Best Socioanthropological Study

Captain Benny's Half Shell Oyster Bar This small tugboat-shaped eatery, nestled almost out of sight off South Main, is a happy docking place for a diverse array of diners with a lust for crustaceans and other fare from la mer. Folks know that if it's fried or on the half-shell, it's fresh. And just a glance at the clientele proves there's a seafood fan in all of us: A diverse group of patrons converges here. You'll find folks in Sunday-go-to-meetin' duds, business suits, punk dos and tattoos, all united by their love for Captain Benny's seafood. And the management recently added broiled entrées to the lineup, so health-minded customers have been showing up in their gym clothes, too.

Mykonos Island Restaurant Forget the freezer. At Mykonos, every day is a shopping day for fish, shrimp and snapper, so the seafood is never more than 24 hours old. The baklava and custard are made every morning, too. The Greek sampler plate comes so heavily laden with Mediterranean favorites like meatballs, stuffed grape leaves and spinach-and-cheese pies that two folks can fill up without moving on to the entrées. But who would want to do that? The menu's star, by far, is the butterfly snapper, an oh-so-moist boned fish charcoal-grilled with olive oil, lemon juice and oregano. It will have you shouting "Opa!" the minute you taste it.

Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse Nearly two inches thick, the USDA Prime New York strips here strike a perfect balance between flavor and tenderness. The three-pound Maine lobster, which comes split and shelled with a bowl of drawn butter sitting atop a candle-heated warmer, is spectacular. The salads are huge and bargain-priced. And while the wines aren't cheap, the newly revamped list features hard-to-get cult classics such as Beaux Frères -- probably the best Pinot Noir made in America. Vic & Anthony's exterior architecture matches that of Union Station and the nearby ballpark, and its interior is decorated with old black-and-white photos documenting the history of downtown. Palm, Smith & Wollensky, The Capital Grille and Morton's of Chicago are all clones of originals in other cities. It's nice to finally have a steak house that Houston can call its own.

Larry's Original Mexican Restaurant Larry's cheese enchiladas actually have a lot in common with their spaghetti mexicano. They're both relics. The difference is, Larry's cheese enchiladas taste as good, or better, than modern Tex-Mex cheese enchiladas. The viscous yellow cheese swirls around the dark brown chili gravy, creating an abstract masterpiece that's half melted cheese, half enchilada sauce. Even after 30 minutes of beer drinking, the cheese doesn't harden on the plate. How does this stuff stay liquid? Maybe Larry's has perfected a secret process whereby cheese is melted into permanent submission. Maybe they're importing magic cheese from Mexico. They say if you love hot dogs, you're better off not taking a tour of the wiener factory. I think it's the same with Larry's cheese enchiladas. Let's leave a little mystery in those swirls of cheese and chili gravy. And please pass the tortillas.

Backstreet Cafe The recipe for a successful brunch should include the following: excellent food (particularly egg dishes), great drinks, great atmosphere, live jazz and stellar service. Backstreet Cafe delivers on all of these. Plus, you have a choice of where you'd like to enjoy the best meal of the week: indoors in a transitional covered patio area, or outdoors on a gorgeous patio shaded by lots of old trees. Wherever you sit, the cares and pressures of the last few days will disappear as quickly as the mimosas. Freshly baked scones and muffins arrive the minute you're seated. Specialty brunch cocktails like apple-rum tea and smooth brandy-milk punch help to set the mood for the food, which includes such spectacular dishes as lump crab cakes with eggs, brioche French toast, gingerbread waffles and red pepper polenta with andouille sausage, spinach and poached eggs. Pity Sunday comes but once a week.

Star Pizza Star Pizza has been turning out perfect pies since 1976, and they do it every way possible: Chicago-style thick crust or New York-style thin crust; whole wheat or regular; vegetarian or meat lover's; single topping or the kitchen sink. Because they sell so much of the stuff, the ingredients never have time to sit, and the pizza always comes to the table piping-hot and fresh. Among the most famous pies are Joe's -- a mixture of sautéed spinach and enough garlic to scare off a gang of vampires -- and the rosemary-and-garlic grilled chicken pizza, slathered with a creamy white sauce made from hunks of molten Gorgonzola. Star is a Houston original with a gourmet kick.

Shiva Indian Restaurant From the saag paneer to the rice pudding, this Rice Village spot and its Sugar Land cousin serve up some of the best vegetarian Indian food around. Fun Indian decor and soothing music, along with good spinach pakora, creamy curry with rice and fresh-baked nan add to the busy buffet at noontime. And candlelight and friendly service make nighttime dining a romantic experience. Shiva offers some of the best Indian food around, with an emphasis on vegetarian dishes (including the mango ice cream). But entrées like the moist and tender tandoori chicken make this a place all your friends (veggie or not) can enjoy.

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 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.

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