Barbecue Inn
Photo by Robb Walsh
Remember the carousel of toppings you used to get with your baked potato at fancy restaurants? Well, you'll still find the old sour cream-go-round at Barbecue Inn. Opened in 1946, this place is a time capsule, and as the long lines at lunch attest, it's also one of Houston's most beloved restaurants. The barbecue is good, but it isn't really the main attraction. The fried chicken is among the best in the city, and the chicken-fried steak slathered in milky cream gravy is awesome. Some people come here just for the french fries. But if you had to pick one dish that Barbecue Inn is best at, it would have to be the big succulent fried shrimp. Ask for a bottle of Tabasco and some extra horseradish if the bland cocktail sauce isn't hot enough for you.

Nundini Chef's Table Italian Kitchen and Wine Bar
This place started as a wholesale showroom for an Italian food wholesaler. Nundini makes most of the gelati and sorbetti you see in local Italian restaurants. The front of the warehouse doubles as a retail store and Italian deli. The gelati are very good, and the sorbetti are absolutely outrageous. The unbelievably intense raspberry ties with the snow white peach sorbetto as the best sherbet on the planet. The more unusual gelato flavors include cassata, which is made with spiced fruits and nougat and has a sort of liqueur flavor, and torroncino, which is made from the Italian candy of the same name. From time to time, Nundini makes some uncommon sorbetti flavors like lavender and balsamic vinegar as well. They also do special orders: For a group of visiting Japanese dignitaries, they once turned a whole fish into tuna sorbetto.

The first time a friend ordered the L-2 lunch special of garlic string beans at Kam's, we thought she was insane. Maybe all the hot yoga she was doing was melting her mind. Who would order just a plate of green beans for lunch? Have one, she said, as we munched on our lemon chicken. We ate one. Then another. Then we tried to pawn off our chicken dinner and take all of her lunch. It's like the owners of Kam's hijacked Jack, stole his magic beans and planted a special super-flavorful beanstalk in their kitchen.

If you go to the Third Ward community convenience store Reggae Bodega, you'll find Ariell's cookies all laid out on the counter just waiting for you. They come in several scrumptious flavors: oatmeal raisin, cocoa butter, Belgian chocolate chunk, organic rolled oat and, let's not forget the mutha of them all, Ali's Carrot Cake. With their all-natural, made-from-the-finest-ingredients aesthetic, these are definitely the kind of cookies that were made to be eaten with a glass (or bucket) of milk. There's a stool right next to the counter, if you're so overwhelmed by the taste that you need to sit down. Each cookie costs $2, and they're worth every damn crumb. The chef's "cookie hot line" is temporarily disconnected, so you may have to get in touch with the guy (he named the company after his daughter) about his delightful treats at [email protected]. Or just skip over to the bodega with a bottle of Oak Farms and go nuts right there.

It's surprising, but the best-tasting dog comes from a veg joint. Yes, we realize how insane it sounds to pick a vegetarian Best Hot Dog, but tasting is believing. Whether you choose the soy or the vegan dog (served on a whole wheat bun with chips or excellent fries), this pup will leave you panting for more. We like it topped with vegetarian chili and cheese. Choose from a slice of American or the veggie or vegan alternatives, which taste just as good as dairy. There's also a corn dog version. Want to make it even more health-conscious? Order fruit instead of fries.

Any of The Chocolate Bar's homemade ice creams could be in contention for this award (Root Beer Float and Orange Blossom leap to mind), but their most popular concoction, Creamy Dreamy Truffle, made from triple-chocolate ice cream and chocolate truffles, is to a chocoholic what water is to a fish. (Okay, not exactly: You can't actually swim in the stuff, though you'll be tempted.) Look for a few new flavors this fall. The Chocolate Bar recently expanded into the store next door, giving it room for a longer ice cream bar -- plus tables, coffees and desserts.
Candelari's Pizzeria
Photo by Houston Press Staff
Candelari's owner Michael Mays calls himself "The King of Sausages." He even has the slogan curving across the top of the pizzeria's logo. His sausage pizza is very good, but Mays could put his Italian sausage on Wonder bread and still draw raves. As the story goes, Mays founded Candelari Sausage with his Grandpa Candelari's sausage recipe. It is boldly spiced, with garlic and fennel in the foreground and the subtle flavor of several secret ingredients (orange liqueur?) in the background. At Candelari's Pizzeria you can get this outrageous Italian sausage on pizzas, sausage-and-pepper subs and in several excellent pasta dishes.
When you get a meatball sub to go at Zinnante's, get the sauce on the side so you can heat it up yourself at home. Not only will this keep the sandwich from getting soggy, it also prevents the flying meatball problem. See, the meatballs, bread and red sauce on Zinnante's sub are all outstanding, but when you bite one end of it, the sauce-lubricated meatballs have a terrible habit of popping out the other. By cutting each meatball in half and then slathering the bread underneath with the red sauce, you can anchor the meatballs firmly in place. Thus reconfigured, Zinnante's meatball sub is exquisite. The Paisano, a muffuletta-style sandwich, is another standout; the shrimp and catfish poor boys are excellent as well.
Cafe Montrose
Full of Francophobia but still want good mussels? Switch from French to Flemish at the only Belgian restaurant in town, Café Montrose. When you do, there are four things you need to know. First, even though they list many varieties of mussels on the menu, the best and most traditional are called moules frites, spoken all in one word (that's mussels and french fries, $16). These steamed bivalves are prepared in a white wine sauce with onions, celery and parsley, and they're served piping hot in a huge black pot. Second, it's mayonnaise they serve with the fries -- get used to it. Third, the Belgians brew more beers than the Germans, so wash down the mussels with a Duvel or Chimay ale. Fourth, French is still spoken here. Get over it.

The house special noodle soup at Lucky Pot comes with big chunks of Chinese bacon, shiitake mushrooms, black mushrooms and dried tofu in a thick brown broth. The sublimely flavored bowl of noodles will remind you of fresh, rough-cut pasta in a mushroom and bacon sauce. But hey, if that doesn't appeal, don't worry. This is only one bowl of noodles in a noodle jungle. "There are 10,000 kinds of noodles in China," the Lucky Pot waitress lectures. While you may not be able to find all 10,000 varieties in the unassuming shopping center at 9888 Bellaire, just east of Beltway 8, you will find more than you can eat in a week of lunches. Yunnan-, Peking-, Szechuan-, Hong Kong-, Taiwan- and Mandarin-style noodles are all assembled here for your slurping enjoyment.

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