Americans spent more money last year on pizzas than they did on computers and software combined, or so says an industry trade group. At any rate, pizza is one subject about which nearly every American can be counted on to have an opinion. Why Star Pizza? It is not a chain, a "concept" or theme restaurant. The only reason to go there is the pizza. The two Star Pizza restaurants belong to their original founders, Hank and Marilyn Zwirek, who opened for business at the Norfolk location in 1976. Local ownership is a plus. Consistency is a plus. A Star Pizza in 2000 tastes like it did 24 years ago. Then, being courageous enough to offer a garlicky deep-dish spinach pizza in a whole wheat crust -- when no one this side of a Berkeley anarchist women's commune had seen such a concoction -- was a plus. The fact that today the aforementioned pizza, called Joe's Special, is the best-selling of all the varieties is enough to reaffirm your youthful belief in the values of individuality and nonconformity. It also assuages your hunger. Would a slice from Domino's do the same?
Taste of Thai is one of those restaurants whose whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Sure, the food is wonderful, whether it's the soups, the angel wings, the roast duck curry with pineapple and tomato, the chef's special duck, the pad thai (last year's Best of Houston winner) or the homemade coconut ice cream, but it's the feel of the place, the warm, friendly family service, that pushes this place over the top. The first time we tried the chef's special duck (and it is really special, trust us), we asked our waitress what was in the dipping sauce, and she blushingly told us, "I'm not sure -- my mom makes it." What's not to love?
From the looks of all the new drive-thrus dominating roadway vistas, this car-crazy city craves speed -- in food as much as commute times. What's been missing is obvious: variety. Menu boards may have expanded, but the basic choices seem so limited. How many ways can a chicken or cow or codfish be broiled, fried or filleted? Or a taco shell be filled and lettuce pressed into a semi-salad? So salute a drive-thru breakthrough that ought to leave the Bayou City breathless: sushi on the run -- the right kind of California roll-ing. Rather than resorting to the pseudo-pagoda exterior and Asian influences so common with sushi houses, Miyagi Bowl takes a respectful bow to the quaint, neon-accented burger-joint architecture. The clean, well-lit quarters form a tempting invitation to interior dining, but the efficient ordering and pick-up window make the buy-and-bye the best route for motorists. There are menu offerings out the wasabi, with reasonable prices. These include 18 nigiri selections (tuna rolls, $2.20), nine sashimi delights, tempura, hosomaki, maki rolls, teriyaki and ten mixed boxes complete with miso soup. Don't forget the green tea. The Richmond location ought to be easy to remember by association; the cross street is Rice. Compared to the tired competition for cars by other drive-thrus, Miyagi Bowl is eel-on-wheels above the rest.
Until recently, Houston lacked an authentic New York-style deli, despite the size of its Jewish community and a natural customer base (a million people who like eating giant heaps of meat in one sitting). Sure, we had our share of fine sandwich shops or bagel joints, but nothing that combined all the elements: an oversize menu, several dozen variations of deli meat sandwiches with cute names, a container of fantastic pickles on every table, and all the classic old-world dishes including latkes, kugel, stuffed cabbage, matzo-ball soup, knishes and nova plates. But five months ago Kenny & Ziggy's opened its doors, and the void was filled. The menu takes half the lunch hour to peruse. With mouthwatering pastrami and corned beef leading the way, K&Z's more than holds its own in the meat department. Its Give Me Liberty or Give Me Schmaltz sandwich heads the list of schmaltzy-named specialty combos. The pickles rock. And the stuffed cabbage! New York?
Tokyohana
The current Asian invasion has revived a classic form of entertainment: the Japanese steak house. Family groups, especially those covering a wide age span, are the perfect audience for the sleight of hand of Tokyohana's master table chefs. Though elitists may find the show a little cheesy, children watch in wide-eyed wonder something as simple as preparing the grill flame. Preteens jump at the chance to catch in their mouths the zucchini cubes the chef tosses, and even savvy teenagers get a cheap thrill from the Tokyohana birthday party, which includes a special dessert, song and snapshot. To top off the experience, the food is really good. Though the chop-chop preparation is a sight to see, the cuisine itself is simple, featuring mostly chicken, sirloin and shrimp cooked on the grill, with just a little seasoning and a lot of garlic butter. To impress the in-laws, order the pricey Tex-Jap, a winning combination of beef tenderloin and scallops.
