Best Of :: Restaurants
Just as there are food stalls in the mercados in Mexico, there are taco trucks in the parking lot behind the Farmer's Market on Airline Drive. The one in the middle is crowded with well-dressed Mexican-Americans at 1:30 p.m. "Taqueria Tacambaro," it reads in painted letters on the roof. There are stand-up counters mounted on three sides of the back of the truck. They all face a short-order cook named Maria Rojas, who is stuffing gorditas, frying tortillas and chopping meat all at the same time behind sliding glass windows. The taco al pastor is made with spicy pork that is crisped in a skillet and put into two folded-over corn tortillas, which are toasted on the griddle. Roasted jalapeños are a specialty of the "house." Maria Rojas is from Michoacan, and she cooks here just like she would in a stall in the produce market in her hometown.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."