Zydeco Louisiana Diner
'Taint nothing fancy about the cafeteria-style serving line, nothing surprising about the coon-ass doodads hanging on the wall, and nothing progressive about green beans swimming in cream of mushroom soup or fried catfish and stuffed pork chops. But then it's lunchtime, and you're not looking for fancy waiters and avant-garde decor and fusion cuisine. You're looking for a big hot lunch, properly spiced, with a chunk of corn bread -- jalapeo or plain -- to sop the juices. The Zydeco delivers on those fronts, tosses in a low-turnover staff that remembers your favorites, and a seemingly endless soundtrack of tape-looped funk to aid in digestion. Dig it.
The old barbecue pit on Dowling Street that is now called Drexler's has a remarkable pedigree. Part of the current restaurant as well as the original barbecue pit were built by legendary barbecue man Harry Green in 1952. Green sold the place to an old-time pit boss named Tom Prevost. Prevost passed it on (along with his secret recipes) to his nephew, James Drexler (brother of Houston Rockets basketball star Clyde). Drexler has been smoking meat on the old pit now for 27 years. From Green and his uncle, Drexler has inherited the East Texas approach to barbecue, a cooking style that is distinctly different from the meat market style of Central Texas. Drexler cooks his ribs until they are falling-off-the-bone, and his brisket is extremely tender. The definitive East Texas beef links aren't to everybody's taste, but they are an old tradition among African-Texans. Drexler's is the best example of East Texas style barbecue in the city.

Best Neighborhood Spot in the Village

El Meson

El Meson
West U soccer teams, Rice students needing a study break, and preparty revelers all converge at El Meson for top-notch Latin American cuisine. And while the Mexican dishes are solid, the Cuban entrées are the real reason to visit this neon-lit spot along University Boulevard in the Village. Perhaps that's because we have a soft spot for the fried plantains that accompany those dishes, or maybe even we need a break from the Tex-Mex that dominates this town. Top picks include the masitas, with its smoky, garlicky flavor, and carne guisada, a stew that reminds you of what your mom might make if she were Cuban. Chase that with a piece of tres leches cake, and you'll leave the restaurant with a tummy full of goodness.
Champ Burger
Photo by Houston Press Staff
This eastside eatery serves up real-deal burgers for the blue-collar crowd that comes for lunch from the surrounding factories and plants, and they'll do it for you, too. From the basic Champ Burger to the Texas-sized steak sandwich to the double-decker breakfast sandwiches, this Houston landmark will fill you up for cheap. Just be prepared to eat outside, as there is no indoor seating. Our only regret is that Champ Burger is not open on weekends. Located between Harrisburg and Canal, Champ Burger is open only Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Zula
Even though the quasi-Southern food threatens to steal the show, Zula's decor really dances with over-the-top whimsy. The deco design is a sleek palette of shimmery chartreuse, plum and gold that serves as a modest backdrop to the 20-foot torchère lamps lining the long dining room. Throwing off flashes of neon from their bases, they demand attention that might otherwise be focused on your dinner companion or your food. When the sun goes down and the geometric lights go up, Zula pulsates with a disco-dining effect. Though it lacks a dance floor, it's difficult to stay still in your seat on a Saturday night, when a range of music, from soul to swing -- and everything in between -- fills the air. A center staircase leading up to the loft dining area even tempts those who have had a few martinis too many to take the stage with a bad case of karaoke.

A rare but boisterous black-leathered-biker eruption over by the 50-cent pool tables sends the timid scattering toward the bar, but seasoned Big Easy patrons look up to ensure no bottles are flying in their direction and continue their conversations, which are not always easy to hear over the R&B that throbs from the tired jukebox. Tattooed patchworks that are the arms and legs of bartenders move fast to keep up with a thirsty crowd, from loudmouthed Creodonts, aging hippies, a gaggle of middle-aged women enjoying girls night out, twentysomething investment bankers in faux-funky after-hours attire and a silver-haired man tap, tap, tapping the screen of a video poker game. For a snapshot of social strata, visit the Big Easy Social and Pleasure Club any night. Conversation comes easy; drinks are reasonable. Dogs make occasional appearances at the heels of their owners, stopping appreciatively to lap up the attention of strangers who coo in universal dog-adoring exclamations. Weekend musical entertainment comes for a modest cover. But at the Big Easy Social and Pleasure Club, the best entertainment is every night, and it's free.

Former waitress Geneva Harper was here when Felix's flagship location at Westheimer and Montrose opened in 1948. "The cheese enchiladas with chili gravy on the Mexican Dinner haven't changed at all since the place opened," she says. "Except that a Mexican Dinner went for 50 cents in 1948." Like a scratchy old blues record, Felix's Mexican food is more of a history lesson than a modern restaurant experience. The combination platters taste absurdly old-fashioned because the flavors are geared to the tastes of Anglos in the 1950s, and they have never changed. But the taste of Felix's chili gravy explains the origins of Tex-Mex more eloquently than words ever will. It is a thick brown gravy with Mexican spices that is neither Mexican nor American. It was invented in Mexican restaurants like Felix's that catered to Anglos. What's amazing about eating here today is realizing how much our tastes have changed.

Best Old Downtown Restaurant That's Still There

China Garden

China Garden Restaurant
Photo by Houston Press Staff
Around noon on most days, influential veterans of Houston -- judges, top cops, city administrators, elite lawyers and the like -- start a quiet southern migration away from the ever-expanding zone of trendy eateries on the north side of downtown. They ease into the boxy, windowless old shell of a building housing China Garden, exchange first-name greetings with the proprietors, the Jue family, and feast on one of the best secrets around. China Garden knew decades ago that what really counts is on the inside: stress-free service, a longtime waiter snapping out a fresh blazing-white tablecloth for guests, good basic fare -- and some of the best off-menu offerings imaginable. The dumplings are divine, and the snapper so savory (as are all the seafood dishes, for that matter). Culinary skills keep evolving in this unique spot. And so does the patience. The Jues staked their claim in the central city long before the downtown bust. They were loyal to a neighborhood in decline. Now -- with the Rockets' arena and other development heading toward them -- a new Houston will discover what always attracted the old one into this China Garden of Eden.
New York may have a lock on the Chinese/Cuban restaurant thing, but Houston is leading in the Vietnamese/Mexican category. Well, actually, Matt's Fast Foods on 43rd Street may be the only Vietnamese/ Mexican restaurant, here or anywhere. There's a golden Buddha near the front door and a painting of a matador on the back wall. The word pho appears on one window, and a picture of a bowl of menudo is hand-painted on another. The neon sign in the window says, "Vietnamese & Mexican food," but there's no high-concept fusion going on here. It's just a little fast-food joint that features tacos and enchiladas on one side of the menu and Vietnamese vermicelli dishes, phos and stir-fries on the other. What else would you expect from an Asian man and a Mexican woman who got married and settled down to cook happily ever after in a Houston strip center?
Exhibit one: The Starbucks on the corner of Shepherd and West Gray. Exhibit two: The Starbucks on the corner of Shepherd and West Gray. When the chain built the drive-thru version on the northeast corner, we were sure the version inhabiting the shopping center across the street to the south would be closed down, but the caffeine dealer continues to supply Houstonians' habits, whichever corner they choose to patronize. Small town Texas folk have been known to make a trip to the intersection just to laugh at this example of big-city extravagance. We'll even admit to indulging in a chuckle or two at the franchise's expense, but in the end, the laugh's on us -- both venues continue to thrive. Resistance is futile.

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