The counter men wear New York Fire Department gimme caps and talk with that unmistakable Big Apple accent. The menu hanging on the wall behind the counter includes a Yiddish glossary, just in case you're wondering about authenticity. Yes, these guys are genuine meshuga New Yorkers, and the big doughy, boiled-and-baked bagels taste just like the ones you get on the Upper West Side. But there are plenty of good bagels to choose from in Houston. What causes New York expats to schlepp the whole mishpokhe all the way across town to this little shopping center bagel shop on the U.S. 59 frontage road are all the tasty schmeers. Hot Bagels has an incredible selection of smoked fish. Sure, there's kreftig Nova Scotia salmon and shana whole whitefish, but they also have the best hand-sliced sturgeon this side of Barney Greengrass, the Sturgeon King. And such a mechaya, you don't find just anywhere!
El Pueblito Place
Jeff Balke
Is there smack in this salsa? No, of course not. But the addictive quality of El Pueblito's version of the condiment will make you wonder. At this Guatemalan/Mexican restaurant, owned by Eduardo and Monica Lopez, the salsa is more than just something to dip the chips in while waiting for your main course -- in fact, stopping there would be almost impossible. The mixture of fresh cilantro and ripe tomatoes makes everything on the varied menu taste even better than it does plain -- from the vegetarian quesadillas to the fresh bay snapper -- so go ahead and cover your plate with the stuff. The chunky sauce is blessed with a sharp bite that somehow makes your mouth feel cool and hot all at the same time, and if you become a regular salsa junkie, the staff will string you out even more by bringing you extra big cups of it. Forget pot -- after one visit it's obvious that El Pueblito's salsa is the true gateway drug.

Quattro
The lunch salad with scallops, listed on the menu as "pancetta-wrapped Maine diver scallops, warm salad of watercress, jicama and wild mushrooms," tastes as big as its name. First you notice the scallops: three big fat ones, wrapped in pancetta, and the salty Italian bacon pairs beautifully with the sweet shellfish. Then you assess the "salad" part of the equation. Those scallops surround a small, warm mound of jicama slivers, wild mushrooms and watercress. When you eat a bit of everything at once, the combination of textures and flavors is so entrancing (chewy! soft! crunchy! salty! sweet! peppery!) that for a minute you forget about Quattro's impressive view of the George R. Brown Convention Center. You forget to enjoy the restaurant's hyperstylish interior. You forget even what you were telling your lunch partner just a second before. Maybe it's not fair to classify this dish as a salad -- it could count as a light entrée -- but chef Tim Keating obviously doesn't fret about such petty distinctions, and neither will you. In fact, you'll wish more salads took themselves so seriously.
Truluck's stone crabs are flown in every day from company beds in Florida. If they were any fresher, these crustaceans would arrive at your table fighting. They're kept on ice for the journey but never frozen. This yields a watery, stringy stone crab. Novices take note: You should eat only the white meat in the large claw. It's nearly impossible to find a more enjoyable feast than this, served with either a simple melted butter or a spicy mustard sauce. Monday is the best day: The all-you-can-eat stone crab feast is $39.95.
The challah is braided and brown on the outside and golden with egg yolks in the middle -- take some home and make French toast with it and your breakfast will take on a whole new dimension. If you're thinking of making roast beef sandwiches, you'll want to build them on moist, onion-covered Three Brothers onion rolls. Corned beef sandwiches? Get the seeded rye; the chewy crust increases the interest level of your typical meat-and-mustard combination dramatically. On Fridays, there's also corn rye, a super-dense version of rye that's outstanding with chopped liver. (It can't be cut with an ordinary bread knife so remember to ask them to slice it for you.) On Friday, Three Brothers also has chocolate and cinnamon babkas and other sweet breads to choose from -- all of them first-rate. What else would you expect from the best Jewish bakery in the state?

Gilhooley's Raw Bar
Robb Walsh
We're willing to bet that Oysters Gilhooley are the best barbecued oysters on the entire Gulf Coast. The fresh-shucked oysters are topped with cheese and sauce and then smoked over a pecan-and-oak fire. The shells get partially blackened and the oysters pick up a strong smoky flavor while remaining juicy. And the wonderful flavor is only accentuated by Gilhooley's charming atmosphere. The outdoor seating area, with its ramshackle patio furniture, is overgrown with vegetation. The interior is all worn woodwork and old furniture. The rafters seem to be held together by the license plates that cover them. Children are forbidden here, no doubt in part because of all the show-us-your-tits photos. Gilhooley's Raw Bar may also be the last place in the United States where you can get a dozen raw oysters and a rare hamburger for lunch.
Istanbul Grill & Deli
And on the eighth day, God created Istanbul Grill's stuffed mushrooms. Yes, they really are that good. The popular Turkish restaurant in the Rice Village is known for a lot of great dishes, but it's the stuffed mushroom appetizer that is an absolute must-have. The dish comes with four medium-sized mushrooms filled with mozzarella cheese, parsley and black pepper. The shrooms are then topped off with a special sauce made from fresh tomatoes, bell peppers, garlic, oregano and, according to a restaurant employee, "some special Turkish herbs."
With an outdoor walk-up bar, you don't even have to go inside to quench your thirst at our new favorite pub in the Village. You can sit on a stool outside and have a pint and watch passersby. Even inside, the place has an outdoor feel -- the place doesn't really have a front wall. You can sit on the leather couches indoors (if you can find an open spot) and feel like your mom opened the living room's sliding glass doors. Bottoms up.
Brasil
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
The eggplant is a fine-looking fruit (yes, technically it's a fruit). It's big and round and dressed up in royal purple. But let's admit it, most of us are at a loss as to what to do with it in the kitchen. So why not leave that task up to the cooks at Brasil? They've certainly proved themselves worthy enough with their delicious baked eggplant sandwich. Big yummy hunks of the nutritious food (low in calories, but high in fiber) are nestled between fresh spinach, tomatoes, feta and a delicious black-olive tapenade -- pure delight with every bite. The sandwich is served on warm French or focaccia bread with a side of bagel chips. While we're busy honoring the lovely eggplant, here's another fun fact: Although technically a fruit, the eggplant is botanically categorized as a berry. But who cares when it tastes this good?
The Ginger Man Pub
With 57 draft beers and 52 in bottles, The Ginger Man has something to please even the most discerning drinker. It also has the best selection of ciders in Houston. Draft selections include our locally brewed cask-conditioned St. Arnold's Amber, as well as a wonderfully refreshing Paulaner Hefeweizen (Germany) wheat beer. Then there's the highly complex Young's Double Chocolate (Great Britain) and the Lindemans Framboise (Belgium), with more than a hint of raspberries. Bottled beers include an organic brew called Wolaver's Brown Ale (United States) and the wonderfully named Delirium Tremens (Belgium), which is what you may end up with if you attempt to try all the brews available here.

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