Day care has left you broke, but still you have your pride. You hate the fluorescent-lit, Formica-table fast-food experience. You don't want the kids to eat rubbery deep-fried poultry by-products. And please, no more of those offensive, licensed-character-du-jour Happy Meal toys. What you need is Mission Burritos on Alabama. Grab a table on the oak-shaded patio, and leave your adult dining companion to watch as the kids frolic in the grassy fenced yard. For the rugrats, order the kids' meal; it comes in an intelligently designed box that might look like a car or a raccoon; the prize will be something nifty, like a plastic frog or a fat piece of sidewalk chalk; and the food (say, a soft taco) will be reasonably attractive. For the grown-ups, order sangria. It makes child-rearing seem much easier.
Unless they have chosen a vegetarian way of life, some people won't let anything green cross their lips. An easy way to see some of the magnificent things that can be done with vegetables is at the lunch buffet ($6.95 weekdays, $8.95 weekends) at Madras Pavilion. This vegetarian-only South Indian restaurant makes lentils lovable and beans bearable for even the die-hard meat-and-potatoes fan. Dishes change daily on the buffet but include such staples as basmati rice pulau, lentils in one form or other, various curries with potatoes, cauliflower and other veggies, a delicious paneer and chickpeas cooked in traditional spices. Favorite picks from the menu include a crispy, flaky samosa ($2.29) -- a kind of pastry pocket filled with a vegetable-potato mixture -- and various dosas ($5.99 to $6.99) which are thin, light crepes made from rice and lentil flour and filled with delectable ingredients, served with sambal, a spicy dipping sauce, and chutney.
Photo by Houston Press Staff
Waiters with white shirts and black mustaches, wonderful photos and memorabilia of Cuba, and an air of quiet sophistication make Cafe Piquet the No. 1 choice for Cuban dining in Houston. The buttery black beans and gooey sweet bronze plantains are perfect, and the Cuban sandwiches are first-rate, but don't miss the hearty daily specials like picadillo, a ground-beef casserole, or ropas viejas, a slow-cooked meat dish whose name literally means "old clothes." You'll see well-dressed Cuban businesspeople here at lunchtime, Cuban families at dinner, and some beautiful Latina women who look like they stepped right off the set of a Spanish-language soap opera late at night. This is a wonderful place to stop by for a strong Cuban coffee and a slice of tres leches, the white cake that's soaked with sweetened condensed milk and goes with espresso the way peanut butter goes with jelly.
The difficult truth is this: Most native Japanese never, ever have a chance to dine in a truly great Japanese restaurant, of the sort one finds in Kyoto and a few other locations in Japan. The classic kai-seki-ryori dinner is an aesthetic experience that even the most decorated of Michelin three-star restaurants cannot equal. A proper tea ceremony dinner cannot be reproduced in the United States because the fresh local ingredients are not available, the setting is not available, and the chefs are not available. That said, this is where the local community of Japanese expatriates goes for some down-home chow. For most barbarians, this is as close to Japan as you're going to get without buying a JAL ticket.

Photo by Houston Press Staff
This redoubt of vintage Britannia is dead-on in every sense but two: The pub grub is not the slightest bit grubby, and the pints are cold. Shepherd's pie, beef Wellington, fish and chips, and West Highland cheese soup are but a few of the outstanding victuals. The steamed mussels would draw an appreciative "tallyho" from even the most discriminating Buckingham palate. On tap at the sprawling bar: Bass, Newcastle, Harp, Boddington's and Guinness, to name a few. Aged-wood beams run the length of the low ceiling. Old-time maps, whiskey signs and prints of beefeaters and Scottish clansmen gussy up the oatmeal-colored walls. Outside, the red phone booth and painted pub sign are giveaways that a fetching slice of the Mother Country lies within the ivy-covered facade. The servers certainly are fetching, but alas, their English tends to be of the Bayou City variety rather than the Queen's.
Houston has the best Vietnamese restaurants in the country -- the problem is picking one. We like Nga's, a little unassuming joint with a friendly atmosphere and a hip clientele. There are all kinds of discoveries on this menu, but the waiter tells us the most popular thing to order is No. 123, do-it-yourself spring rolls. He brings you a mixed grill of skewers and meats on a bed of vermicelli. On another plate are lettuce and basil leaves and a pile of round rice papers. Don't worry if you can't figure out how to roll them up; the waiter will come over and give you a demonstration. The food here ranges from pretty good to spectacular. While the lunch special is always tempting because it's such a bargain, try the hacked duck with mint and dipping sauce sometime. Looking for a real change of pace? Try the parfait of shaved ice and sweet beans in syrup with grass jelly for dessert.

A weekend breakfast at Goode Co. is a manly meal, but the women like it, too. After all, some mornings call for some serious sustenance, and this place answers with its own call of the wild. Thrillseekers rustle up the Buck Fever, which is venison sausage and eggs. Also paired with the breakfast staple are catfish, quail, fajitas and pork chops. The Hunter's Delight drowns scrambled eggs in chili, while the migas and huevos con nopalitos (that's cactus, to you and me) offer a south-of-the-border wake-up call. For a real eye-opener, supplement these with fresh-squeezed orange juice or, better yet, a Bloody Mary. And rather than squeezing yourself into the tiny counter cafe, take this most important meal of the day on the patio, a tile terrace surrounded by wrought-iron fencing and adorned with a Mexican fountain. And for goodness' sake, don't worry about a bad hair day; just throw on a ball cap. This is a muy comfortable spot to gather with friends and family to enjoy goode food and goode company.
Sinatra's music bellows through this quaint corner cafe featuring floor-to-ceiling windows and Chianti in diner juice glasses. Such a place easily could be found in the Little Italy section of New York, but this bistro overlooks Bellaire's Paseo Park and its newly reconstructed Trolley Pavilion. Locals love the friendly atmosphere of checkered tablecloths and tiny white Christmas lights. It's comfortable enough to accommodate the whole family, yet the menu is trendy enough to attract serious foodies. Southwestern specialties, left over from Ruggles's Bruce Molzan's stint as a co-owner, include the hit cilantro fettuccine with jalapeos and crawfish. It keeps company with such Italian favorites as chicken Minelli, tossed with a creamy garlic sauce, and clams Tuscano, spiced up with red pepper and toned down with a tomato-cream sauce. The chicken Gorgonzola is sautéed with fresh vegetables and tossed with blue cheese and polenta. And don't pass on the To Die For, a heavenly stack of ladyfingers, creamy mascarpone cheese, almond torte and seasonal berries.

Best Neighborhood Spot Outside the Loop


Yes, Virginia, there is a great restaurant outside the Loop (way, way outside the loop, to be precise). It's in Katy, its name is Barcelona, and it is a truly excellent Spanish restaurant. Gracious service, charming atmosphere and the best Spanish food this side of -- well, maybe not the Atlantic, but definitely the Mississippi, combine to make this a definite destination restaurant, worthy of any road trip. Our ideal meal? Start with the roasted peppers stuffed with crabmeat and garnished with piquillo pepper sauce and caviar, have one of the most intensely lobstery (and garlicky) bisques in the area, share an aromatic seafood paella for two with someone special, and finish up with roasted pears and kiwis with red wine and honey. It's a very special dining experience, and with airfares being what they are, a helluva lot cheaper than a weekend in Spain.
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.

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