Deciding on an appetizer can be a weighty decision with Farrago's global cuisine, which has included such world-champion contenders as chili-cured tenderloin, Asian barbecue duck and jerk chicken wings. But we're decidedly mussel-bound, reaching repeatedly for the curried mussels. Chef Todd Stevens has really raised the culinary bar with this mountain of succulent shellfish soaking in a Thai curry-coconut milk bath, spiked with basil, cilantro and lime. The best part of this dish, however, is a side of garlic bread that is tastiest when dipped into the fusion of flavors. This exercise packs a punch to what was already a winner.

As you wind through the maze of Houston's Central Market, past the exotic fruits, past the clam aquarium, past the 17 kinds of rice, you eventually come to an enormous shopping-cart traffic jam in the store's right rear corner. This is where the best bread in the city is being baked. Is it the crusty ciabatta or the pain au levain that's causing the delay today? Or have they just taken a batch of raisin-pecan bread out of the oven? The Southern Burgundy walnut bread is popular with cheese lovers -- it's perfect for serving with soft stinky French fromages. But usually the holdup is caused by the free sample table. Honestly! You'd think these folks had never seen a bacon-cheddar scone before. And look at them just standing there wolfing down that fresh-baked pound cake with those berry preserves! Some people have no shame.
It's not just noodles anymore, and they don't all come from Italy, so put that redneck mentality aside and take a look at the rainbow of international pastas that make Houston a regular pasta jungle and their gustation a celebration. Better yet, take a father and son of Armenian descent who love southern European cuisine, and stick them in an American kitchen to get Masraff's. Father Tony and son Russell Masraff spin out some tasty and eye-catching dishes, but a singular dish of mushroom ravioli shows they appreciate both the form and function of delicious pasta. The plump cushions of many mushrooms found at Masraff's are made from thin, near-transparent slips of pasta that defer to the flavor of the ravioli's contents, unlike so many doughy raviolis one has to fight through to find the treasure inside, which often is disappointing if the pasta itself steals the show. The ravioli contains fresh representatives from a well-stocked fresh fungus aisle, from morels to portobellos, and are infused with white truffle oil and Madeira wine. The mushrooms that don't fit inside the glistening pasta pockets are piled on top, as if a signature.

An order of empanadas at Café Red Onion is a trip around the world in which fresh medleys of flavors flatter each other in encounters that are interesting even in a place that prides itself on its culinary theme of Latin fusion. The light-crusted, deep-fried pies, served up in a swirl of different sauces, challenge the traditional view of the lowly empanada, long restricted to meat and potatoes as ingredients. One can almost see the chef playing in the kitchen as he came up with the ingredients for this trio of pies, whose ingredients include fresh guava and goat cheese; grilled chicken breast, mozzarella and pesto paste; and potatoes, ground beef and mozzarella. To make things even more interesting, each empanada is served with a separate homemade sauce of either queso, cream of poblano or cream of red bell pepper (the latter two also serve as Café Red Onion's signature soups), artistically drizzled and dabbed onto the empanadas to make colorful and palate-pleasing pools underneath. At $5.95, the dish is a bargain and a wonderful light appetizer for two. But for those who want to keep the tastes all to themselves, an order of empanadas makes a lovely light lunch.

Don't worry about a thing: White meat or dark, every serving of this jerk chicken's gonna be all right. The flavorful tryst begins the moment the vibrant Fiestaware plate arrives with its bounty of spicy rice, steamed vegetables and quarter-bird drenched in the Jamaican marinade. The meat is tender and succulent, anchoring the scotch-bonnet heat, sultry thyme and myriad other dimensions of the sauce. Lube it up with some zesty habañero pepper sauce, and you'll lively up your sweat glands fast. The restaurant's lovely apricot iced tea is an antidote. But the fresh-baked coco bread is an even better way to smother the pepper-juice fires. Reggae Hut exudes positive vibrations even during the lunchtime crunch. True, the plantain appetizer may arrive after the main course, and getting a refill on iced tea can be an exercise in forbearance. But any frustration will melt away amid the bright colors, friendly help, reggae music and Red Stripe beer. You never have to wait in vain for your food -- it's always great. Even smokers will find the sweet-fire taste of the $6.75 jerk chicken lingering on their palates all day.
There comes a time in every other week, generally toward the ass end of a paycheck, when budgeters careful and shoddy alike are faced with the dilemma of making $9 stretch just four more days until reinforcements arrive in the old checking account. It's at times like these that Cali proves itself a godsend with its array of $2 sandwiches, each on a toasted French roll, dressed with a smear of mayo, pickled carrots, raw jalapeños, cool cucumber slices and a squirt of soy sauce. We're partial to the grilled pork as filler, but all sorts of different tastes can be mollified with options from pâté to shredded grilled chicken to pork meatballs. All for just $2. If that won't feed you till payday, maybe you don't need a cheaper sandwich so much as a better job.

Talk about a French revolution. Frédéric Perrier, chef-owner of his namesake Cafe Perrier, has developed a delicious French twist on that all-American dish, macaroni and cheese. Befitting the country charm of the bistro, the gratin de macaroni is made of simple, yet sophisticated, penne pasta swimming in a rich, bubbly Parmesan-and-truffle cream sauce, topped with a dollop of goat cheese. Quelle comfort food! Perrier nearly lost his head once and tried to replace the popular side dish on his horseradish-crusted pork loin. His patrons revolted, however, so it's back and better than ever.
Cabrito, suckling goat, is hard to find here in the sublime al pastor form popular on the border and in northern Mexico. In those regions, the tradition of roasting kid over a mesquite-fired grill -- a practice with deep roots in the region's ranching past -- has acquired the status of an art form. Taqueria La Tapatia, a casual Montrose eatery, serves up a different form of the delicacy called bírria de cabrito. The heaping portion of grayish-pink meat is lightly seasoned, warm and very tasty. It separates easily, making it perfect for piling onto a tortilla with rice, beans and pico de gallo. La Tapatia also offers bírria tacos at $1.15 apiece and burritos for $2.95. But it's the $5.95 plate that gives you the most goat for your buck.
This Central American hangout has a unique Houston/Salvadoran decor. The booths sport custom-crafted vinyl upholstery in metallic candy-flake turquoise with silver candy-flake trim. A namesake deer head hangs from the wall in the dining room with some straw sombreros and other kitschy Central American bric-a-brac. Kind of a tropical hunting lodge motif with art car upholstery accents. But the wacky little joint has got some great pupusas. These stuffed homemade tortillas are a Salvadoran favorite; they're grilled to order and served with a sort of cabbage-and-pepper slaw. Try the cheese-and-loroco for $1.60. Loroco is a Salvadoran green that grows wild and tastes like chocolate spinach. The cheese seems to be mozzarella; long, gooey strings of it follow every bite. To make it a real meal, get an order of fried plantains on the side. They come with refried beans and sour cream for dipping.

Never underestimate chicken-fried steak. It may seem like a humble dish, but it is a humble dish that is taken very seriously by native Texans. Elouise Cooper, owner of Ouisie's Table, takes chicken-fried steak very seriously. The golden-brown, Southern-fried crust is so perfect that the cream gravy is served on the side with the mashed potatoes, the mustard greens and the custardy corn pudding. Your task is to pour the gravy at just the right instant. If you wait too long, the meat is not hot enough anymore; pour too early and you either burn your mouth or sit in frustration while that awesome crust goes soggy. Or here's a better idea: Cut off a piece of battered steak, put a little mashed potato and greens on it and then dip the whole thing into the gravy boat. Now savor it slowly -- Ouisie's chicken-fried steak in among the best in the state.

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