If you're looking for a chicken-fried steak covered in cream gravy with a strawberry shake on the side to wash it down, this is not the place for you. And you won't find the sparkly blue vinyl booths or garish neon signs that good old Americans have come to expect at the local diner. No, owner-chef-busboy Tom Williams's cozy, quirky Fox Diner transcends such banality with an array of delightful culinary options, from beef tenderloin stuffed with spinach and blue cheese to seared jumbo shrimp with tasso red-eye gravy and lump crabmeat to "angel's" pasta with love apples and herbs. And fanciful art from rotating exhibits transforms this petite Fourth Ward gem into a casual gallery. But there's one traditional comfort food the Fox is always fixing: unique, sinful desserts.
Some restaurants feature a table, generally in the kitchen, where you can experience the hustle and bustle of the back room firsthand. Others feature small intimate rooms or cozy nooks for a private get-together, away from the common folk. All of this, in an effort to make the dining experience extra special. If privacy is what you're after, then there's no finer chef's table than the wine room at the Rainbow Lodge. Tucked away behind the sommelier's office is an intimate space where the walls are lined with wine bottles. While it can seat up to ten people, it is best enjoyed with your one favorite person, and you can count on the waitstaff to know when not to disturb.
Start out at the intimate bar, then move on to the elegant and sumptuous dining room, where you'll experience not only first-class classical French cuisine but service to match. If the evening is going well, and you're feeling lucky, upstairs rooms with names like Renoir and Cezanne go for $195 to $575 per night. Of course, you could go all the way, and for $10,000 on Friday night rent the Grand Salon de la Comtesse, an elaborately decorated large salon with hand-carved wood paneling dating from the early part of the 18th century. Since it's large enough for 300 guests, it might be a bit grandiose for two, but it would make one hell of a dance floor.
Nestled between La Griglia on West Gray and Tila's on Shepherd, amid a sea of lofts that are sprouting like weeds, you'll find a quiet oasis on the patio of the Backstreet Cafe. Flowers are plentiful and always in bloom, and there's plenty of shade from a huge oak tree, although umbrellas cover those areas that the tree limbs don't quite reach. For those who don't enjoy the blistering heat, there's a transitional sunroom with French doors, where you can pretend you're eating outside but still enjoy the comforts of air-conditioning. This is the perfect spot to enjoy some lighter summer fare like the sherried wild mushroom soup or the roasted beet, goat cheese and orange salad or the wonderful lobster sandwich.
It doesn't attract much attention to itself in the large strip center in the 3800 block of Bellaire, but Hunan's food is worth coming back to -- again and again. Go before you're really hungry. You'll need the extra time to wade through the eight-page menu in the understated but elegant surroundings. Where to start? The vegetable dumplings ($5.25 for ten), stuffed with Chinese black mushrooms, hot bean curd, carrots, spinach and Chinese cabbage are a good place. The accompanying ginger sauce packs a punch and is the perfect complement to the fresh-steamed delicacies. From there, just choose what you're hungry for -- there's not a bad item on the menu. The most popular entrées are the shrimp and chicken with cashews ($8.50), the General Tso's chicken ($8.95), the scallops and shrimp with vegetables ($9.95), and the shrimp with chili sauce ($9.95), an intoxicating blend of secret family ingredients made fresh. Other notables are the crispy duck ($8.95), steamed ahead of time to rid it of extra fat, marinated in another secret family recipe, deep-fried and served with vegetables in a hoisin sauce; and the "volcano" crispy shrimp, fried in cornmeal, served on a bed of broccoli and with a bowl of the sweet but powerful volcano sauce, made fresh, on the side. You'll erupt in cheers.
In a city proud of Texas-size portions, the waitstaff at Osteria d'Aldo still feels obliged to explain to patrons that the serving sizes are like Italian tapas -- we prefer to call them civilized. And with such manageable portions, one can do a multicourse Italian meal just as the good Lord intended. Start with perhaps a white bean soup, a shrimp bisque or maybe a nice bruschetta. Follow up with a pasta (maybe you'll be extra lucky and roasted duck ravioli will be available) and then move on to an entrée -- the veal with foie gras, truffle oil and frisée is wonderful, but then we've never eaten anything here that wasn't. Good desserts, an excellent wine list and the decor of a Renaissance palace wine cellar all add to the experience: Italian dining at its most authentic.
We're always happy to walk into Cedars, see that splendid buffet line and remember how very little it's going to cost us to dine royally. For meat lovers, there's terrific roast lamb served up simply with just its natural juices, or a nice piece of red snapper with tahini sauce. But as with most Middle Eastern restaurants, this place is vegetarian heaven. There's a veggie platter with 14 different items. Among the highlights: baba ghanoush and tabbouleh, truly fabulous roasted eggplant with pomegranate molasses, and a roasted cauliflower that's so good it temporarily makes us forget how much we normally dislike cauliflower. Don't forget dessert, though; after eating all your vegetables, you deserve a sweet reward.
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.

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