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.
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

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.

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.

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