Chapultepec Lupita
Photo by Houston Press Staff
There's an undeniable truth in cooking: Deep frying makes everything better. The law behind it is simple. Frying adds fat -- lots of it -- to anything, and fat means flavor. Exhibit A: the chimichanga. The chimichanga is a beautiful thing, in a horrifying way, like a chicken-fried steak. Take chicken, cheese, onions and cilantro, wrap it all burrito-style in a flour tortilla, and submerge it in really hot oil until it's golden-brown. Plan a trip to the confessional and the gym after one of these bad boys. We're not quite sure what makes the deep-fried log at Chapultepec a notch above the rest. Maybe it's the homemade, non-Sysco quality of the ingredients. Or maybe they've figured out the perfect temperature for the oil to make the shell crispy, but not crunchy. Either way, we've yet to find better proof of the deep-fried theorem than this Tex-Mex dish.
House of Coffee Beans has been Houston's gourmet coffee roaster for almost 30 years. You can smell the roasting beans before you're even through the door. The secret to their success is simple: They focus on doing one thing and being the best in their class. They purchase the best green coffee beans from every coffee-growing region known to man, then they roast them in small hand-tended batches. They prefer to roast their beans medium rather than dark, which may mask any imperfections in the beans. Five different coffees are brewed daily. Customers can try a free sample or buy a cupful. In addition to having nearly 100 different coffees, they have a large selection of teas from around the globe. They have both unblended coffees from small estates and blended coffees, in both caffeinated and decaffeinated varieties. Many different flavors are also available. The most expensive variety is the Jamaican Blue Mountain at $42 per pound, although insiders tout the Indian Monsooned Malabar at $14.50 per pound, which is completely free from acidity and astringency. It undergoes an airing and watering by nature as well as hand-picking and turning twice a day during the curing period. That's one nice cup o' joe.

Screw the NyQuil. When you're sick, you need Jewish penicillin. We recommend Kenny & Ziggy's Mish Mosh. Their matzo balls are light and fluffy. You can slice your spoon straight through these tasty dumplings. (That's a sign they're probably unhealthy; the only way to get really light and fluffy matzo balls is to use a gallon of schmaltz -- fat. But who cares? You're sick.) The best part of this soup is that it includes kreplach. Kreplach is a bitch to make -- even Jewish moms make it only once a year, for high holy days. The gentile dictionary defines it as Jewish ravioli -- little ground beef-filled noodles that float in your soup (and make it so special). If you're famished, we recommend a plate of corned beef and cabbage to follow. Oh, to enjoy such flavor. You should live so long.

Da Marco
Photo by Houston Press staff
There isn't another Italian restaurant in Houston that's even in the same league with Da Marco. The place can be compared only to cosmopolitan outposts such as Babbo, the impossible-to-get-into Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village. Like Babbo's chef, Mario Batali, chef Marco Wiles spares no effort or expense to get the best ingredients -- often flown in from Italy. These sparkling culinary gems make all the difference. With a cream-injected fresh mozzarella called burrata beneath them, a pile of house-cured anchovies becomes a rare treasure. The sweet, hot pungency of Tuscan mustard-brined fruits known as mostarda bring a fascinating jolt of flavor to cold slices of lamb's tongue. Wiles combines Italian flavors, common and uncommon, like a master. Da Marco's wine list follows the same cutting-edge Italian theme. Start off with one of the proseccos, those delicious, slightly effervescent white wines from Veneto that are all the rage in Italy right now. Then segue into an off-the-beaten-track Piedmonte red. And please don't come looking for spaghetti and meatballs. This is Italian food for the cognoscenti.

It's hard to find the little white castle with the round tower and black witch's-hat roof unless you're looking for it. It's hidden under some trees on Memorial Drive near Beltway 8; nevertheless, discerning diners from all over the country are turning up here. That's because Indika has already earned a reputation as one of the most innovative Indian restaurants in the United States. Outstanding entrées include duck tandoori in a toasted almond curry served with haricots verts and fluffy white basmati rice, and half a roasted eggplant filled with paneer and cashews. But first try the crab samosas with papaya-ginger chutney, and don't forget to save room for the best nan bread you have ever eaten, served with a spicy side dish of yellow lentils flavored with garlic, ginger and cumin.
Pappas Bar-B-Q
Barbecue is messy eatin'. The fewer people to see you go ballistic on ribs, the better. Even though Houston is a drive-thru town, most of us aren't aware the ubiquitous Pappas restaurants offer window service. Try the daily special choice of three meats and two sides for $8.99, and you'll get the sauce and bread alongside, but if you ask nicely, they'll also be happy to pass you pickles, onions, jalapeos and anything else from the condiment bar. You get all the benefits of visiting a barbecue joint without the unseemly public scarfing.
Buca Di Beppo
Photo by Houston Press Staff
Yes, it's loud and gimmicky, but they season the food well. The family-style servings, plus the mix of old favorites with moderately interesting dishes, guarantee an option to make almost any palate happy. Finicky kiddies who like their food simple can have the spaghetti bolognese; grown-ups who prefer a little more complexity can try the lemon chicken. And your kids couldn't be any more welcome here, no matter how boisterous they may be. God knows nobody will be able to hear them over the din anyway.

6510 Del Monte, 713-268-1115Nowhere in Houston will you encounter so many deutsch speakers. The daily specials are the thing to order, especially the long-simmered meats. German food usually doesn't sound appealing in the hot summer months, but the cold dishes here are exceptional as well. AnneMarie, the German-born proprietor and head chef of this little eatery next to Roland's Swiss Bakery, makes her own herring salad with a German-style sour cream, apple and onion dressing. Eat it on a slice of chewy sourdough rye bread some steamy afternoon, and then wash it down with a stein of Paulaner Salvator, the dark sweet beer from Munich. You'll think a snowy breeze has blown in from the Alps.

There are several sure signs of a great greasy spoon: Pickup trucks outnumber SUVs, "Texas toast" is a staple food, you feel the need to check your fork for stray remnants; and you leave feeling guilty yet satisfied. The Pig Stand easily meets all the criteria. Piggy No. 7 (yes, others do exist, just not in Houston) opened in 1921. Since then it has served up chicken-fried steak, liver and onions, and Pig Sandwich combos to all walks of life, be they lawyers, Sixth Ward bohemians or visiting executives escaping downtown for a dirty pleasure. Should the restaurant's name ever escape you while slurping a perfectly made chocolate malt, you can simply look around at the numerous pig pictures, figurines and collectibles. Homegrown kitsch is another solid indicator of a true greasy spoon.

Cafe Red Onion
"Colorful" is perhaps the best word to describe the offerings served at Café Red Onion, a blend of foods from Mexico and Central America. The culinary melting pot begins with the one-of-a-kind pineapple salsa and plantain chips and ends (at least it should) with the chocolate empanada. Owner and chef Raffael Galindo, a native of Honduras, not only melds many different Latin cuisines but he's also a master of presentation, using strips of red tortilla as a decorative, edible confetti and stacking everything so neatly on the plate that you almost want to leave it undisturbed. Some of the many signature dishes include the medallions of beef Colombia, which have been encrusted with coffee beans, giving them an unusual smoky, roasted note, and the cream of roasted poblano and chicken soup, thick with large chunks of chicken and kernels of corn. Each dish is so different in taste and presentation that it makes for an extraordinary culinary adventure.

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