La Paletera Picture a Dreamsicle made with fresh fruit and real cream, and you can begin to imagine what La Paletera's Mexican popsicles taste like. Except they call them paletas, and they only have one stick. Unlike American popsicle makers, La Paletera never uses artificial flavorings or frozen fruit pulp. There are 47 flavors available every day, the most popular being coconut, strawberry and banana; there are also more exotic varieties too, like mango and chile. Fruit cups and fruit salads are available, and each boat-shaped bowl of fruit comes with your choice of chile powder or a hot-and-sour chile dipping sauce. The Fulton location is a franchise of the original La Paletera in Corpus Christi. Amy Salazar, who started the company with money she saved as a crop worker, grew up selling popsicles and aguas frescas at her parents' palatería in Guadalajara, Mexico. Today, she's selling more than popsicles; she is also selling popsicle-stand franchises.

Central Market's Irish soda bread Weighing in at well over a pound, the Irish soda bread at Central Market ($2.49) is an extremely dense, hearty and heavy loaf, especially since it's compact in size -- about that of a deflated volleyball. It's leavened with baking soda (hence its name) and mixed with buttermilk, which adds silkiness to its texture. Fissures on the top of the loaf allow for easy dismantling, so you can rip into it before you even get to the car. These fissures come from the cross-shaped cut in the bread, which dates back to early medieval times when the symbol was sliced in to ward away the devil. Central Market's version contains raisins along with caraway seeds, for an inviting mix of salty and sweet.

Photo by Houston Press Staff
Bijan You order at a walk-up counter, but the high ceilings and polished marble floors at this Persian kebaberie give the place an upscale feel. Tops on the menu is the chelo kebab barg, consisting of garlicky lamb chunks grilled on a skewer until they have a little char on the outside but are still pink and juicy in the middle. If you don't love lamb, try the soltani kabob, a combination of one grilled steak kabob and one ground-beef skewer. There's also a chicken combination featuring one kabob of juicy, grilled white-meat chicken and one of ground chicken. All the kabobs at Bijan are served over a huge mound of saffron rice with a condiment plate of parsley and radishes. Each order also comes with a big piece of flatbread hot out of the clay oven. Be sure to grab a bowl of yogurt with shallots and cucumbers -- it's secret sauce done Bijan's way.

Mo Mong When it comes to martinis, all it takes is gin, vermouth and an olive or three. But if you're looking for something special, you won't find a better twist on the classic than the infusion martinis at this Montrose-area Vietnamese hot spot. Mo Mong's martinis are dry and properly bitter -- a far cry from the fruity 'tinis that many bars try to pass off as authentic. They're also wonderfully simple; their ingredients come straight from the big jars of Skyy vodka and fruit stewing behind the bar. There are nine varieties, although some work better than others: The tart and dry raspberry is particularly good, and so is the mango, if you're looking for something funky and vaguely mossy. Only the truly brave should try the ginger -- its aftertaste is pure bark.

Robb Walsh
Gilhooley's Raw Bar Gilhooley's, which has been described by its detractors as a biker bar, has an admittedly rough-hewn ambience. Signs on the wall that prohibit the admittance of children and encourage patrons to "show us your tits" probably don't impress the Mobil Travel Guide folks much. But Gilhooley's has a secret benefactor. Misho Ivic, the owner of Misho's Oysters, one of the largest oyster processors in Texas, personally selects the tasty bivalves that will be served at Gilhooley's, which also happens to be Misho's favorite restaurant. In cold weather, when the oysters are sweet and plump, the ones at Gilhooley's are always just a little sweeter and just a little plumper. And during the rest of the year, when smart consumers eat their oysters cooked, there's the Oysters Gilhooley. This magnificent plate of oysters smoked with pecan wood, dusted with Parmesan and dripping with garlic butter may be one of the premier examples of barbecued oysters on the entire Gulf Coast.

Mi Cocina These folks are pushing the national frozen drink of Texas to dizzying new heights. The frozen mango margarita is quite good, with lots of rich tropical-fruit flavor and not too much sugar. The "mambo taxi," made by alternating layers of frozen margarita and sangria, is excellent as well. But it's the three-tone margarita parfait, the "dilemma," that is truly a towering achievement. Served in a tall pilsner glass, this tequila monster has alternating layers of mango, strawberry and pale green lime frozen margarita slush. It's served straight from the freezer, and, like a liquid-nitrogen-fueled rocket just before liftoff, sheets of ice form on the cocktail's cylindrical exterior. It's pricey at ten bucks, but the "dilemma" packs more wallop than any two conventional margaritas, and the variety can't be beat: All you have to do is maneuver the straw to change flavors.

El Hidalguense Baby goat is incredibly tasty and tender. Old goat is not. At El Hidalguense, it's not hard to guess which they serve. Their cabrito is offered in one of two ways: naked or dressed. The naked version, cabrito asado al pastor ($17.99) is simply skewered and grilled, infused with a smoky flavor from the mesquite on the grill. The more elegant version is the cabrito asado enchilada ($17.99), baked in a rich, terra-cotta-colored chile sauce until it falls apart. Traditional Spanish rice and some earth-shattering charro beans accompany both dishes.

Jeff Balke
Tampico Seafood & Cocina Mexicana There are a lot of Mexican seafood restaurants in Houston, but none is as consistent as Tampico. Named after the seaside city on the Mexican Gulf Coast, this little oyster bar and grill has brought the best of our neighbor's seafood traditions to the north side of the border. You never have to wonder what kind of fish you're eating here; you buy your whole fish from the counter and pay for it by the pound. It's seasoned with red achiote paste and served a la plancha over soft cooked onions and green peppers on a sizzling comal. The cocteles are schooners full of cold-boiled shrimp, octopus, or your choice of other seafood mixed up with lime juice, onions, tomatoes, avocado pieces and cilantro in a ketchup-based cocktail sauce. To eat them Tampico-style, squeeze in more lime juice, and add a few drops of hot pepper sauce, then scoop some out on a cracker.

Cleburne Cafeteria Many of the faithful who line up at West U's Cleburne Cafeteria can afford to eat at fine restaurants where the food isn't served on gray plastic trays. But Cleburne owner George Mickelis seems to have tapped into their inner eight-year-old with his macaroni and cheese. The macaroni pasta itself is never soggy, dry or rubbery. You can actually taste the fresh milk in his smooth, buttery light yellow cheese (a shock to those accustomed to the bright orange glaze of Kraft's boxed variety). And there's a slight sweetness to this concoction that makes it even more addictive. After one serving you'll discover why Cleburne's version of this dish, normally relegated to midnights and microwaves, is the essence of comfort food.

Best Chocolate-Covered Anything

Dave Rosales
The Chocolate Bar The Chocolate Bar has chocolate-covered ice cream, chocolate-covered fruits (the bananas are to die for), chocolate-covered potato chips, popcorn, fortune cookies and nuts. There's even chocolate-covered chocolate -- but let's not get greedy. This Montrose-area sweetery has doubled in size since opening four years ago. No longer do you squeeze into the little shop, almost dizzy from the delicious scents wafting out of the chocolate factory behind the counter. Now there's room to spread out, with an ice cream counter and tables and chairs in what used to be the novelty shop next door. The goodies at The Chocolate Bar are also great for gift-giving, so take home some chocolate flowers or one of their famous chocolate pizzas for your sweeties, and just try to leave without a little nibble for yourself. There are even carob-covered bones for the dog.

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