These days the Blue Agave, with its tight T-shirted waitresses, feels a bit like a high-class Hooters. But that doesn't diminish our fondness for the restaurant's cornflake-fried shrimp "pina" that's much better than its name. Adding to the improbability of this dish are the chunks of pineapple and hot sauce. Trust us. It works.
Irma's Southwest Grill
Irma Galvan, the venerable Tex-Mex diva of the Warehouse District, has dished up a mean enchilada for years. Now, her son, Louis Galvan, is betting on the ballpark to score points for his own downtown enterprise, Irma's Southwest Grill. Sure, the grill part of the name specializes in such fancy fare as catfish, trout or chicken breast, smothered in chipotle sauce and placed on a bed of poblano-garlic mashed potatoes. But creatures of habit -- and you know who you are -- will be thrilled to hear that Irma's tried-and-true enchiladas are still gladly offered. Don't leave without taking a swing at the scrumptious spinach, mushroom and chicken version. Rich and cheesy and studded with big smoky grilled chicken chunks, this south-of-the-border comfort food is worth leaving home plate for.
El Rey Taqueria
Jeff Balke
You probably wouldn't know it to look at it, but this tiny Cuban/Mexican restaurant with a drive-thru offers up the best chicken tortilla soup in the city. Walk inside, though, and you'll see the chickens rotating on the old-fashioned rotisserie, some of which, we're certain, are the base of the stock that gives El Rey's soups its extraordinary depth of flavor. With the addition of tomatoes, chilies, chunks of chicken, corn, cheese and tortilla strips, you've got a soup that for sheer absolute deliciousness will stand up against the most elegant lobster bisque in town.
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.

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