The junk-store decor of this waterside burger bar draws an odd mix of bikers and moms with toddlers. Seabrook is a scenic drive down Highway 146, past the majestic bayside refineries whose smokestacks stand as straight and tall as palm trees. You forget all about alfalfa sprouts and textured tofu here in the greasy heart of the petroleum industry. Tookie's best burger is called the Squealer. It's sort of like a bacon cheeseburger, but instead of frying the bacon separately so the grease can be drained off, they grind it up with the beef. The genius of this concept is that the bacon fat bastes the patty while it cooks. The result is a salty, greasy burger that stays juicy even when well done. When good cooking revolves around a soluble-grease diffusion problem, it's no surprise when Texas oil field ingenuity comes shining through.

A vertical arrangement of tropical fruit in a basket on the gleaming white bar looks like Carmen Miranda's hat. The bartender borrows from the overflow of pineapples, bananas and assorted tropical fruits to make smoothies. Meanwhile, the barista cranks out tiny cups of Cuban coffee. Cuban food lovers from all over town are showing up at The Little Havana to welcome back former Cafe Miami owner Gladys Abelenda. The popular new Cuban hangout is simultaneously a boisterous family restaurant and a rendezvous for well-dressed adults. Many in the predominantly Latin American crowd know each other, and there's a lot of table-hopping and cheek-kissing going on. Smoothies, fried plantains and ropa vieja, a long-stewed beef dish served with rice and black beans, are all recommended. So are the Cuban coffee and luscious desserts, including a definitive version of tres leches cake.

Willie G's
Real Cajun cooking comes from Cajun country. The southern populace of Louisiana refers to the north, including New Orleans, as Yankees. Don't call this food Creole. Cajun and Creole are two different enigmas, sir, and we're willing to come to blows over it. Creole has a tomato base. Cajun has a roux base. A roux is made from cooking oil or butter and flour together until the liquid mixture turns a beautiful chicory color. And talk about good! Willie G's uses recipes from the beautiful bayous of south Louisiana. That's the real deal, captain. The food is phenomenal. And the service, ça c'est bon. Sit at the bar and, if you're lucky, bartender Marvin will look after you. The crawfish platter is a miracle in your mouth when mudbugs are in season. The avocado and super lump crab cocktail makes a mother of a first course; filled with tender avocado and juicy she-crab (female crabs yield tastier, more plentiful meat), it's almost a meal on its own. Then the main course: Crab au gratin, steamed Alaskan crab legs, fried soft-shell…When it finally ended, we wanted to waltz into the kitchen and hug everyone in sight.

Unlike so many outstanding Asian restaurants, which are dotted across the Bellaire archipelago, this one has been hiding right inside the Loop. It's an upscale Hong Kong-style seafood restaurant where large groups of Asians sit at big round tables with lazy Susans in the middle. There are so many fascinating-looking dishes spinning around, you may be tempted to ask if you can just pull up a chair and sit down. The lobster and crab in ginger-scallion sauce are both a safe bet. Whole fish are also available, either steamed or fried. Salt-baked scallops, served with the bizarre dipping combination of Worcestershire sauce and ground salted plum powder are stunning. Don't miss the stir-fried romaine lettuce in spicy brown sauce.

