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."
This fortifying quick stop, hovering just beyond westbound traffic, has nothing on the menu a healthy handful of quarters can't buy. Breakfast is offered, but it's the afternoon tacos we seek. The packaging of our regular pair is impressive, balling up in the palm of our hand as we bite into a combination of cilantro, onions and tomatoes, which are standard and essential with the fajita beef. The double wrap of the small corn tortillas provides ample grip. The red and green sauces have some spice, but be generous. We haven't ventured into the pork skin yet, but it's all just a variation on a theme. Tucked under the wing of a popular Wendy's, the red-and-white wagon is a welcome reprieve from the tired burger queue. The words "Welcome, Bienvenidos" painted on the rear wood fencing seal the deal, along with the open-air dining.
These are the restaurants where to a native or longtime Houstonian, everybody knows your face, if not your name. Those willing to stomach greasy cheese enchiladas with a heart-unwise dollop of dubious chili con carne aboard are growing fewer by the day, perhaps owing in no small part to their allegiance to same. No matter, we say, and carpe the canned con carne. Before Los Tios, before Mama Ninfa, before Doneraki, before Pico's, and long before the likes of Teala's et al., there were restaurants like Felix's and this year's winner, Spanish Village, dishing out the comfort food for generations of Houstonians. There, the Christmas lights blink year-round in one of Houston's most captivating rooms, and the people watching on busy, booming Almeda Road also add to the charm. The service is impeccable, and the margaritas are among the very best in Texas, too. Go, but buy the Rolaids in advance.

What's the best Greek restaurant in Houston? The choice is obvious! Bibas Greek Pizza is one of only a few of Houston's more than 8,000 eateries to have the word "Greek" in its name. You could look it up. The spot, in a converted fast-food emporium next door to President Bush the Elder's favorite Houston barbecue pit, has outdoor seating, like a taverna in some whitewashed village on the blue Aegean. Granted, the closest body of water is Buffalo Bayou, but it is a body of water connected to the oceans of the world. There are also a few tables indoors. In addition to Greekish pizzas, the establishment has staples of the cuisine such as dolmas, pastitsio, gyros and spanakopita. There is even retsina on the beverage list, a wine that many fancier Greek establishments around the United States have banished from their menus. Opa!

This is not an illusion. That is your teenager being entertained, even enthralled, while dining out with (gasp!) the family. And yes, there are your own parents, chuckling at the comedian's risqué double entendres mingled with their polite dinner conversation. The reason for this harmony spanning the generation gap from seven to 70? A simple magic trick called dinner and a show. Much more than its continental cuisine, sleight of hand is the successful shtick of Magic Island, the delightfully schmaltzy tomb of wonders on the Southwest Freeway. Going for the grandiosity of ancient Egypt, it herds groups through several rooms, beginning with the Garden of Nefertiti for a fixed-price dinner of seafood, steak, chicken or lamb. Afterward, it's on to the Palace of Tutankhamun for a master illusionist and then into the Gallery of Ramses and Cheops' Sanctum for blackjack, fortune telling and more magic. Just be sure to bring plenty of cash; it's likely to disappear right before your eyes.

Best Neighborhood Spot in Montrose

Brasil

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 -- jalapeño 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.

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