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

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.
Houston's hankering for international status took a subtle stride when the crazy Katz's crew branched out from Austin. World-class credentials will ever be debated, but one indisputable definition is that a particular urban area must have a full-service, round-the-clock deli to dish up quality cuisine when the yen strikes. The Bayou City now has it. While other delis in the area may outdo Katz's in selected specialties, the father-son team of Marc and Barry Katz is right on target with an array of menu items -- soups extraordinaires, matzo balls, pastrami, meat loaf, Reubens and plates of Yankee pot roast big enough to satisfy the hungriest of Houston appetites. Katz's also prides itself on good neighborliness -- it put enough of an investment into the Westheimer location to make the former Mexican food cafe look like it had been a deli since the days of Moses himself. Yes, the television spots can be obnoxious. Katz's never kloses -- and Marc Katz himself probably never shuts up. But he's lovable, and so's the deli.

Photos by Carla Soriano
It is overwhelming to walk in the front door of this dark and clubby old haunt. To your left, there's the reception stand, where you are offered an uncommonly gracious greeting. Right in front of you, a fabulous array of antipasti plates is spread out on a low table. To your right, a dark and comfortable-looking bar beckons. Should you opt for the dining room, you will be treated to the best selection of authentic Tuscan pasta dishes and Italian-style grilled chops in the city. But if you're interested in lighter fare and a more relaxed experience, sit in the bar and order an assorted antipasti platter. The choices might include asparagus spears wrapped in prosciutto, roasted eggplant slices or stuffed artichoke bottoms. And the appetizers are served with a selection of stupendous Italian breads and a cruet of deep green olive oil flavored with rosemary sprigs and garlic cloves. Either way, you can't lose.

The splashes of different colors in the serving line that greet customers when they open the door of Fadi's look like an overworked artist's palette, but it's a Middle Eastern palate that will appreciate the expansive array of foods served there. Moderation is next to impossible. One could easily fill a plate just at the salad bar, which includes creamy fresh hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh and chopped fattoush, but that's only the first segment of the cafeteria-style journey through the Middle East. Next stop is the meat counter, lined with chicken, lamb and beef kabobs just waiting to be ordered and placed on the grill. Chicken or beef shawarma is there for the asking, as are falafel or cheese, meat or spinach pies. The spread of vegetables is eye-popping in summer colors of red, orange, yellow and green, where customers can order cilantro squash and zucchini, Egyptian okra, Parmesan spinach, Fadi's fabulous baked cauliflower or two different eggplant dishes. Given the huge servings, it's advisable to wait to order dessert, which comes in assorted oozing and dripping baklava. If it isn't clear by this time that Fadi's has covered all its culinary bases, just stop and listen for a minute to the accents of Middle Eastern customers who are eating there, too.
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.

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