The exterior of Barnacle's doesn't even scrape the surface of what's in store inside. This deceivingly decrepit place is downright cheery, with high ceilings, loads of plants (okay, so they're fake) and the expected seaside motif of netting and anchors. But the best reason to dive deep into southwest Houston is the corner of the menu marked "Fresh Seafood," inadvertently suggesting that everything else is frozen. The owner gladly brags that his flounder, mahimahi and salmon are brought in fresh daily. All are simply broiled with a dash of paprika, but the stuffed flounder has a bonus breading that's studded with shrimp and crab. With catches like these, its best to steer clear of the fried seafood that keeps places like this afloat.
So good, you've got to say it twice, Tan Tan Fast Food is everything a late-night venue should be: big, cheap and fast fast. This Chinatown diner serves mostly Vietnamese dishes with some Cantonese options, but be forewarned: There are over 400 dishes to choose from (87 in the soups category alone!). The thick-as-a-Bible menu offers up such long-winded items as pork kidney and shrimp macaroni, various pork parts, panfried noodles and Cantonese-style beef ball with flat rice noodle soup. Best part is, it's all served until 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, and until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. The ambience is classic, eclectic diner: disco-style Christmas lighting that flickers on and off, red paper lanterns hanging about the counter, and three fake palm trees with stuffed monkeys sitting in them. The final touch is the wall-size murals of large fish and waterfalls that are rigged to look like they're actually moving -- perfect to stare at after a few beers on a late Friday night.

Best Neighborhood Spot in the Galleria Area

La Vista

La Vista
The Friends crowd that inhabits the apartments along Fountainview, as well as their more established neighbors in Tanglewood and Briargrove, pack this tiny sidewalk cafe, which is as casual as a backyard barbecue and about as economical. The gimmick here is BYOB, with a small corking fee, but fortunately a liquor store is located right next door. Don't be surprised when a perky hostess pours your wine right there in the strip-center parking lot, before directing you to have a seat in the lounge -- actually two rows of plastic lawn chairs lined up in a parking space! The menu boasts an affinity for Italian dishes, as well as some good Latin American specialties, but the most pleasant surprises are in comforting modern American specials like grilled pork chops braised in a hearty brandy broth, and beef tenderloin in a port wine, apricot and cherry sauce. Desserts also are good, but don't expect an espresso on the side. As the waiters say, La Vista doesn't do coffee. No coffee and no booze? Good thing it's so charming -- and so cheap.

Lankford Grocery and Market
Remember when you used to go home for lunch in the middle of the school day, and Mom would greet you with a hot meal and -- oh, wait a minute. Few of us, if any, lived that 1950s Leave It to Beaver ideal. But with Lankford Grocery and Market, you can get pretty close. The diner, tucked inside an old two-car garage, originally operated as a grocery as far back as 1939. But in 1977 the owners' daughter, Eydie Prior, decided to convert it into the homiest restaurant in Houston. The sloping hardwood floors, the picnic tables in the smoking area and knickknack upon knickknack (old signs for PET milk, an ancient breadbox, coffee cans full of bright, fake flowers) sure make it cozy. There's always a TV on by the counter, and the food is dependable and good. Top it off with the sweet, soft drawl of the waitresses who call you "Sugar," and it's almost like going home to Mom's.

For 25 years Alice Lee and her family members have been running this little diner, which sits across Loop 610 from Meyerland Plaza. It's a little place, a place that's easy to miss in its nondescript strip mall. The booths are old and lumpy, the decorations fittingly cheesy. Numerous photos of burgers in different place settings grace the wall. No one comes here for the food, which is -- well, it's just food. People come here because it's around the corner. It's the kind of place that possesses a lively smoking section because why else would anyone come here except to smoke and drink coffee and read the paper? It's a funny place. Cantonese-speaking Chinese-Americans dish out eggs and toast, cheeseburgers or fried rice to mostly Anglo blue-collar customers in an area that is becoming increasingly gentrified. Amid all the changes, Alice gives a hearty "Good morning" to each day's familiar faces.

