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.
Dawn McGee
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?"
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.

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