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.
Baba Yega
Jeff Balke
This cozy cafe, named after a Slavic witch, has been a favorite for locals ever since Montrose became the capital of the bohemian culture. Now, the homey converted bungalow -- with patio seating and a lush herb garden, complete with trilling birds -- serves Houston's largest gay population, as well as artist types, workers and even families. Like its clientele, the food is a mixed bag of deli, home-cooking and vegetarian cuisine -- all prepared simply but deliciously. Winners include the Baba Yega Caesar, a creamier version of the classic, topped with grilled chicken and charred red peppers, and the skewered grilled vegetables over herbed brown rice. There are even tuna, trout, salmon and rib-eye dinners for heartier appetites. The best bet, however, is the huge, perfectly char-grilled burger, served with a side of Baba Yega's famous dill potato salad. Paired with a Bloody Mary from the full bar, it's the ideal cure for the common hangover.
Avalon Diner II
Given that the historic Avalon Drug Co. and Diner is more authentic -- even if it, too, is in a newer spot -- many Houstonians consider it blasphemous to name the also-ran as the best diner. After all, what says "diner" more than screaming fry cooks and surly, seasoned waitresses? Well, let's review. Avalon II has all the right decorative touches: swivel stools, vinyl booths, checkered floors and vintage soda-fountain art, mixed with cheerful new snapshots of the local clientele (apparently a lot of families and cheerleaders). The faithful food consists of eggs scrambled on the grill, fluffy hotcakes, old-fashioned burgers on a buttered bun, fat fries, homemade onion rings and, of course, shakes, sodas and malts, made right before your eyes and delivered with the mixing canister. Blue-plate specials include meat loaf, chicken and dumplings and chicken-fried steak, though it's a shame to use fake gravy on real meat. Add to all that friendly waitresses, ready to treat your kids like royalty, and you have a diner deluxe.
Cleburne Cafeteria - CLOSED
Sure, the local institution that once sported a retro, school-cafeteria feel has given way to the neotraditional design trend of West University Place. But the food is still good, and the company is even better. Cafeteria standards like roast beef, chicken-fried steak and a really tasty piece of fried fish are joined by Greek fare, like pastitsio and moussaka, thanks to the native land of the owners. Enjoy the entrées, but don't forget to eat your vegetables, especially a sweet cracker-topped version of yellow squash casserole and America's favorite comfort food, macaroni and cheese. It's loaded with real cheddar cheese that globs in a heavenly mess on your fork and in your mouth. If we had one complaint, it would be the refusal to offer smaller, more economical plates, like the Lu Ann Platter at Luby's. Judging by the line that snakes out the door for lunch and dinner, it's a good guess that Cleburne doesn't need to offer any specials to attract more guests. Besides, the cafeteria makes up for it by offering every kid a goodie bag stuffed with toys and trinkets, as well as those old-fashioned mouse balloons.
Taqueria El Charro
Dawn M Simmons
Well, hell. The alarm failed you again; the sun's already long up, importing sweat through the panes and overpowering the asthmatic window unit, and somehow -- hard to remember exactly -- you're hungover. Again. You can tell even before you rise from the pillows that actual food retention is not going to be an option for several hours at least, and even at that, not unless something substantially restorative happens between now and then. You need to put something good in your body and start crawling back to life, or there's a better-than-even chance you'll be dead or wishing you were by four o'clock. You need orange juice. And if anyone serves up a better glass of juice than El Charro, we'd like to hear how they do it. You order. The waitress unloads a pile of oranges from the storage rack, halves them with a knife and feeds them into a whirring electric juicer, which spits the pure, pulpy nectar out into your choice of a tall parfait glass (small, $1.25) or a monstrous heavy-glass fishbowl (large, $3). You sip, slowly at first, merging onto recovery road, thankful that the Tejano jukebox's skull-crushing bass doesn't crank up till evening, eyeing the plastic "Homey" figurines for sale in the modified gumball machine (Collect All Four!), and grateful for the continued existence of such cheap mercy.