Lucky Burger
It's nothing short of a stroke of luck to be able to satisfy two strong cravings at once. Lucky Burger's name makes it clear that it dishes up burgers, and it's retro root-beer-barrel design offers a hint that these are old-fashioned versions (read: griddle-fried with buttered buns). But who knew that this modest place is a one-stop shop for burgers and Chinese food? This fusion of flavors is most welcome in its Montrose neighborhood, where these diverse delicacies can be delivered to your doorstep. Couples in a quandary over whether to nosh on jalapeo cheeseburgers or pork fried rice may have them both -- with tater tots and egg rolls on the side, thank you very much. You can even belly up for a root beer float and any number of shakes and malts. All that's missing is the cookie, but you will have already found your food fortune.
In Hindi, the word for cow is aghnaya, which means "not to be killed." So vegetarians won't have to worry about cows -- or pigs or chickens or fish or even beef stock -- showing up on their plates at this new South Indian restaurant. In fact, Udupi's menu offers nearly 70 strange and wonderful dishes, all of them free of flesh. But carnivores will like Udupi too. The cafe's blends of spices and sauces are so intoxicating that even they will forget to ask, "Where's the beef?" Try the chana batura, a specialty involving the highly underrated chickpea. The many curries and dosai are delicious as well. And the weekday lunch buffet is only $6.99.

Caribbean Cuisine
Photo by Houston Press Staff
With a loping reggae beat in the background, barely discernable over boisterous Friday-night clusters of customers in the crowded storefront, Caribbean Cuisine is an easy place to be. The smell of curry cuts through the air, and the swinging door that leads into the kitchen flaps open as a cook brings out another tray of perfect-smelling paddies -- meat or vegetarian -- whichever is ready. Grab a Red Stripe from the cooler, borrow a bottle opener from the customer who last had it, and sip while you look over the menu scribbled on a board behind the cash register. What'll it be: goat, chicken, oxtail, pork or veggies? Curried, fricasseed, stewed or baked? Order at a relaxed pace, knowing the food will arrive much the same, complete with fried plantains and the traditional rice and peas. One side of the restaurant is a small store, offering fresh plantains, Jamaican condiments and special curry mixes, and walk-in grocery customers sidle around the disorganized array of tables in the restaurant area to do their shopping. There's nothing fancy about Caribbean Cuisine: no neon, no ambience, no hostess to seat you. It's just a storefront full of familial atmosphere and robust flavors, much like you would find in Jamaica.

Antonio's Flying Pizza
Photo by Houston Press Staff
You don't need to take the title of this restaurant literally to know that the pizza served here is unique. In actuality, there isn't much flying going on at all -- but there is some of the best-tasting Italian pie in the city. For 30 years Antonio's has been offering up thick Sicilian-style or thin regular-style pizza, with a host of fresh toppings. The place is everything you'd expect: red-and-white-checkered tablecloths, bottles of Chianti scattered about for atmosphere, piped-in music and friendly waitstaff. Because everything is cooked to order (they've got lots more than pizza), the wait might be a bit longer than you're used to. But as is explained on the menu, "each tomato, each cheese, each cut of meat or portion of seafood is savored for its own merit." Now if they're going to get that romantic about their food on the menu, can you imagine how good it tastes?

The hiss-sizzle of the grill is always in the background. The grill cook stands over his domain holding a spatula in the air like a Victorian detective with a magnifying glass. He wheels around with a finished order to place it on the counter, barely missing a fast-moving waitress, who whizzes by with a saucer of rolls in one hand and a tall tea glass in the other. It is the constant ballet at Bellaire Coffee Shop, arguably the hottest meeting spot in town. Each day brings its regulars: the Bellaire cops who saunter in and out, the redheaded woman who always orders corned beef hash and eggs over easy no matter what time of day, the elderly man who orders a tuna on toast and soup. The yellow menus are laminated and double as place mats, set neatly at each place -- counter, booth or table. Professional men and women gather for morning coffee before setting out on their separate ways. Retirees sit at one table, grousing about the latest headlines. If the coffee shop or its characters seem to hail from another time, that's fine with everybody. They like it just the way it is.

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