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).
Mark's American Cuisine - CLOSED
If ever there was a "temple of cuisine," this cutting-edge American restaurant located in a former church must be it. There are stars painted above the former altar, and the bar runs where the communion rail used to be. Here, in this Montrose church-turned-restaurant, an un-solemn congregation of convivialists meets nightly to enjoy the culinary inspirations of chef-owner Mark Cox. Cox, a former chef at Tony's, has paid his dues. Now, at the peak of his career, he has his own restaurant and enough experience to know what to do with it. Cox is the rare chef who has attained an equilibrium in which imagination, enthusiasm and skill all work together in a perfect balance. American food is Cox's genre, and his dishes are bold statements. A stunning appetizer of air-cured venison and raw, thin-sliced buffalo steak drizzled with olive oil is an ingenious American answer to Italy's bresaola and carpaccio. Seafood entrées the night we visited included such rarities as ivory salmon (which lacks pigment), black sea bass from Virginia and gulf soft-shell crabs, each served with a vibrant sauce and spectacular garnish. An excellent wine list includes top wines by the glass, so diners can get different wines without sacrificing quality. The knowledge of the waitstaff is the restaurant's only flaw. While the service is excellent, the waiters we encountered all had a propensity to bullshit when they didn't know the answer to a question. Nobody's perfect. But Mark's comes close.
This is a no-frills experience all the way. These two little Heights-area huts have been around forever and, despite occasional turnover in staff, continue to serve up the best greasy burgers in town. You can either walk up or phone in your order. Most people get their food to go, as there's no place to dine inside. If you feel like eating outside, picnic tables are available.
Baba Yega
Jeff Balke
This cozy cafe, named after a Slavic witch, has been a favorite for locals ever since Montrose became the capital of the bohemian culture. Now, the homey converted bungalow -- with patio seating and a lush herb garden, complete with trilling birds -- serves Houston's largest gay population, as well as artist types, workers and even families. Like its clientele, the food is a mixed bag of deli, home-cooking and vegetarian cuisine -- all prepared simply but deliciously. Winners include the Baba Yega Caesar, a creamier version of the classic, topped with grilled chicken and charred red peppers, and the skewered grilled vegetables over herbed brown rice. There are even tuna, trout, salmon and rib-eye dinners for heartier appetites. The best bet, however, is the huge, perfectly char-grilled burger, served with a side of Baba Yega's famous dill potato salad. Paired with a Bloody Mary from the full bar, it's the ideal cure for the common hangover.
Avalon Diner II
Given that the historic Avalon Drug Co. and Diner is more authentic -- even if it, too, is in a newer spot -- many Houstonians consider it blasphemous to name the also-ran as the best diner. After all, what says "diner" more than screaming fry cooks and surly, seasoned waitresses? Well, let's review. Avalon II has all the right decorative touches: swivel stools, vinyl booths, checkered floors and vintage soda-fountain art, mixed with cheerful new snapshots of the local clientele (apparently a lot of families and cheerleaders). The faithful food consists of eggs scrambled on the grill, fluffy hotcakes, old-fashioned burgers on a buttered bun, fat fries, homemade onion rings and, of course, shakes, sodas and malts, made right before your eyes and delivered with the mixing canister. Blue-plate specials include meat loaf, chicken and dumplings and chicken-fried steak, though it's a shame to use fake gravy on real meat. Add to all that friendly waitresses, ready to treat your kids like royalty, and you have a diner deluxe.
Cleburne Cafeteria - CLOSED
Sure, the local institution that once sported a retro, school-cafeteria feel has given way to the neotraditional design trend of West University Place. But the food is still good, and the company is even better. Cafeteria standards like roast beef, chicken-fried steak and a really tasty piece of fried fish are joined by Greek fare, like pastitsio and moussaka, thanks to the native land of the owners. Enjoy the entrées, but don't forget to eat your vegetables, especially a sweet cracker-topped version of yellow squash casserole and America's favorite comfort food, macaroni and cheese. It's loaded with real cheddar cheese that globs in a heavenly mess on your fork and in your mouth. If we had one complaint, it would be the refusal to offer smaller, more economical plates, like the Lu Ann Platter at Luby's. Judging by the line that snakes out the door for lunch and dinner, it's a good guess that Cleburne doesn't need to offer any specials to attract more guests. Besides, the cafeteria makes up for it by offering every kid a goodie bag stuffed with toys and trinkets, as well as those old-fashioned mouse balloons.
Taqueria El Charro
Dawn M Simmons
Well, hell. The alarm failed you again; the sun's already long up, importing sweat through the panes and overpowering the asthmatic window unit, and somehow -- hard to remember exactly -- you're hungover. Again. You can tell even before you rise from the pillows that actual food retention is not going to be an option for several hours at least, and even at that, not unless something substantially restorative happens between now and then. You need to put something good in your body and start crawling back to life, or there's a better-than-even chance you'll be dead or wishing you were by four o'clock. You need orange juice. And if anyone serves up a better glass of juice than El Charro, we'd like to hear how they do it. You order. The waitress unloads a pile of oranges from the storage rack, halves them with a knife and feeds them into a whirring electric juicer, which spits the pure, pulpy nectar out into your choice of a tall parfait glass (small, $1.25) or a monstrous heavy-glass fishbowl (large, $3). You sip, slowly at first, merging onto recovery road, thankful that the Tejano jukebox's skull-crushing bass doesn't crank up till evening, eyeing the plastic "Homey" figurines for sale in the modified gumball machine (Collect All Four!), and grateful for the continued existence of such cheap mercy.

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.

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