With its rows of tract mansions and commercial urban sprawl, it's easy to forget about West U's quaint town square. Anchored by the Little League field and surrounded by the school, the grocery store, the library and the courthouse is the Edloe St. Cafe & Deli. There, in the cramped but cozy spot, locals line up for dishes that are more reminiscent of a luncheonette than a deli. But gee, Wally, is it good? Sandwiches of egg salad, tuna, pimento cheese and the favorite -- the club, piled high with turkey and bacon and served on thick slices of egg bread -- are sided with a homemade potato salad chock-full of red peppers and parsley. Servers come out at night, dishing up Edloe's famous chicken enchiladas, its rich four-cheese macaroni and cheese and, on occasion, grilled snapper, which can be enjoyed with a decent selection of wine and beer. The whole comfort-food experience is made even more so during moderate months, when diners do the alfresco thing outside.
It should come as no surprise that a Vallone Group restaurant would claim the coveted prize of best service. Tony Vallone, the patriarch of Houston's most elite dining dynasty, has instilled this work ethic in all his progeny, who provide a horde of servers, from captains to busboys, to surround each table, doting on diners with the tender care of a grandmother. The trick, however, is to be at the customer's elbow when needed and to fade into the woodwork when not. At La Griglia, the pace is noticeably frantic at times, yet still accommodating, providing a welcome air of informality. And the willingness to please extends to the kitchen. After a patron pouted over the disappearance of the capellini-encrusted snapper, a line cook appeared at the table to confirm all the ingredients so that he could prepare it to specification. What arrived was even better than the original, crunchy on the outside, scrumptiously gooey on the inside. Come to think of it, you're not likely to get that kind of service from your grandmother.
The regulars lined up outside this tiny sidewalk cafe don't want the secret to get out, but too bad. La Vista is too good to keep quiet. Not only are aptly prepared modern American, Italian and even south-of-the-border dishes offered at a fraction of what they could be, but this is also a BYOB restaurant. Anyone who enjoys a bottle of wine with dinner knows what that can do to a bill's bottom line. Here, you bring your own bottle (or jug or six-pack, for that matter) and let the perky hostess do the corking honors. With that detail out of the way, you can focus on the important task of deciding whether to splurge on the house specialty -- grilled beef tenderloin in a port wine, apricot and cherry sauce -- or the grilled pork chops in a brandy broth towering atop mashed sweet potatoes. These dishes, the most expensive on the menu, are only $15. Most Italian entrées, like the luscious ravioli with a creamy tomato-vodka sauce, are under $10. With prices like these, two can dine for under $36.
Solace and comfort can be found in the chicken pot pie from the 59 Diner, but be sure to bring a healthy appetite, since the serving is substantial. As you break through the crispy biscuit crust, allowing the steam to dissipate, you'll reach plenty of chunks of white chicken meat along with corn, peas and green beans, all in a thick, gelatinous clear sauce. For $6.59, you also get your choice of three side dishes, such as old-fashioned mashed potatoes with cream or brown gravy, corn bread dressing, mixed greens or black-eyed peas, just to mention a few.
Day care has left you broke, but still you have your pride. You hate the fluorescent-lit, Formica-table fast-food experience. You don't want the kids to eat rubbery deep-fried poultry by-products. And please, no more of those offensive, licensed-character-du-jour Happy Meal toys. What you need is Mission Burritos on Alabama. Grab a table on the oak-shaded patio, and leave your adult dining companion to watch as the kids frolic in the grassy fenced yard. For the rugrats, order the kids' meal; it comes in an intelligently designed box that might look like a car or a raccoon; the prize will be something nifty, like a plastic frog or a fat piece of sidewalk chalk; and the food (say, a soft taco) will be reasonably attractive. For the grown-ups, order sangria. It makes child-rearing seem much easier.

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