Istanbul Grill & Deli
We should be up front and say that there are plenty of other reasons to visit Istanbul Grill and Deli besides the fine-looking staff. They have amazing stuffed mushrooms, soft bread that melts in your mouth and a wonderful Rice Village setting that includes outdoor dining. But what's wrong with wanting a little something nice for the eyes to digest as well? All of the staff members at this Turkish restaurant -- the men and the women -- have quite an appealing look. Maybe it's the pleasant foreign accents or the striking dark complexions. Maybe they put a secret aphrodisiac in the hummus. Either way, who cares? This staff will have you drooling over your tabbouleh.
El Hidalguense
When you walk in the front door, the scent of mutton commands your attention. Or is it goat? The restaurant's specialties are barbacoa de borrego estilo Hidalgo (Hidalgo-style lamb "barbecued" in maguey leaves) and chivito asado al pastor (charcoal-roasted kid goat). For a weekday lunch try the fabulously decadent tulancigueas, three thick flautas stuffed with ham, jalapeos and mayonnaise, sprinkled with cheese and topped with cold avocado slices. There are no concessions to Tex-Mex here -- no chips and salsa on the table and no frozen margaritas. This place is dedicated to providing folks from the Hidalgo region of Mexico with a place to eat their favorite foods, listen to Huatecan music on the weekends, and hang out with their fellow expats. If you're looking for gringo-friendly Mexican, try Otilia's or Pico's. But for the real thing, check this place out on a Saturday.
Tex-Chick
Jeff Balke
The mom-and-pop team of Teo and Carmen Gonzales has been running the funky-looking Tex Chick restaurant since 1982. The food is a schizoid mix of burgers, chicken-fried steaks, tacos and other Tex-Mex dishes, along with the only Puerto Rican food to be found in Houston. The mix owes itself to some shrewd thinking on the part of the owners, who bought a going concern and decided not to change the menu but rather add to it. Still, the food that makes the Gonzaleses beam with pride is that of their homeland, and they'll serve it to you as if you were family, which is appropriate since the place has only four tables -- it's like eating in their kitchen. Traditional foods like their arroz con pollo, carne frita or even the salt-cod specialty, bacalao, will be a welcome addition to your Latino dining experiences. And they're all served with rice and beans and a smile.
La Sani Restaurant & Banquet Hall
Jeff Balke
You expect fiery curries and hot masalas in the Little Karachi neighborhood around Bissonnet and U.S. 59, but La Sani is something special. The food here is spicy in every sense of the word. Whole ginger, fenugreek seeds, chiles, garlic, cumin seeds and coriander come blaring at you in concentrations so intense that you can barely tell what you're eating. Few restaurants cook with whole cardamom pods and whole pieces of cinnamon bark, because average restaurant customers freak out when they find such objects in their mouth. La Sani, a halal restaurant whose patrons are mostly Pakistanis and Muslim Indians, pays little attention to such mainstream inhibitions. Imagine producer Phil Spector's "wall of sound" recording technique transmuted into a cooking style, and you have some idea what to expect from La Sani's wall of flavor.

El Pueblito Place
Jeff Balke
When you sit outside at El Pueblito Place, you'll start believing you're on vacation in a foreign land -- especially after a couple of margaritas. Palm trees with Christmas lights, tiki torches and candles give the expansive patio a romantic feel, and there's always live music, usually Latin. If you're with your harem, you can sit in one of the raised platforms draped with white cloth and made cozy with couches and pillows. It's a nice respite when it seems that the whole world is flocking to El Pueblito's patio. Even on stiflingly hot nights, the place is packed.

Pizza Bella
Frozen dough, machine sheeters and conveyor belt ovens long ago took over the pizza business. Thanks to the miracle of technology, Houston pizzerias can now turn out crappy pizzas in under five minutes! But compared to most pizzerias in Houston, Pizza Bella is making perfect pies. They use a stainless-steel Blodget brand pizza oven with a brick floor -- one of the best of its class. They hand-throw their own homemade dough and they don't dock it, or run it through a sheeter. But you still have to avoid the overloaded pizzas on the menu if you want to get a crispy crust. Try the margherita; it's nothing but Roma tomatoes sliced thin lengthwise, a smattering of fresh basil leaves and a little garlic over olive oil. A simple fresh-out-of-the-oven flatbread with just enough garlic-infused olive oil and a few scant but aromatic toppings -- this is what pizza is all about.
Lai Lai Dumpling House
The General Tso's chicken comes to the table in a heaping portion. There's enough for five people -- five big people. If you order it by yourself, the leftovers will last a week. The chicken seems to be a favorite here, as it's almost always on every table. But it's not the only thing that's super-sized: The dumplings are the size of your hand, and the noodle dishes are thick and hearty. If you're feeling cash-poor but aren't in the mood to run to the border, this is the place to eat.

Maeve Pesquera may have graduated from hostess at Anthony's to operating partner of the new Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, but she hasn't lost her touch with diners. Like children following the Pied Piper, the in-crowd flocked to Fleming's right along with her. While running a restaurant keeps her busy, she still spends time on the floor meeting and greeting. Fashionable, fun and formidable (especially when it comes to remembering names), Pesquera is proof that it takes more than a winning smile to keep the customers coming back, but it doesn't hurt to look the part, either.

Best Place to Skip Dinner and Go Straight to Dessert

Dessert Gallery Bakery & Café

There are two kinds of people in the world: dessert people and people who do not even bat an eyelid when dessert is mentioned. The former can get more excited about a piece of Chocolate Decadence than any appetizer or entrée. The Dessert Gallery was created especially for these people. There is so much to choose from that you almost wish they had an all-you-can-eat buffet (hint, hint!). Of course, there are the standards that appear on many a menu: pecan pies, carrot cakes, German chocolate cakes, Italian cream cakes and tiramisu. Then there those that raise the passion in a dessert person -- like the key lime cheesecake, which adds a lime curd topping to a deliciously smooth cheesecake, or the Turtle Candy Cake, whose gooey chocolate cake is filled with caramel and pecans. So, if you're the kind of person who's always saving himself for dessert, here's the place to let yourself go.

Owner Jorge Fife is the chef, bartender and occasionally the waiter. He also provides the entertainment at this wacky little joint in the northern suburbs. Fife isn't from Portugal -- he grew up in Mozambique, one of its former colonies. So while there's Portuguese chourico and feijoada on the menu, you'll also find curry from Goa, a Portuguese colony in India, and piri-piri sauce from Mozambique. The decor includes a simulated African hut and a giant map charting the travels of Vasco de Gama and other Portuguese explorers. The restaurant might as well have been called A Taste of Portugal and Its Far-Flung Colonies. But whatever you order, the sparkling hospitality shines. Eating here is like going to a dinner party at a friendly stranger's house.

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