In Hindi, the word for cow is aghnaya, which means "not to be killed." So vegetarians won't have to worry about cows -- or pigs or chickens or fish or even beef stock -- showing up on their plates at this new South Indian restaurant. In fact, Udupi's menu offers nearly 70 strange and wonderful dishes, all of them free of flesh. But carnivores will like Udupi too. The cafe's blends of spices and sauces are so intoxicating that even they will forget to ask, "Where's the beef?" Try the chana batura, a specialty involving the highly underrated chickpea. The many curries and dosai are delicious as well. And the weekday lunch buffet is only $6.99.

Caribbean Cuisine
Photo by Houston Press Staff
With a loping reggae beat in the background, barely discernable over boisterous Friday-night clusters of customers in the crowded storefront, Caribbean Cuisine is an easy place to be. The smell of curry cuts through the air, and the swinging door that leads into the kitchen flaps open as a cook brings out another tray of perfect-smelling paddies -- meat or vegetarian -- whichever is ready. Grab a Red Stripe from the cooler, borrow a bottle opener from the customer who last had it, and sip while you look over the menu scribbled on a board behind the cash register. What'll it be: goat, chicken, oxtail, pork or veggies? Curried, fricasseed, stewed or baked? Order at a relaxed pace, knowing the food will arrive much the same, complete with fried plantains and the traditional rice and peas. One side of the restaurant is a small store, offering fresh plantains, Jamaican condiments and special curry mixes, and walk-in grocery customers sidle around the disorganized array of tables in the restaurant area to do their shopping. There's nothing fancy about Caribbean Cuisine: no neon, no ambience, no hostess to seat you. It's just a storefront full of familial atmosphere and robust flavors, much like you would find in Jamaica.

Antonio's Flying Pizza
Photo by Houston Press Staff
You don't need to take the title of this restaurant literally to know that the pizza served here is unique. In actuality, there isn't much flying going on at all -- but there is some of the best-tasting Italian pie in the city. For 30 years Antonio's has been offering up thick Sicilian-style or thin regular-style pizza, with a host of fresh toppings. The place is everything you'd expect: red-and-white-checkered tablecloths, bottles of Chianti scattered about for atmosphere, piped-in music and friendly waitstaff. Because everything is cooked to order (they've got lots more than pizza), the wait might be a bit longer than you're used to. But as is explained on the menu, "each tomato, each cheese, each cut of meat or portion of seafood is savored for its own merit." Now if they're going to get that romantic about their food on the menu, can you imagine how good it tastes?

The hiss-sizzle of the grill is always in the background. The grill cook stands over his domain holding a spatula in the air like a Victorian detective with a magnifying glass. He wheels around with a finished order to place it on the counter, barely missing a fast-moving waitress, who whizzes by with a saucer of rolls in one hand and a tall tea glass in the other. It is the constant ballet at Bellaire Coffee Shop, arguably the hottest meeting spot in town. Each day brings its regulars: the Bellaire cops who saunter in and out, the redheaded woman who always orders corned beef hash and eggs over easy no matter what time of day, the elderly man who orders a tuna on toast and soup. The yellow menus are laminated and double as place mats, set neatly at each place -- counter, booth or table. Professional men and women gather for morning coffee before setting out on their separate ways. Retirees sit at one table, grousing about the latest headlines. If the coffee shop or its characters seem to hail from another time, that's fine with everybody. They like it just the way it is.

Jax Grill
Families on a budget may have the best of all worlds: a casual counter cafe with gourmet flair. Soccer moms and dads flock to these cheery, Southwestern-adorned restaurants, both of which sport popular deck seating for adults who long to linger and video games for kids who must fidget with their fingers. The family-friendly menu features mesquite-grilled burgers, fried chicken tenders, salads and hearty chicken corn chowder. But real aficionados seize such daily specials as pork tenderloin, mushroom chicken, steak and garlic mashed potatoes, all prepared with a Southwestern zing. And don't miss the live music at the Shepherd location. Friday nights are "jam" packed with zydeco and bluegrass fans and the families who love them.

