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.

When this past year saw the opening of George Abdallah's new all-shish kebab, all-the-time self-serve eatery, it saw something fine and good happen. This spotless, cheerful little operation allows a Houstonian to visit the Levant, dine at a very reasonable cost on a Thousand and One Nights menu, pick up a little box of terrific loukoum for the habibi at home and be asleep in one's own bed the same evening -- all without using up one of your three extremely valuable wishes proffered by a jinni of terrible visage. There are lamb kebabs grilled to order, of course, but also quail kebabs and vegetarian KBs. The BYOB policy (Will Rogers Elementary School is across the street from the corner eatery) allows one to have a glass of wine with dinner for the most reasonable cost possible. Next door is the Edward's 24-screen Cinema at Weslayan and Portsmouth, making the spot convenient for theatergoers before or after meals.

The first time we had the char-grilled lemon pepper pork chops, we wanted to vault the counter and make out with Dimitri. The chops are thick and juicy, and the meat is so full of flavor you won't want to wait the five seconds it takes you to cut your next bite. We had to pick them up and devour them with our bare hands. "We're going to have to hose you off!" friends said. The chops come in a set of two, and when you first look at your plate you think, "There is no way I can eat that much." You tell yourself that you're going to save it and have some the next day. Good luck. It's very hard to save these pork chops because they are so amazingly delicious. We also (of course) highly recommend the gyros, the fish and chips, the stuffed bell pepper, the dolmades, the spanakopita, the pita bread covered in melted cheese -- basically everything we've ever tried at Niko Niko's is delicious. The only problem is that we fall in love with every item and never want to eat anything else again. Especially the pork chops -- according to one guy, "They would be my last meal."

For the unindoctrinated, tackling a bowl of pho can prove to be an intimidating task. First, the Vietnamese soup is served in rather large bowls, roughly the size of your average mixing bowl. Your only tools for this job: a pair of chopsticks and a ladlelike spoon. Plus, for those who purport that the beef-broth soup can cure that hangover, well, they have other troubles. But those who conquer their fears will be pleasantly rewarded. Pho Tau Bay serves a mean bowl of this traditional Vietnamese dish. Theirs is a refreshing concoction of long, thin rice noodles joined with your choice of meats, including steak, brisket, flank, meatballs, tripe or chicken, topped with onions, scallions and fresh herbs. Just grab some bean sprouts, squeeze in some lime juice, add some basil and other greens, drizzle some chili and hoisin sauce, and dive in. For all we know, there might be a map to El Dorado on the bottom of that bowl; we've never made it that far. But we've never cared to check either, because we've already found this hidden treasure.
A good rule of thumb when measuring how good the salsa is at your favorite Mexican restaurant is the chip-to-meal ratio. If you end up downing a whole basket of chips before your cheese enchiladas even get to the table, chances are that the salsa is superb. So be forewarned: If you decide to dine at Lopez's, you might never even bother with the main course. This large bright yellow restaurant just outside Beltway 8 recently moved down the street to larger digs, no doubt because their delicious salsa was bringing in fans in droves. The dark red, chunky dip is made fresh right at the restaurant, and while waitstaff suggest a "secret recipe," we detect plump tomatoes and spicy peppers just by taking a sniff. Like any good salsa, it's strong stuff -- by the end of a meal your eyes water and your sinuses clear. But if you're still craving more by the time the check comes, you can take a large plastic tub of it with you for just $2. Pick up a bag of chips on the way home, and you won't even need to bother making dinner.

Best Of Houston®

Best Of