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.:
It's a wonder traffic doesn't grind to a halt as the luxury SUV crowd does a double-take at the competing Starbucks stores at the corners of West Gray at Shepherd. After all, they just need their mid-afternoon java jolt -- not another decision to make. We'll make it easy for them. While chanting, "I brake for coffee," pull into the drive-thru. The very reason for coffee is to get moving, and the reason for a drive-thru is to keep moving, so the choice is a no-brainer. Besides, Starbucks' newest pit stop in its revolutionary road test also sports an eye-opening, nostalgic Jetsons design. Bathed in white and outfitted in chrome, the vintage '60s bank building is the latte of Starbucks, not to be confused with the house blend across the street.
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
Jeff Balke
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.

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