Bellaire Broiler Burger
Photo by Houston Press Staff
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.

Skewers Cafe & Grill
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.

Niko Niko's
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."

Pho Tau Bay
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.
Lopez Mexican Restaurant
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.

Saba Blue Water Cafe
Late at night, downtown Houston is awash in lights, a nonstop fashion show of men in black and women in too-high heels and drop-dead dresses. For this crowd, only the wildest, most electrifying dining experience will do. And Saba rises to the occasion. The Small Plates menu is a list of stunningly original dishes such as shrimp and pork pot stickers, crawfish cakes with daikon salad, and coriander calamari with smoked tomato aioli. Dinner items include dishes such as herb-crusted tuna, medium rare sushi-grade tuna topped with soy paste, wasabi and sesame seeds on a bed of slick udon noodles and tender wilted greens tossed together in a ginger shallot vinaigrette. Chef Larry Perdido and his staff have figured out how to handle the fusion challenge. They start with a single focus -- seafood -- and then they improvise. They mix. They match. They combine seasonings and sensibilities from various cultures and come up with some very bright ideas of their own.
Diners know the regrettable cycle all too well. A restaurant invests a fortune in fancy furnishings, fine food and a gourmet chef. Then an unfocused waitstaff spoils it all. The only spoiling to be found at Resa's Prime Steakhouse is the pampering of customers. Crowds regularly fill this Champions-area restaurant, attracted by a simple menu that boasts some of the best steak and seafood around. But it's the service that outshines even those amenities. Credit 18-year owner Resa Kelly, who worked her way up from waiting tables. Diners may examine the unprepared entrées tableside if desired. Briefings are unhurried; the expertise, even about the superb wine list, is an educational experience all its own. This crew has been by Resa's side with a kind of loyalty that only became stronger during her more recent and prolonged name-rights battle with a behemoth restaurant chain. In a time of ever-changing staffs and job-hopping in the service industry, Resa's is a return to an old-fashioned era of solid stability, where servers carry a refreshing sense of professional pride. If there are any doubts about just how seasoned this crew is, listen to them tease the latest addition about being the new kid on the block. He was hired only ten years ago.
This Is It
When you're sad and lonely and nothing seems to be going right, you want to eat something that satisfies more than the emptiness inside. Comfort foods have a connection to warmth and safety and days when you had nothing to worry about. Fifth grade, when you came home from school and you could smell Mom's meat loaf in the oven and knew it'd be served up soon with thick mashed potatoes. Sunday dinner, when Grandmother fried up a chicken and a heaping plate of greens. If you need a lot of comforting, this is where to go, because This Is It will serve you up enough to feed a small army, and you'll be too satisfied to be sad.

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