On those days when Houston's summer refuses to end, when your eyes hurt from too much sunlight and your pores are clogged with sweat, when plastic objects melt on your dashboard, when you see squirrels spread-eagle on the ground, panting, and the neighborhood cats droop nearby, too languid to give chase -- on those days, you need a licuado. For those Mexican fruit smoothies, you should go to Nuo Leon, a neon-teal raspa hut on a bombed-out strip of Houston Avenue. All the varieties -- strawberry, cantaloupe, mango -- are concocted from real fruit, milk and shaved ice, and any one of them will restore both your electrolyte balance and your will to live. But be sure to order the smooth, sweet banana version ($3 for a large), which is topped with a whopping spoonful of cinnamon. That touch of mouth-warming spice complicates the cold, simple fruit drink, adding a touch of mystery and interest. Imagine: something you could rouse yourself to care about, in spite of the heat.

Murphy's Deli
Who says you have to go to New Orleans to get a good muffuletta? Murphy's Deli, with 18 locations to choose from, gives the Big Easy a run for its money with its hefty, heavy-on-the-meat-and-cheese rendition. Hot hickory-smoked ham, Genoa salami and provolone cheese are stacked inside a huge round sesame seed-studded bun and made to order while you watch. This means you can tell them, "Go heavy on the olive salad," which is what any normal, God-fearing moof lover would do. Their version of the trademark salad, a punchy mix of chopped parsley, kalamata olives, green olives, garlic, celery and pepperoncini, is made fresh on location. They've also introduced a turkey moof for the fat-conscious. A whole muffuletta ($7.50) is a meal for two hungry people. Half-sandwiches go for $4.50. Grab extra napkins. You'll need 'em.
Cafe Montrose
Mussel ecstasy reigns at this warm Belgian bistro, with diners endlessly spooning tastes of their steamed mussels into their companions' mouths like priests giving communion. The reaction is always the same -- thoughtful mastication followed by an energetic nod of delight. Once your own black mussel pot arrives, the real fun starts. Under the fragrant fog sit two dozen of the black-shelled devils, awash in a broth of wine, salt, pepper, celery and onions. Inhale deeply and you'll be transported to the coast of Maine, Washington or Canada, where the cafe buys the mollusks. The flesh is at once soft and chewy, yielding the saltwater-and-sand taste of the shoals. Served with delicious french fries and homemade bread perfect for dipping, the moules frites are worth every cent of the $13.95. Wonderful with a glass of chardonnay.:
Fung's Kitchen
While many will argue that the only good oyster is a raw oyster, we believe that the oysters in garlic sauce at Fung's Kitchen will cause anyone to reconsider that position. Large (usually huge) oysters on the half shell are steamed just enough to bring out their maximum, well, oysterness, and topped with a transcendent sauce of garlic and ginger, cilantro and scallions. M.F.K. Fisher titled one of her best books Consider the Oyster. This is one oyster definitely worthy of your consideration.
Urban Foods, a friendly deli/gourmet food store in the Rice Lofts, makes one of the best sandwiches we've ever tasted. Here's the blueprint (as Ken Hoffman might say): house-smoked salmon, sliced hard-boiled eggs, slightly bitter arugula and a sprightly, creamy dill spread. We suggest you have it on ciabatta. As each of the ingredients adds to and enhances the others, the flavor dances across your taste buds, which, of course, is exactly what a great sandwich should do.
Some of life's most dynamic beauty exists in its contrasts: the famous yin/yang, the complementary push/pull, the popular in/out. And these mouthwatering morsels of Caribbean glory are no different. The crunchy blue corn chip plays off the slathering of soft black beans that covers it. The thick slab of sweet, chewy fried plantain intermixes with the blanket of tangy melted Monterey Jack cheese. And for those of you for whom crunchy, soft, sweet, chewy and tangy don't provide enough contrast, this indulgent platter includes a mound of sliced jalapeos, for that bite that recalls the spice of life.
Whole Foods Market
Rosemary-and-olive-oil focaccia was the bread special the last time we stopped by Whole Foods on Kirby. The flat, crunchy Italian bread dripping with olive oil didn't make it out of the parking lot in one piece. Day in and day out, Whole Foods stocks excellent European artisanal breads. The chewy Prussian rye is our favorite for ham sandwiches, and the pecan raisin bread is perfect for serving with gooey French cheeses. But the biggest sellers at Whole Foods are the large crusty ciabatta loaves. Ciabatta means "slipper" in Italian; the name refers to the flat shape of the bread, which gives it more crust area and makes it ideal for oversize sandwiches. The half-size ciabatta loaf is nice for smaller households (and smaller sandwiches). All three Whole Foods locations in Houston are supplied by the same central bakery, which is known as the Whole Foods Bakehouse.
Chicken Supremo Burrito
Photo by Joanna O'Leary
Chicken Supremo Burrito
One of the last of Houston's old-time tamale men was an American Indian named Walter Berryhill. Dressed in a white jacket and top hat, Berryhill sold tamales from his pushcart in River Oaks. He rigged the cart with a propane burner in order to comply with health department regulations and kept selling tamales long after most tamale men had disappeared. Berryhill's tamale cart is now chained to a pole at the corner of Westheimer and Revere in front of Berryhill Hot Tamales. The tiny restaurant sells five kinds of tamales based on Walter Berryhill's recipes: beef, pork, chicken, bean and spinach. These unique East Texas tamales are made with cornmeal, and they have a Southern corn-bread stuffing flavor and a satisfying heaviness. The bean and spinach tamales are both vegetarian, made without any lard. The beef, pork and chicken tamales have lots of meat, and Berryhill's chili gravy is served on the side.

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.
Kim Son Restaurant
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.

Best Of Houston®

Best Of