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.

Vietopia Vietnamese Cuisine
Robert Z. Easley
Tucked out of the way in a shopping center just off the Southwest Freeway, Vietopia is a haven for lovers of upscale Asian food. The elegant two-story dining room recalls Indochina's French colonial era with bamboo mechanical fans, tropical greenery and waiters in long white aprons. The food is far more sophisticated than the pho noodle soups and seafood hot pots found in typical Houston Vietnamese restaurants. Instead, Vietopia presents such classical Southeast Asian creations as its clay pot dishes. These sublime risottolike rice casseroles are sealed in orange crockery, baked in the oven and then presented at the table in the cooking vessel. Vietnam is particularly noted for its hot weather fare, and Vietopia's main-course salads are an excellent case in point. The cold beef salad, a pile of lettuce, herbs and other greenery topped with thin strips of savory beef and wafer-thin slices of lime, is a hearty meal that still manages to be cool and refreshing.
Shiva Indian Restaurant
Walls of shimmering glass beads separate intimate booths. A chef kneads dough and fires up the traditional tandoori clay oven right before your eyes. The food makes you love vegetables you used to hate. And the chef- recommended combinations serve up just the right variety of tastes for the novice. But most impressive at Shiva is the quaintly solicitous service. "We never leave our restaurant, day or night," proclaims the menu. "We cut and chop and boil and bake, stir and shake just for you, our dear customer, because we want you back with your friends -- even dragging them in by force if you have to -- we will be gentle with them."

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