Auntie Pasto's
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

Barcelona

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.

Cahill's On Durham
Cahill's owner Martin "Cahill" Hammer honed his chops down the road at Kenneally's Irish Pub, where he was a bartender and chef. Now that he has had his own place for a few years, Hammer has taken a page out of Kenneally's steak night by having a Wednesday steak lunch: a ten-ounce New York strip cooked to order with mashed potatoes and a salad for $7.95. Beat that, if you can.

Best Place to Eat When You Can't Decide What You Want

Super Steak & More

When you're with a large number of people, or have the kids in tow, and nobody can decide exactly what they feel like eating, our suggestion is Super Steak & More. Sure, there are steaks on the menu, but where else in Houston can you get (all at the same place) chili dogs, cheese steaks and burgers, summer rolls that rival those of the best Vietnamese restaurants in town, crawfish étouffée and dirty rice that taste like they just arrived from Louisiana, duck à l'orange (with 24 hours' notice) and a fried Cornish game hen that's like fried chicken with a Ph.D. Melting-pot cuisine at its best -- American to be sure -- a heady mixture of Cajun and Vietnamese. "Cajunese," perhaps. Whatever you call it, though, it's sure to satisfy everyone.
Yes, your kids like those giant plastic Habitrails that loom over every fast-food burger joint. But wouldn't the little rowdies like a real playground even better? One that's outdoors? One with sand, shovels and buckets? One where they can keep their shoes on? Joe's Crab Shack has thought of all that. And it serves food on the patio next to the playground, so while you eat, you can watch your kids zoom down the slide and wobble across the little swinging bridge. They're reasonably happy; you're reasonably happy. And these days, when public spaces are designed either for kids or grown-ups but rarely for both, that mutual happiness seems an accomplishment.

Pizzitola's Bar-B-Cue
This is one of the oldest barbecue joints in the city. When legendary pit boss John Davis founded the place in the early 1930s, it was called Shepherd Drive Bar-B-Q. Davis's secret recipe for zingy sauce died with him, but the business, including the original pit, was sold to Jerry Pizzitola, who kept up the hickory-smoking tradition. Pizzitola added an air-conditioned dining room to the old barbecue joint that he decorated with his favorite fishing photos and Aggie propaganda. Pizzitola's brisket is fork-tender and smoky, and the deboned chicken sandwich is one of the city's favorite git-it-'n'-go lunches. If you like your ribs dry-style with a chewy texture, you'll love the ones they serve here. The sausage, which is from V&V in Flatonia, is a well-spiced beef-and-pork blend. Pizzitola has done his best to replicate the old barbecue sauce recipe, and old-timers say he has come pretty close. Save room for the famous coconut cake.
Opa! You can't go wrong ordering Greek food at Mykonos. The only thing the restaurant doesn't have is crashing plates. The traditional dishes of this long-standing mom-and-pop eatery are all top-notch. Start with the skordalia, a blend of garlic, potato, olive oil and lemon for $4.50. This flavorful "Greek caviar," served with toasted bread for dipping, is so light it doesn't endanger your appetite before you get around to the entrées. Appetizers such as the spanakopita (spinach-filled pastry, $3.95), the keftedakia (Greek meatballs, $3.95) and the stuffed grape leaves ($3.95) also can be found on the restaurant's whopping Greek combination plate for $13.95. All are killer. Mykonos offers to perfection the traditional Greek dishes of moussaka ($9.95) and pastitsio ($9.95), but let your eye wander down to the lamb Riganato ($14.95), a giant lamb shank slowly simmered with olive oil, lemon and oregano. This is lamb at its best: very tender, with a deep and deliciously dark flavor. And the owners aren't shy about touting their signature dish, simply called Mykonos Best Seafood Dish ($24.95), which is red snapper cleaned and deboned and charcoal-broiled with shrimp and fat, juicy scallops in a special Greek sauce that is an old family recipe. Even the hungriest Greek-seeking restaurantgoer may be packing a to-go box out the door with this one.
Seoul Garden Restaurant
Someone has written a comment in ballpoint pen on Seoul Garden's menu: "Yum!" It's right beside the thinly sliced, marinated beef ($12.95). They might as well have gone down the entire menu, writing the same comment. Other favorites in the barbecue section of the menu are the beef ribs ($14.95) and the sliced pork marinated in spicy sauce ($10.95). The latter is deceiving to the mouth. At first taste from the sizzling platter, the pork seems sweet; the spicy kick is delayed, but it's nothing to push the fire alarm about. With all these dishes come a dizzying array of side orders: miso soup, kimchi (fiery hot marinated cabbage), marinated seaweed, watercress, bean sprouts, panfried potatoes in a gentle chili sauce, fried tofu in a hot chili sauce and a big bowl of rice. Also wonderful are the lightly crusted soft-shell crabs ($5.95), and the shrimp and vegetable tempura ($12.95). The pork dumplings, which come both deep-fried ($3.95) and steamed ($4.50), are terrific appetizers. Full-size entrées are enough for two. And the lunch special is heavy on the appetite and short on the pocketbook. It includes one entrée from a choice of six, served with two pieces of California roll, fried rice, chef salad and miso soup -- all for $5.95. Untried, so far, is the pine-nut porridge ($8.95) and the fish-egg casserole ($10.95). True Seoul food.
Gorditas Aguascalientes
Jeff Balke
There are so many fabulous little taco places in Houston, it is difficult to single one out. And so we picked a fabulous big taco place instead. Gorditas Aguascalientes makes antojitos of all kinds, not just tacos. The fresh masa huaraches and gorditas are real stand-outs. And the soups are great too. But the tacos here are sensational. All are prepared with fresh handmade flour tortillas, and all cost $1.25. The taco de carne deshebrada (shredded meat), topped with lots of hot sauce, is the one that Mexico City citizens like the best. Tejanos are fond of the taco de barbacoa (steamed beef head) and the taco de nopales (prickly pear). Breakfast tacos include eggs with carne deshebrada, ham, bacon and chorizo, and also cost $1.25. The cool tile interior and cheery decorations make this a very pleasant place to hang out and sip aguas frescas ($1.80, large; $1.08, small) and smoothies ($1.95) or sample the ancient Mexican corn-and-chocolate breakfast drink called atole ($1.39).

Best Of Houston®

Best Of