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.

Bistro Lancaster
Jeff Balke
Dim the lights and let the show begin. The cast of characters in this cozy nook of The Lancaster Hotel ranges from the elegant to the occasionally eccentric. The richly hued set reflects the intimate, refined taste of a real Broadway in the heart of the Theater District. While the city shells out millions in tax breaks for hotel and restaurant newcomers, Bistro Lancaster is the proud experienced veteran from the lean years of downtown. The always efficient waitstaff serves up simple but savory full-course meals and spectacular appetizers and drinks. Savvy patrons of the arts know that this spot, at the corner of Louisiana and Texas, has become as much a part of Houston's theater scene as any performance hall. Shows come and go -- the Lancaster's excellence proves it's here to stay.

Maria Selma - CLOSED
Besides the fact that the orange building with hammered-tin ceiling and yellow-stucco interior is pretty retro in itself, the food at Maria Selma harks back to bygone times. Traditional enchilada dishes feature the meat and sauce on top of the tortillas, not rolled up inside. And the old-style Mexican flavors mingle in such soft tacos as carne asada con nopales (marinated beef steak with grilled cactus) and the tender pork loin in green mole. Comfort food doesn't get much better than the hearty caldo pollo and the pastor (pork) tortas made with thick telera bread. It's a Ret-Mex spin on soup and a sandwich.

Russian Bear
The Russian Bear is actually two dining establishments in one. The front room is a charming little cafe with excellent Russian food -- a wonderful place to take the kids. But on the other side of the room divider, there's an exotic-looking nightclub with red velvet curtains, huge mirrors and crystal chandeliers that serves up dinner and Russian entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights. If you're a collector of bizarre dining experiences, don't miss the Russian Bear nightclub dinner. Make a reservation, gather six or eight of your strangest friends, and come prepared to party. When the folk dancers, the belly dancer and the singers are finished, the crowd takes over the dance floor for some swinging Slavic disco.

Jim Goode is a fisherman. If you don't believe it, check out the photos on the wall. Goode is the intense-looking character in the flowing ZZ Top beard and the chef's pants decorated with skulls. And he seems to have been photographed holding up a string of nearly every variety of fish that swims in the Gulf of Mexico. Goode Co.'s cooking is pure Texas. There's catfish, redfish, Gulf red snapper, flounder and shrimp, all of it simply fried or grilled over mesquite and served with a minimum of accompaniments. For appetizers there's boiled shrimp, crabs, raw oysters or ceviche campechana. The Mexican seafood cocktail comes with lots of shrimp, crab and big chunks of avocado in a spicy salsa with tortilla chips. The daily fishing report for Galveston Bay is blown up and posted on an easel in the dining room, just in case you want to take the rest of the day off.

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