T'afia
T'afia T'afia, the starkly minimalist Midtown restaurant run by star chef Monica Pope, is named after a Mediterranean beverage that's made by marinating fruit in a mixture of wine and spirits. The bar offers several varieties of these innovative cocktails, and they're incredibly refreshing. So are Pope's high ideals. Her allegiance to local organic farmers is legendary, and now she's working to improve the Houston food scene in other ways. Her "local market tasting menu" features five courses of Texas artisanal food products. You might get local duck prosciutto with Texas oranges, or Pure Luck Farm goat cheese with toasted pecans. T'afia also hosts a weekend farmers' market in the parking lot where Houstonians can buy some of the same high-quality ingredients that are served at the restaurant. Not only is Pope turning out some of the most innovative, cutting-edge cuisine in Houston, she's also single-handedly creating a market for Texas-produced specialty foods.

Blue Nile Ethiopian Restaurant
Photo by Houston Press Staff
Blue Nile Ethiopian Restaurant Once the only Ethiopian eatery in town, Blue Nile now has some stiff competition. The new guys in town, Addisaba on De Moss Drive, are serving up some awesome yedoro wot. They also have a bar and a big-screen television set. But Blue Nile holds on to the title, thanks to superior vegetables and a more relaxing atmosphere. Blue Nile has some great meat dishes, but their seven vegetable selections are all knock-outs. The yemisser wot -- a red lentil stew seasoned with ginger, garlic and berbere sauce -- is often described as the African version of vegetarian chili. The shirro wot, a bright yellow pureed pea stew, is sensational here as well. But the best thing about Blue Nile is their traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, in which coffee is offered with frankincense, a basket of popcorn and a spirit of quiet meditation. Try that while you're sitting in front of a big-screen TV.

Kanomwan It's like stumbling across a great noodle shop in the middle of Mexico. This East End legend offers no finery (plastic tablecloths, bare-bones walls) and barely there service, but the gai pad prig phao is some of the spiciest chicken and rice you'll find anywhere. Stir-fried chicken breast slices in chile paste and hot cashew nuts will light a fire in your belly, even if you eat it with the mounds of sticky rice. And the gang ped (choice of chicken or beef) swims in a sauce of Thai red curry, coconut milk and bamboo shoots. And Kanomwan's delicious cha yen (Thai tea with milk over ice) washes down the heat and keeps folks all over the city coming back for more.

Caribbean Cuisine
Photo by Houston Press Staff
Caribbean Cuisine When the kitchen door swings open and a cook carts out another tray of patties, all eyes are on the pies. The golden-brown pastries with pungent meat-and-vegetable fillings are as much a staple of the island nation as is reggae music. Patties come with every dish at Caribbean Cuisine, a casual spot in an unassuming strip center where the food is authentically Jamaican and so are the accents. The cook makes a searing jerk sauce that's served with chicken, goat and pork dishes. Grab a Red Stripe from a cooler along the wall and tap your foot to the Rasta beat. Or peruse the mini-Jamaican grocery store in the corner -- anything to pass the time until the kitchen door swings open again.

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.

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