Frenchy's Chicken
Jeff Balke
The fact that there are always people standing in line at Frenchy's guarantees that every piece of chicken you get has just come out of the fryer. But Frenchy's is more than a chicken shack. Since 1969, Percy Creuzot has turned out the tastiest greens, the most satisfying andouille-studded red beans and rice and some of the best dirty rice and jambalaya the city has ever known -- all sold in Styrofoam containers for a veritable pittance. Located on Scott Street in the shadow of the University of Houston's Robertson Stadium, this venerable Creole chicken shack has fed starving UH students for more than three decades. It's also popular with those who keep late hours, since it's open until 1 a.m. on weeknights and 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Nielsen's Delicatessen
When the original owners of Nielsen's first came to Houston from Denmark, they tried to sell the famous Danish open-faced sandwiches called smorrebrod. But customers didn't know how to eat the messy sandwiches (Danes use a fork and knife) and the health department wouldn't let them be displayed without some kind of covering. So Nielsen's gave up and started serving American-style overstuffed sandwiches with cole slaw, potato salad and deviled eggs on the side. Fifty years later, Nielsen's Danish deli on Richmond is a Houston landmark. But what made the place famous is a bit of a surprise: Houstonians come from far and wide to buy the homemade mayonnaise. While the thin-sliced pastrami on rye is excellent; and the corned beef, liver paste and Swiss sandwich is a work of art; it's the homemade mayonnaise-laden potato salad that caused Gourmet magazine to ask for a recipe. Nielsen's sells its mayo by the pint, too, so when you stop by for a sandwich, you can get some to stick in the fridge.
A fusion restaurant that brings together Persian, Indian, Mediterranean and American dishes, this place serves the most ferociously seasoned Middle Eastern food you've ever eaten. All the meats are halal, the Muslim equivalent of kosher. Standouts include the Mix Grill Dos, with two kinds of tandoori chicken; a half skewer of jujubideh, a Persian chicken kabob seasoned with saffron and lemon; and a full skewer of koobideh, a highly seasoned Persian ground-beef kabob. The menu also includes a Greek shawarma wrap and bakra ke korma, a fabulous slow-cooked goat curry. "The animals sourced for halal meat are not fed hormones of any kind, so you can be assured of receiving healthier, better-tasting meat for your dining experience," claims the menu. Don't miss the fiery halal hamburger! Unfortunately, tencafé's halal status also means that you can't get any beer with your spicy food.
The decor is romantic excess, the oversize chairs are well upholstered, and the carpets are extra-plush. Once you get seated, you know you're going to be here awhile. There's no menu. There's no waiter, either. There's just Aldo Elsharif. The talkative chef comes to your table in his sauce-stained whites and spouts poetry about his fish of the day, his fabulous veal and rare exotica, including ostrich and zebra. Aldo will convince you that everything you know about Italian wine is wrong and that you simply have to try his special of the day. The prices aren't low, and without a menu, it's easy to get surprised by the bill. But the food is wonderful and the little dining room is one of the most intimate in the city. By the time you leave, several hours will have gone by, and Aldo will seem like an old friend.

Spanish Flower Mexican Restaurant
Jeff Balke
Tucked away in a corner of the Heights, this all-night Tex-Mex mix offers fantastic, affordable food to all walks of life. Wander in around 3 a.m. You'll see barhoppers getting that fatty high-protein burrito fix necessary to whittling away the effects of too many martinis. You'll find artists taking a break from their creative woes, seeking solace in perfectly spiced mole enchiladas. You'll find a table of police officers enjoying a moment to socialize with their comrades over coffee and sopaipillas. What we like most about the Flower are the freshly made tortillas. Anytime from four in the afternoon to four in the morn, a waiter will approach your table with the hot bread, fresh off the mechanized comal to accompany your meal. Spanish Flower will satisfy, whether it's an eye-opening breakfast or that last taste of heaven before stumbling off into dreamland.
The Cheesecake Factory
Photo by Houston Press Staff
With close to 200 items on the menu, if you can't find something to eat here, there's something seriously wrong with you. It's the largest menu in town. Fortunately, they've organized the menu into logical sections; nevertheless, it will probably take you longer to decide what to eat than to eat it. There is so much to choose from that picking just a few items to highlight is almost a futile task. Favorite appetizers include the avocado egg rolls, Thai lettuce wraps and California guacamole and Brie melt. There are 11 different pizzas and 13 different pastas, the standouts being barbecue chicken pizza and Louisiana chicken pasta. The house specialities include a grilled tuna burger, orange chicken and chicken marsala, and the entrées range from seafood to steak to pork, in varieties too numerous to mention. With 34 different cheesecakes, it might take some parties a long time just to do dessert. The portions are big as well.

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