Ocean Palace serves twice as many. Where all dim sum restaurants serve shrimp dumplings in a transparent, gauzelike wrapper, Ocean Palace also dishes out the hard-to-find bean leaf with shrimp ball. Keep your eyes peeled for the endless parade of carts loaded with dishes and steam containers for different kinds of lotus-leaf-wrapped sticky rice; steaming pork sui mai; duck feet in white vinegar; tiny briny clams in black bean sauce; shrimp-stuffed vegetables; jellyfish cold cuts; and baos (buns) filled with barbecued pork, or chicken, or sweet bean paste. And if you have room for dessert, Ocean Palace offers the greatest variety, with its carts full of pastries, custards and jellies. Best of all, you don't have to wait for the weekend to sample all these treats -- Ocean Palace serves dim sum Monday through Friday until 2:30 p.m., and until 3 p.m. on the weekends.
Chinese Cafe
Photo by Houston Press Staff
At most Chinese restaurants, fear the "special" fried rice. Rumored to be made of day-old rice and whatever leftover meat and vegetable bits fall from the cutting board, the only thing special about the rice is that it's drowned in soy sauce, creating a super-salty and greasy meal. But not at Chinese Cafe. Here, "special" means lots of ingredients (shrimp, pork and assorted veggies) and a big serving -- all for only $4.75, including a side of hot and sour soup. When the dish arrives, notice how the rice grains remain white and separated, never sticky or mushy. The quality of not just the fried rice but all the dishes at Chinese Cafe is comfortingly consistent. Although it's known as Chinese Cafe in English, its Chinese characters actually read "north and south," revealing the restaurant's wide range of dishes. Try the chicken with black mushrooms and spinach, the beef with crisp Chinese broccoli or the smooth, perfectly cooked shrimp with pelt beans. Plus, the wait is never long here at this serve-yourself cafe. Chinese Cafe serves good Chinese food fast, not Chinese fast food.
Almost everything at this Thai/Chinese restaurant is good. One strange bonus is that the place is almost always empty. The walls are red with gold trim and funky Chinese artifacts; the waitstaff smiles and doesn't say much. The garlic beef is the best food we've ever tasted in our entire lives. They must marinate the meat for a month, or maybe they raise cows in the back on a diet of pure garlic. We don't know, we don't care, we just want to eat there every day. The platter usually comes with two slices of cucumber, a slice of tomato, a big pile of beef and steamed rice served in the shape of Texas. We usually ask for extra vegetables, and they happily bring us a few more slices of cucumber on the side. The beef is so good we lick the sauce off the plate. The last time we were there we of course asked for extra veggies, but the dish came out different. The portion was much larger, and instead of just a plate piled with beef, there were fresh snow peas, mushrooms and carrots. Plus, it was a little bit spicy. We didn't think they could make it any better, but they did.
Some things you just can't get year-round in other parts of the country. Take lemonade: It's a seasonal refreshment up north, and even then, it's usually made with the powdered stuff in a can. That's not the case in Houston, or at Barnaby's Cafe. Every morning they squeeze their own lemons and make the most delicious citrus beverage this side of the Mason-Dixon. A delicate balance of sweet and sour, and you've got a refreshing alternative to your average everyday soda or that other Southern concoction, iced tea. If you stand in the parking lot for just a few extra moments before going in (and let's face it, that could result in full-on heat exhaustion in Houston), they'll bring a pitcher to the table.
Once you get over the fact that they look like a failed attempt at guacamole -- made with the bright green avocado paste, no less -- you'll realize that the poblano pepper mashed potatoes at Vallone's are some spectacular spuds. Sure, the bright color is not found in nature, and the creamy lump-free consistency causes a major ooze factor on the plate, but what did we expect? The culinary bar has been raised so many times since garlic mashed potatoes were deemed something special that restaurateurs have been forced to grab our attention any way they can. Vallone's does an admirable job of it here, pairing the peppery puddle with its mustard fillet for $26.95. You can also order the potatoes on the side for $4.95 or as part of a create-your-own trio, perhaps letting them cuddle up next to some steamed asparagus and garlic mushrooms for $6.95.

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