Don't you hate it when you order a salad and they haven't sprinkled enough croutons on it, at least not as many as you would like? You'll never have that problem at Cafe Express. Whoever designed this place was smart enough to leave extra toppings in big jars at a kiosk. Gourmet toppings, too, for that matter: sun-dried tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, jalapeños, sweet roasted garlic, capers, crisp pickle slices, zingy gherkin pickles, olives with pits intact and, yes, croutons. Like a cherry on top of a sundae, the help-yourself condiments are what really makes this place rise above its decent-but-nothing-to-write-home-about food and the bland but sometimes puzzling decor. (What is it, anyway, with the fake palm tree bearing green and purple leaves and what appear to be stainless-steel coconuts?)

As more and more converts are discovering every day, ya don't need a cow to make a delicious burger. And no one knows that better than Hungry's. Their veggie version can go head-to-head with those patties o' flesh any day. Hungry's starts with a toasted whole-wheat bun, dabs a little mayo on it, and tops it with a tasty black bean burger flecked with bits of corn. Then the decadence begins. The patty is stacked with a litany of delectables: more black beans, smoky provolone, ripe avocados, leafy green lettuce and pico de gallo studded with jalapeños. This outrageous masterpiece is accompanied by your choice of sides, and we recommend the perfect skin- on fries. It's enough to make a cow moo in agreement.

The boardwalks of the Jersey Shore are dotted with Kohr Brothers custard stands, and generations of Garden Staters are grateful. Now the company has moved to Houston, and even if your cone won't be accompanied by the smell of a nearby stand grilling up a sausage-and-peppers sandwich, you can still taste why Kohr's has lasted more than 80 years. They claim to have the calories of frozen yogurt, but it's hard to tell from the flavor. The custard is made from Grade A milk, cream, sugar and eggs and has a texture like soft ice cream. There are two Houston locations, at the large "entertainment center" that includes Jillian's and the Edwards Cinema, near Silber and I-10, and at the work-in-progress Memorial City Mall. Neither site really offers the full East Coast ambience, but you'll just have to imagine that everyone around you is talking like an extra from The Sopranos.
Sure, the name doesn't sound appealing. But there's nothing but joy to be had in the steaming plate of lard nar prepared for you at Thai Spice. There is no lard in lard nar. Thick rice noodles, softer than an angel's pillow, are covered in a secret house gravy. Broccoli chunks are thrown in over that. Then the concoction is topped off with chicken, beef, pork or tofu a-plenty. We recommend the tofu. It soaks up the special sauce until each piece lingers in your mouth like a piece of bean-curd heaven. Trust us, that's a good thing.

It's becoming increasingly hard to find a spot where you can get a decent, tasty Jamaican patty. The cats over at Bluemountain have some beef and chicken patties that are worth the trip all the way out to West Bellfort. Located in the same strip mall as Club Riddims, this cafe offers affordable patties ($1.50 a pop) that are always hot, spicy enough to make your eyes water, and flaky as Drew Barrymore on a talk show. And if you catch the staff on a good day and you happen to be a quarter short, they'll give you a break and let you slide. Good service. Good patties. It's enough to make you start singing Bob Marley tunes at the top of your lungs.
Everyone agrees on the basic ingredients for nachos -- and yet no dish seems to be more diverse in interpretation. It ranges from the runny goulash of Enron Field, that stuff that looks more suited for the disposal, to the barren terrain of only token enhancements at too many establishments. Noche presents a beautiful blend: big meaty strips of steak (almost a meal in themselves), tasty rather than simply torrid jalapeños, bits of bacon to accent taste and texture, fresh crisp chips that somehow stay immune to the curse of sogginess, a layer of quality cheese to properly bond the elements -- and a nice smattering of pico de gallo to give it more punch. With that kind of culinary craftsmanship, call the Noche the Nacho Cocina.

Go for a table in the middle of one of the two gigantic dining rooms. If you sit at the corner of two aisles, you will double your luck. It may sound greedy now, but wait until you've had Kim Son's dim sum! Colorful xiu mai with a fluffy shrimp and pork filling, slurpy rice noodles, and mushroom-capped meatballs are standouts. If you're new to dim sum, ask for Kim Son's handy illustrated menu with four pages of color pictures. On the weekends, the carts carry lots of specials that aren't on the menu. Velvety baked eggplant stuffed with shrimp paste, green pepper stuffed with shrimp paste and clams in black bean sauce are ones to watch out for; they come around only every now and then. On the weekend, Kim Son's carts push an average of 70 dim sum items. And dim sum lovers agree, they are the best in town.

For an honest, down-home cheeseburger that doesn't come in a sack with a wind-up toy, where the cheese is real grated cheddar instead of that processed pale yellow slime and where, lacking a microphone, the cook bellows out, "No. 10!" when your order is ready, pull into the unpaved parking lot at Bellaire Broiler Burger. The weight of the meat patty isn't touted; it's just real meat. The fresh-chopped onions nip at your tongue. The hand-hewn lettuce and tomato are fresh and, mingling with the condiments, create that wonderful cheeseburger juice that renders the last two or three bites hopelessly soggy. And a cheeseburger tastes best in a real burger joint where the generous-sized deep fryer gurgles and crackles like some serious frying is going on and the cooks occasionally jump back from the broiler because the flames have flared up. Sink into one of the comfortable old booths where the table is set with standard restaurant-issue salt and pepper shakers made from glass, and the ketchup comes in a red plastic squeeze bottle. Soft drinks come in plastic glasses, and the burgers come wrapped in paper and already oozing with old-fashioned, honest-to-God cheeseburger juice.
French fries aren't always the best complement to a burger. Don't get us wrong; pommes frites with some ground beef on a bun deserves a spot in a hall of fame somewhere. But give us the big round rings d'oignon with our order at Prince's. If you're not sure you can break free from the burger-and-fries routine, Prince's will spot you a couple of golden onion rings with your order to tempt you for your next visit. Once you bite into the batter-dipped rings, you'll be back for more and more. Sure, it's artery-clogging. But aren't some of the best foods known to humankind? Wash your meal down with some of Prince's very own root beer in a frosty mug, and you've got one happy tummy.
Cecilia Cuellar would not give us her phone number, address or any way to get in touch with her, so if you're looking for the best tamales in Houston, it might take a little detective work. If you have patience, though, all you really have to do is drink a beer at The Harp (1625 Richmond) and wait. Chances are decent, if it's a weekday night, that Cuellar will wind her way through the bar with a small child in tow, offering her homemade tamales. "She does come by, but on different days. It's not consistent, but it's at least once a week," says Deck at The Harp. He guesses that she lives in the area and visits several neighborhood bars. At just $6 a dozen, the tamales come in beef, chicken, pork and spinach-and-cheese. (She won't let you mix and match your dozen, though.) And the green salsa that comes with it is perfecto. So get out on that bar stool, have a drink, and while you're waiting, make a toast to Cuellar.

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