The Express Grocery and Deli
Jeff Balke
A city work crew, bright vests glowing in the dim early morning, makes its way through a breakfast of eggs and bacon. Along the window-side counter, two young professionals fight to overcome the martinis of the previous night with eye-opening cups of coffee. Just outside, the downtown trolley brakes to a stop, the driver dashing in for an OJ. He'll have to wait his turn behind the police duo and the likely parolee, the yuppies, law students, retirees and the rest of a down-and-out and up-and-coming mix as demographically diverse as there is to be found anywhere in the city. Proprietor Mike Baba, with his trademark grin and good-natured ways, presides over this rich array of customers in this longtime fixture at the southeast end of downtown. The small grocery, grill and deli that he and his family operate is a corner business in the Houston House apartments -- and a cornerstone for a legion of loyal patrons. More than mere foodstuffs are served up in this place. Regulars find themselves developing strange appetites for the other offerings dispensed -- news and gossip, helpful advice, humor from the give-and-take of customers and staff, mutual respect and heartfelt first-name interest in the lives that intersect here, however briefly. A dozen or so blocks north, downtown is busy redeveloping with boutique cafes and watering holes intent on instant status as the "in" place -- and intimate place -- to be. But for now, they can only hope to eventually evolve into the rich, diverse texture and honest atmosphere that the Baba family has cultivated so naturally.

Baby Barnaby's Cafe
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
Celebrating its tenth year this December, Barnaby's is a landmark in the Montrose. Named in memory of principal owner Jeffrey Gale's beloved sheepdog, the restaurant is adorned with cute images of the pooch. And the menu, consisting primarily of good ol' fashioned comfort food, reflects the people of the neighborhood itself: simple with an eccentric flair. Normally we wouldn't think of ordering meat loaf at a restaurant, but here the dish is so good (especially with the mashed potatoes) that it's difficult to order anything else. The blue cheese and bacon burger is another taste bud tingler. Veggie? Wonderful meatless alternatives pepper the Barnaby's selection, like the Pacific Rim stir-fry and a mouth-watering spinach and cheese lasagna. Chase them all down with the delightfully refreshing lemonade, not too tart, not too sweet. One meat lover likes to share a rack of tender smoked ribs and the excellent, crispy shoestring fries as an appetizer. That might sound insane, but everything is so well crafted, it's almost a shame to leave the place having tasted only one entrée. The top-notch nibbles are sure to make the dear doggy proud.

Auntie Pasto's
Even foodies will agree that sometimes comfort means more than cuisine, though the elegantly casual Auntie Pasto's offers a solid mix of both. It's not surprising that pasta reigns supreme here, with the 22 menu offerings ranging from black bean pasta (a Southwestern mix of cilantro, peppers, black beans, goat cheese and chicken over fettuccini) to crawfish ravioli. Feeling creative? Regulars and first-timers can improvise dishes off the no-nonsense menu. Appetizers like the tomato mozzarella are simple and pleasing. Thin-crust pizzas, namely the roasted garlic chicken and the four-cheese, feature sweet, buttery, fire-roasted crusts. And the sinful To Die For dessert also warrants a trip. This decadent, fruit-laden cousin of tiramisu features a freshly baked almond torte that houses berries, delicately sweet mascarpone and ladyfingers soaked in rum, peach schnapps, orange juice and Sprite. Flirting with death never tasted so good.

We know what you're thinking. You saw "Galleria" and imagined meals at Morton's Steakhouse, or Cafe Annie or any number of high-dollar restaurants. That's why Chacho's is a natural choice. Located just down the street from the Galleria in a faux adobe building with bright pastel colors, Chacho's offers first-rate Tex-Mex made with fresh ingredients for paltry sums. As a result, Chacho's gives the House of Pies a run for its money as the best post-2 a.m. eatery for all your sobering-up needs. But it would be folly to arrive after last call. Their margaritas are terrific.

Mockingbird Bistro
The best thing about Mockingbird Bistro is the unpretentious menu. This is the perfect place to enjoy a big fat steak with french fries and an earthy Rhône red wine or a hamburger and a cold beer. In many cases, the quality of the ingredients elevates simple dishes to unexpected heights. A roasted beet salad with goat cheese, walnuts and greens is a humble masterpiece. The moules frites, a European cafe favorite that consists of a bucket of mussels in broth with french fries, may be the best in the city. Mockingbird serves their fries in a paper cone with mayonnaise on the side, Benelux-style. The french fries are good -- when they're freshly fried -- but it's the fat, grit-free, cultivated pei (Prince Edward Island) mussels that are really exceptional. The wine list here is well suited for those with limited budgets and adventurous tastes.

"It's such a nice night, why don't you have a seat on the patio and have a glass of wine while you look at the menu?" the kindly old man advises as you walk up the front steps. If owner Sammy Patrenella seems at home here in this big old house in the Heights, it's probably because his parents built the place. Eating here still feels more like visiting an Italian neighbor's house for a plate of spaghetti than going out to dinner. The front yard is a bocce court, and there's a garden over in the parking lot. Sammy grows peppers, tomatoes and Italian squash over there, all of which he proudly parades through the dining rooms every time he picks some. You can't help but love this place, even if the food is a throwback to a simpler time.

the breakfast klub
Catfish and grits may sound odd to you, but it's a popular breakfast dish in the Southeast, particularly in Georgia and the Carolinas. And while Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles in L.A. made that kooky combination famous, it was actually invented by jazz musicians in New York during the Harlem Renaissance. Whether you're partial to unusual breakfasts or ordinary ones, the Breakfast Klub has got you covered. Ham, eggs, sausages, breakfast chops, hash browns, grits, toast, biscuits and, of course, cream gravy are all available. Both the patty and link sausages come from Burt's Meat Market (5910 Lyons), one of the city's most serious sausage makers. Omelettes are cooked thin then rolled up in a tight cylinder. "You can tell a lot about a person by how they eat their breakfast," says owner Marcus Davis. "Some people put jelly in their grits. Some mix their grits and eggs up together. We got one guy spreads his grits in a layer on top of his toast. It's a meal that encourages improvisation," he shrugs.
Brennan's of Houston
Photo by Troy Fields
Turtle soup, champagne and gospel music; it's a heady combination on an early Sunday afternoon. You can't help feeling like you're in New Orleans when you walk in the front door, and Brennan's plays the Crescent City card for all it's worth. The Houston outpost of that legendary New Orleans restaurant-family empire is housed in an old brick mansion that would be right at home in the Garden District. If you're a fan of all-you-can-eat buffets, cross this place off your list. Except for the addition of some egg dishes, the Texas Creole menu Brennan's offers at brunch is just as serious as the dinner menu. But many regulars like the brunch here even better, especially when it's a beautiful day out and there's a table available on one of the most handsome patios in the city.

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.

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