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.

Okay, so there are only two Malaysian restaurants in town. But at Malaysia Restaurant, the food is great and the prices are low. Malaysian food is the original fusion cuisine. The strategic peninsula has been ruled by countless colonizers. And every one of them brought along something to eat. There's curry from the Indians, noodles from the Chinese, roti from the Muslims, coconut milk from the Thais, fish sauce from the Indonesians, and shrimp paste hot sauce from the Malaysians. On the dinner menu, don't miss the stupendous fried crab -- a whole Dungeness crab cracked into pieces and stir-fried with a coating of the dried shrimp paste sambal. Get the chicken with orange redang curry on the lunch special menu. Redang tastes something like the spicy peanut stuff you slather on sate, only here it's used to smother noodles tossed with bean sprouts and green beans. Bite-size chunks of fried chicken, tofu and roasted eggplant are served over the top.
Hugo's
Chef Hugo Ortega, long the top toque at Backstreet Cafe, is now turning out cutting-edge Mexican food at this stunning new spot on Westheimer's restaurant row. You won't find any nachos, fajitas or chips and salsa here. What you will find is roasted rabbit in guajillo adobo with mashed sweet potatoes and jicama-radish salad, and quesadillas stuffed with mushrooms and huitlacoche. Chef Hugo is smart enough to call his cooking "original Mexican food" rather than fall into the authenticity trap. Instead of sticking to outdated regional Mexican recipes, he wisely invents his own combinations and presentations. Still, the restaurant lovingly showcases traditional Mexican ingredients and preparations, grinding its own chocolate, making its own tortillas and offering unusual specialities like cabrito, nopales and squash blossoms. This is the best Mexican food to be served in Houston in years, but it's also the most expensive.
Larry's Original Mexican Restaurant
Neon beer signs glow brightly in the cool darkness. The taco and tostada are made of old-fashioned ground beef with a minimum of seasonings and a maximum of chopped iceberg. The tamale and rice and beans are served swimming in chili gravy. Larry's seems indistinguishable from dozens of other vintage Tex-Mex joints -- until you dig into the cheese enchiladas. Then, while you're working away on the rolled tortillas, a miracle takes place on the plate. Viscous yellow cheese sauce oozes into dark brown chili gravy in yellow and brown swirls, creating a delicious masterpiece of half melted cheese and half tangy enchilada sauce. This goop that's left on your plate after you finish the enchiladas may be the crowning glory of old-time Tex-Mex. Pass the tortillas, please.

This cozy little restaurant a few blocks from Our Lady of Czestochowa, the Polish Catholic church, is the place to catch up on the doings of the Eastern European community over blintzes and tea. Be prepared for a long wait if you arrive during the post-church scene on Sunday afternoon. The homemade ruskie pierogi are the thing to order here. Perfect pierogi should be puffy pillows about the size of Chinese dumplings; the dough should be rolled very thin with a tiny crimp so that the area of double thickness doesn't get too chewy. And by these difficult standards, Janina's ruskie pierogi are hard to beat. There are also fluffy potato pancakes covered with goulash on Janina's menu, along with other examples of Polish home cooking at its finest.

Super La Mexicana
Why would a Salvadoran restaurant choose a name like Super La Mexicana? Well, it didn't really. This part-convenience store part-luncheonette already had that name when the current proprietors bought it. The new owners decided it was too expensive to change the signage, so they just changed the menu instead. Now the fare mixes Mexican and Salvadoran items. The dishes from both countries are fantastic. Of the Salvadoran specialties, the pupusas with cortido, big chunky Salvadoran tamales (available only on weekends) and deep-fried plantains served with creamy refried beans and sour cream are outstanding. Of the Mexican offerings, you'll like the hearty homemade soups: menudo, posole, caldo de camarones with carrots and vegetables, caldo de rez with big hunks of beef, and chicken soup with rice. When they ask you if you want flour or corn tortillas, tell them you want the thick, handmade Salvadoran corn ones. You'll get respect from the staff for making the right choice, and your mouth will thank you for filling it with such goodness.

Look for the little red house in the crusty Third Ward neighborhood east of the George R. Brown Convention Center. You have to pass through a screened-in porch with a dilapidated sofa and a pile of broken chairs to reach the entrance proper. Inside, there's a cozy little dining room with 12 mismatched tables, an awesome jukebox and a television that's perpetually tuned to a soap opera. The brisket here has a tasty black char on top, but the inside is slick with juice and as tender as the white bread served on the side. The buttery beef comes anointed with dark brown sauce, and if you order "in and out," you'll get plenty of black outside pieces along with the inside cuts. This is not the kind of fanned array of picture-perfect brisket slices that wins barbecue cook-offs. This is a hot and greasy, falling-apart mess o' meat East Texas-style, but it eats better than any other brisket in the city.

Pearl's Soul Food Café
The brick floor, wood-paneled walls, fake hanging plants and stained-glass light fixtures hanging over every table make the dining room look like an expanded breakfast nook. Friends and neighbors gather here to linger over lunch and watch sports on the weekends. The easygoing atmosphere and friendly staff make Pearl's our favorite soul food joint. The huge portions of seemingly homemade food make you feel like a guest at Sunday dinner. The ribs are lightly smoked and tender, the yams are steamed and sweet, the black-eyed peas are reduced to a pleasant mush. But the okra is the standout. Tomato and corn add a complimentary backdrop of colors, textures and tastes to the star-shaped slices. It's Pearl's no. 1 seller -- and probably the best okra you'll ever have.

Palm Restaurant
Palm on Westheimer (the cognoscenti don't say "the") has a lot of special memories for Houstonians. When it opened in 1977, it epitomized the "anything goes" spirit of the oil boom. And it's still a boisterous joint with big steaks, big Bordeaux and few inhibitions. The Houston restaurant's walls are covered in caricatures, just like the Manhattan original, and it's fun to see how many faces you know. The New York chop house opened on Second Avenue in 1926. Legend has it that the name was a complete accident. Palm was supposed to be named Parma, but the name was changed by a bureaucrat who couldn't understand the owners' thick Italian accents. Palm's USDA Prime New York strip is perhaps the tastiest steak in town; dark brown, its edges hard and crispy, pink and dry along the sides, turning juicier and redder toward the middle. It's chewier than a filet or rib eye, but the flavor is worth it.

Kubo's Sushi Bar & Grill - CLOSED
Chef Kubo (short for Hajime Kubokawa) made this the best sushi bar in Houston. But Kubo doesn't work here anymore. Luckily, Hori (short for Manubu Horiuchi), the new head chef at Kubo's and Kubokawa's former second-in-command, is extremely talented in his own right. If you have any doubts, sit at the sushi bar and order chirashi, which the menu describes as eight kinds of sashimi over sushi rice. And don't miss the cold draft sake -- they have one of the best selections of premium sake in the city. Kubo's isn't easy to find; it's on the second floor of a giant concrete parking structure in the Village across Morningside from The Ginger Man. Look for a little sign on the ground floor that indicates the way to the stairwell. Kubo's shares the mezzanine with Two Rows and Bayou City Crawfish Café.

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