Chinese Café
This place is so authentic there's hardly any English on the menu. Plus, it's filled with Chinese people -- always a good sign when selecting an ethnic restaurant. Here we recommend the pork with snow pea leaves and the chicken and asparagus. We always order too much and say we'll never be able to eat it, but we've never needed a doggie bag. The place is so damn good you'll keep shoveling it in your mouth. The iced tea is served steaming hot, and you ice it down yourself. If you want ambience, go to P.F. Chang's, but if you want good food that won't cost you much more than a Happy Meal, this is your place.

Baby Barnaby's Cafe
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
Breakfast is not our favorite meal, because it happens to fall in the morning, which is our least favorite time of the day. But whenever we order the huevos rancheros at Baby B's, we are overcome with joy. Just thinking about this makes our mouths water. A friend of ours flew in from London wanting nothing more than runny eggs, beans and square-diced potatoes. This is the best breakfast ever. The small diner is located right next door to Barnaby's Cafe and is open only for breakfast. The portion is big, but we promise you'll scrape your plate. Add some coffee and a tall orange juice, and you'll feel ready to conquer the world. Or take a nap.
From the outside, this tiny Montrose-area counter cafe still looks like a delicious dive. In the dining room, however, recent renovations include dark wood panels of Chinese philosophical writings, track lighting and faux palm trees. Still, purists -- looking for dinner and a show -- wouldn't dream of eating in the dining room. They'd rather grab a wobbly stool at the Chinese-style open kitchen. Only there can you get an up-close and personal view of the wok chef's sleight of hand. Since 1978, Chicken n' Egg Roll has been swamped by regulars who devour sesame chicken, imperial shrimp, fried rice and General Tso's chicken. Those are good, but first try the specialty of the house: a tasty marinated, boneless chicken breast that is deep-fried and drowned in savory Asian-spiced brown gravy. It's served with an egg roll, but ask the cook to whip up some vegetable chop suey instead. It's a perfect foil to the crunch of the chicken.
Thai Cottage
In timid Thai fashion, the owners of Thai Cottage tiptoed onto the Houston restaurant scene four years ago, settled into a nondescript storefront between a sprawling H-E-B and a Domino's Pizza and quietly started cooking. They concentrated on the food, spending their money on the freshest ingredients rather than extensive advertising, flashy decor or fancy menus. It was a gutsy move -- first to hope to take on the Thai scene in Houston, and then to locate their establishment in the more mainstream Bellaire. They were successful in both. Today their menu is far from extensive, but each dish, from the much-loved chili mint shrimp to fried catfish cooked in red curry sauce, is cooked with flavor-fresh vegetables and herbs and with precision (no overcooked shrimp or chewy dumplings at this place). Even during their busy luncheon specials on weekdays and Saturdays, the entrées are individually prepared and promptly served. The attention to food over ambience has worked well for Thai Cottage, whose appreciative customers can now taste the same food in Sugar Land, where owners opened the successful Thai Cottage II almost two years ago.

The menu at Aries changes daily under the direction of chef-owner Scott Tycer, who improvises with the seasons. To call Tycer an artist doesn't do him justice. He is something even better. He is a culinary genius who has grown up and gotten over himself. Originally from Houston, Tycer spent several years in Northern California working his way up from line cook to sous-chef at Spago in Palo Alto under the famous Wolfgang Puck. But at Aries, Tycer exhibits none of the flashy cleverness that makes Puck's California cuisine look so dated these days. Tycer's food isn't just brilliant; it's brilliantly restrained. He insists on making remarkable ingredients his main subjects, and he complements and seasons them with an imagination that never loses its focus. But it is in the presentation that Tycer shows true self-discipline. There are no silly tentacles sticking out of things, no Jackson Pollock squeeze-bottle paintings and no extraneous garnishes. The food itself is the garnish. American cooking just doesn't get much better than this.

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