Best Middle Eastern Restaurant

Cafe Lili Lebanese Grill One reason we like Cafe Lili better than the strictly halal Middle Eastern restaurants over on Hillcroft is that you can get a Heineken or a glass of wine with dinner. But that doesn't mean that the food is any less delicious. In fact, there is a homemade quality about the cooking here that puts it a step above most others. And the place is run under family ownership, not by a bunch of hired hands. Lili and her husband, Elie Sr., are usually on the premises. You might see Elie out front in the parking lot kissing babies, or you might meet him when he brings a free shot of thick cardamom-scented coffee over to your table. You can't help but be charmed by the genuine interest these folks take in their customers.

Mockingbird Bistro
Mockingbird Bistro and Wine Bar Fresh Texas ingredients meet French Provence recipes at John Sheely's neighborhood eatery. Inside the eclectic yet comfy confines of this restaurant, you'll find some of the heartiest and tastiest choices around. "Bistro" generally implies a small cafe serving down-home food, but these eats aren't Mom fare. The menu changes seasonally, but the consistent onion soup is warm and delightfully filling, as are the pan-seared mussels and the fresh bread, baked twice daily. Only-in-Houston entrées include a grilled buffalo burger with seared foie gras, brioche bun and white truffle frites. Popular plats du jour include the slow-braised short ribs, which are so tender you almost have to spoon them up, and grilled prime rib eye with potatoes pont neuf, another Texas-sized meal with a real bistro twist.

The Express Grocery and Deli
Jeff Balke
Express Grocery and Deli Don't look for red-checkered tablecloths or "Mom's Home Cooking" signs at the Express Grocery and Deli -- the family feeling runs far deeper than that at this delightful quick-order grill and convenience store in a corner of the Houston House apartments. Mike Baba set up shop here nearly two decades ago, weathering the then-desolate downtown area with the same genuine good cheer he dispenses to the expanding base of eclectic and ever-loyal customers. His longtime cook Margaret -- as well as his cousins, son and daughter, who work there too -- serve up respectable meals with good vibes and home-style charm.

Fung's Kitchen
Fung's Kitchen Canton Seafood on Richmond, Ocean Palace in the Hong Kong City Mall and Peking Cuisine just down the Southwest Freeway from Fung's Kitchen are all rapidly gaining on the grandfather of Houston Cantonese restaurants. But Fung's remains at the top of the heap, primarily for its 400-item menu and because it's still the best place for exotic dishes such as whole ling cod and fresh scallops and oysters. They don't shuck the shellfish or kill the fish until you order them here -- and it doesn't get any fresher than that. The seaweed salad, crispy eggplant, stuffed tofu, Peking pork and snow pea shoots with tofu are all brilliantly executed. Although the service isn't what it used to be and the prices are considerably higher than at the dozens of Chinese restaurants, noodle shops and dumpling houses a few miles down Bellaire Boulevard, the palatial red-and-gold dining room and elegant ambience still make Fung's Kitchen a special treat.

Laredo Taqueria
Laredo Taqueria The interior of this popular taco joint at the corner of Fulton and Patton is cheerfully decorated with ceramic roosters and Mexican crockery, and it's always spotlessly clean. Sit down for table service, or stand in line for tacos to go. While you go down the cafeteria line, you can watch two women roll out and toast the fresh flour tortillas you're about to eat. The steam table is small, but everything on it is wonderfully fresh. In the morning, there are no fewer than six varieties of scrambled eggs ready to be put on a breakfast taco. There are eggs with chorizo, potatoes, ham, nopalitos, onions and chiles, plus sausage, refried beans and chicharrones. Barbacoa is always available. Lunch and dinner specials change daily and include fajitas, country chicken and caldo de res. There's also a choice of incredibly inexpensive enchilada plates, and every taco is 99 cents, all day long.

This Is It Soul Food At This Is It, you're likely to see old-time Third Ward residents rubbing elbows with the yuppies from the new apartments across the street, along with a few politicos and downtown suits on the picnic tables. The sheer number of folks here tells you that this is it: the best place in town for real down-home cooking. You'll drool over the fried chicken and buttery collard greens, surrounded by the savory-smelling steam rising from the cafeteria-style counter. And the oxtails and perfectly moist corn bread are the best this side of the Mississippi -- not greasy, just good. This Is It has become a fun and funky lunch spot for the "in" crowd, but it's also a great place to pick up a full Southern-style meal on the way home. Nothin' fancy here, just real soul food at good prices.

Cafe Montrose
Caf Montrose Family-owned and -operated, this little hole-in-the-wall next door to a launderette is one of those strip-center diamonds in the rough. Short on looks but long on authentic Belgian food, Café Montrose prides itself on to-die-for pommes frites, steak au poivre and desserts dripping with Belgian chocolate. But the real reason to hit this hideaway is the mussels entrée. This huge bowl of white wine-steamed mussels goes best with a fruity Belgian beer (Café Montrose has one of the largest selections in Houston) and a thick hunk of steamy bread with butter. Not pretentious, not showy -- just delightful Belgian flavors in a relaxed atmosphere.

Cali Sandwich
Jeff Balke
Cali Sandwich It's not uncommon to wait for a table at this Midtown eatery. That's because of the sheer variety of Vietnamese food served here, all of it authentic and made with fresh ingredients. Bahn mi (sandwiches), pho (soups) and bun (noodle dishes) are all served here, and nothing costs more than a few bucks. Vegetarians will appreciate the extensive array of meat-free dishes, such as the fragrant, steamy stir-fry or the vegetable fried rice (to which you can add tofu). For carnivores, the chargrilled pork chop ($4.75), served with shredded pork and a fried egg on top of crushed rice, is one hearty meat dish.

Best Neighborhood Spot in Bellaire

Bellaire Coffee Shop The coffee's always hot at the Bellaire Coffee Shop -- God knows how many pots they make each day. The Mayberry-esque '50s atmosphere is authentic here: The waitresses call their customers "hon," and there's a constant hiss from the griddle as the fry cook shoves breakfast and lunch orders along, somehow never mixing them up even during the busiest times. The coffee-shop faithful -- from the morning parade of breakfast customers to the mid-afternoon regulars who gather to chat about the day's events -- have a deep love for this eatery. The buzz of good-natured gossip is as much an ingredient of this experience as the steamy joe and homey recipes.

Best Neighborhood Spot in the Village

El Meson
El Meson Assuming you can find a parking spot in the Rice Village, you'll find the air-conditioned cave that is El Meson a most relaxing treat. Always start with a tangy margarita (they go like gangbusters at cocktail hour). Then decide what you're in the mood for: Cuban? Spanish? Mexican? Here they have them all. There's always a relaxed vibe from the mostly young, professional patrons, even during the time-crunched lunch hours, and El Meson's funky interior -- along with the cushy booths and a second margarita -- will transport you right out of the Village. For a while, you'll inhabit an oasis steeped in delightfully sweet plantains, homemade salsa and the strong aroma of garlic from the kitchen.

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