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.

For 25 years Alice Lee and her family members have been running this little diner, which sits across Loop 610 from Meyerland Plaza. It's a little place, a place that's easy to miss in its nondescript strip mall. The booths are old and lumpy, the decorations fittingly cheesy. Numerous photos of burgers in different place settings grace the wall. No one comes here for the food, which is -- well, it's just food. People come here because it's around the corner. It's the kind of place that possesses a lively smoking section because why else would anyone come here except to smoke and drink coffee and read the paper? It's a funny place. Cantonese-speaking Chinese-Americans dish out eggs and toast, cheeseburgers or fried rice to mostly Anglo blue-collar customers in an area that is becoming increasingly gentrified. Amid all the changes, Alice gives a hearty "Good morning" to each day's familiar faces.

It's nothing short of a stroke of luck to be able to satisfy two strong cravings at once. Lucky Burger's name makes it clear that it dishes up burgers, and it's retro root-beer-barrel design offers a hint that these are old-fashioned versions (read: griddle-fried with buttered buns). But who knew that this modest place is a one-stop shop for burgers and Chinese food? This fusion of flavors is most welcome in its Montrose neighborhood, where these diverse delicacies can be delivered to your doorstep. Couples in a quandary over whether to nosh on jalapeño cheeseburgers or pork fried rice may have them both -- with tater tots and egg rolls on the side, thank you very much. You can even belly up for a root beer float and any number of shakes and malts. All that's missing is the cookie, but you will have already found your food fortune.
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.

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.

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