Best Neighborhood Spot in Montrose


Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
Everyone needs a third place to hang out -- after home and work -- and Brasil fulfills that role for lots of Montrose-area residents. If Brasil had a slogan, it would be "Where the artsy-fartsy folks meet." Chances of running into a musician, writer, artist or designer of some sort are quite high. In fact, much of the help falls into these categories. What makes this place so cool? Maybe it's the welcome attitude toward creative types. There's always art for sale on the walls. DJ Sun keeps everything lively on Monday nights. And the Free Radicals play their eclectic brand of jazzy funk once in a while. This laid-back coffee shop serves up both caffeine and alcohol (plus tasty sandwiches, salads and pizzas till midnight) and stays open till 2 a.m. One of our favorite touches is the artwork on the outside of the bathroom doors indicating gender. Although the owner sometimes flits about the shop, pressuring customers to buy another refill, Brasil is mostly filled with good vibes.

"This is an African restaurant," Uzo Ebenebe Ibekwe cautions newcomers to Genesis Restaurant. The native Nigerian relaxes into a broad smile when the visitors tell her they are eager for a culinary adventure. The menu is a tour of her country's favorite dishes, from fufu (pounded yams) to stockfish and hen pepper soup. The key is matching a particular meat with the right sauce, called "soups." The goat meat, awash in pepper-based nsala soup, is tender and flavorful. The bitterleaf soup, however, is pungent and vaguely disconcerting to the unschooled. Fufu is the anchor of any good Nigerian meal. At Genesis, it arrives softball-sized, and is smooth and delicious when dipped into a variety of sauces. The ambience is laid-back, all earth tones and soft lighting, and alive with the exuberant sounds of Afro-beat legend Fela. Ibekwe, with her easy smile and beautifully braided hair, makes an ideal hostess. She explains that kids under age five eat free "because I want to encourage Nigerian families to eat Nigerian food instead of hamburgers every day."
You will not find iced tea at Variedades. Instead, you can slake your thirst with wonderfully refreshing aguas -- tall glasses of melon and other fresh-fruit drinks with bits of pulp. Set in a large room with off-white walls and burgundy tablecloths, Variedades has simple, understated decor. The flavors are the big draw. The restaurant offers delicious cuisine from various spots in Latin America: honeycomb soup from Honduras; tacos, tostadas and quesadillas from Mexico. But Salvadoran fare is this spot's bread and butter, and the restaurant is at its very best with such classics as yucca con chicarrón (yucca with fried pork), bistec encebollado (beef with sautéed onions) and pollo a la crema (chicken stew in sour cream). The warm corn tortillas are the thickest and loveliest you'll ever taste. Meals begin with long strips of fried plantains, perfect for dipping into tasty sauces.
'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

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.
Photo by Doogie Roux
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.
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.

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