"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.

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.

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