Sit back with a Mexican Coke and enjoy four tacos for the price of three (that's 75 cents each!). And be sure to slather them all with La Bamba's fabulous homemade salsa. Cooking onions and tomatoes with chiles de árbol makes the dark red sauce. Chile de árbol is a favorite dried pepper for hot sauces in interior Mexico. Mexican cooking authority Rick Bayless describes the shiny, orange-red, dried chile de árbol as "very hot with a straightforward chile flavor." We have seen them used in such quantities as to create hot sauces that will make gringos and small children weep. This hot sauce tastes especially good on a barbacoa taco, as the barbacoa is not seasoned with a sauce like most of the other tacos. And La Bamba has one of the best barbacoa tacos this side of Eagle Pass. La Bamba features ample seating, including two booths, a table with four chairs and a couple of stools by the steam table, with a maximum occupancy of maybe 15 people, if they're really skinny. This Mexican grocery store also is a great place to buy El Caporal pickled pork rind, cones of piloncillo, boxes of Mexican pasta and cans of Jumex fruit juice. There are also piatas dangling above the soft drink case, in case you're organizing a last-minute birthday party. And at the cash register you can get incense sticks and lottery tickets.
Flying Saucer Draught Emporium
Few Best of Houston categories are as clear-cut as this. Just count the taps. The newly opened Flying Saucer, in the newly renamed St. Germain building (it's known to real Houstonians as the H.S. Kress building), has 85 draft beer taps flowing. If nothing looks good on tap, there are also 130 bottled beers available. A menu divides the draft beers into light, amber and dark. Or you can taste by nationality. If you're in a hurry, for $6.50, a flight of five different draft beers in five-ounce servings expands your beer knowledge more quickly. For hungry beer lovers, there's a menu of sandwiches and light fare. The cavernous, cacophonous 7,500-square-foot beer hall is the Houston branch of a minichain conceived by veteran Dallas trendsetter Shannon Wynne. (In case you were wondering what UFOs have to do with beer, this überbierstube earns the right to its name by displaying hundreds of porcelain collector's plates on the walls and ceiling.)
Four Seasons Hotel Houston
So it's a chichi hotel -- the Four Seasons still makes a mean Bloody, equally adept at killing a hangover as slaking a fierce thirst on a hot day. The house vodka, though a little too carefully measured for our taste, is Smirnoff -- not some generic brand. Made from a homemade mix and served in a tall glass, this Bloody Mary is lively without ransacking your mouth. Flecks of pepper and zesty horseradish accompany every sip. At $6.25, these aren't the cheapest Bloodies in town, but they do come with complimentary olives and nuts. After draining a few, you may be ready to move on to the Beluga Malassol caviar for $75 an ounce.
Brasil
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
"You eat there?" most people ask. Yes, we eat there. Most people go to Brasil for coffee or Hawaiian Punch-like hibiscus tea, but we always order the same thing: the spicy chicken salad sandwich. Most chicken salad sandwiches are little more than shredded, mashed-up chicken mixed with mayonnaise. Boring. This one is delicious. They serve it on French bread or focaccia, and add poblano peppers, cilantro, pumpkin seeds and jicama (which Webster's says is "a starchy tuberous root from a tropical American vine). We don't know what they do to it. It's served with crunchy bagel chips (which make you feel healthier) and yummy mini-pickle things (gherkins). We always order a tall bottle of Pepsi (because drinking from the glass bottle makes us feel like we're in the '50s.) Brasil has got a nice shady outside area where you can eat. You can sit there, read the Press, eavesdrop on the freaky people sitting next to you or watch what's happening on Westheimer.
Lai Lai Dumpling House
Darkened windows prevent you from seeing inside this tiny storefront restaurant next to the Diho Market in the "new" Chinatown. You might even think it's closed. But open the door and you'll discover a hidden treasure. All dumplings are handmade to order, so it takes a little time. While fried dumplings are available, it is the steamed variety that brings up memories of authentic flavors. First you'll be treated to complimentary hot tea, and then, depending on the whim of the owner, either a bowl of mixed spicy, pickled cabbage and a sweet cabbage slaw with a distinct mustard flavor, or a Chinese bread in the shape of a large Mexican churro with the consistency of a doughnut. Dumpling varieties include pork (ten for $2.95), vegetarian, beef or chicken (ten for $3.95) and shrimp (ten for $4.55). Combination plates also can be prepared. Half the fun of eating dumplings is creating your own sauce from the rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil and homemade hot chili sauce provided on each table.:

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