The food at Indika is on a par with the fare served at the most innovative Indian restaurants in the United States. And unlike imaginative Indian chefs like Floyd Cardoz at Tabla in New York, Indika's chef and owner, Anita Jaisinghani, doesn't do fusion. Hence her menu, while impressively creative, isn't contrived. The Maple Leaf Farms duck tandoori in a toasted almond curry served with green beans and fluffy white basmati rice is purely Indian -- but made with the best American ingredients. The roasted eggplant filled with paneer and cashews may be the best vegetarian dish in the city. The samosas with papaya-ginger chutney are shocking. And the hot nan tastes like an Indian pizza. Even a lowly side dish like the yellow lentil mush called dal comes to the table electrically flavored with garlic, ginger and cumin. While the charming little cottage on Memorial may not be as impressive as Tabla's stunning headquarters on Madison Avenue, Jaisinghani is working on that, too. Her new location on Westheimer next to the former site of Marrakech Restaurant is under construction.
Readers' choice: Shiva Indian Restaurant
Cafe Montrose
Ahhh, potatoes, hot grease and salt -- the simple equation made so complex by so many. They aren't all that hard to make, so how do many places manage to screw up french fries? You know the problems: too greasy, oversalted, heat-lamp limp. That's why the Belgian eatery Cafe Montrose deserves mad, starchy props for its fries. Crispy, golden-brown exteriors give way to fluffy, white interiors. The salt and thickness (not too shoestringy, not too thick) must be measured in back with a triple-beam balance. So precise it all is. Munch them with ketchup or spice things up with garlic-tinged aioli.
Readers' choice: McDonald's
Green Pine Tree Bar & Grill looks a little like a Korean speakeasy. There's a neon-lit sushi bar on one side of the room and a half-dozen dining nooks with semi-secluded tables on the other. The attractive dining room in between features two rows of tables separated by a room-length divider and a sparkling mirrored column. These are the best tables in the house because of their built-in barbecue grills. To do your own cooking at the grill table, you must order two or more Korean barbecue items. The boneless short ribs and bulgogi (spelled "bool gogi" on the menu) are among the most popular. Or get a family-style Korean barbecue dinner for four. (Ask for one without offal, unless you're keen on intestines.) You grill your meats along with garlic and jalapeno slices, flip them right off the grill onto romaine leaves, and make yourself a lettuce taco with the hot sauce and condiments provided. The sushi, bibim bap and other Korean specialties are also excellent.
Frenchy's Chicken
Jeff Balke
Since 1969, Frenchy Cruzot has been consistently supplying the best Creole fried chicken in Houston. He's also been turning out the tastiest greens, the most satisfying andouille-studded red beans and rice, and some of the best dirty rice and jambalaya the city has ever known -- all sold in Styrofoam to-go containers for a veritable pittance. Frenchy, who is an old family friend of New Orleans Creole-cooking legend Austin Leslie, brought the spicy taste of Louisiana to Scott Street. Located near Texas Southern University and the University of Houston, the restaurant is popular with students and other night owls; it's open until 1 a.m. on weeknights and 3 a.m. on weekends. Don't complain about the long lines -- the fact that there are always people standing in line at Frenchy's guarantees that every piece of chicken you get has just come out of the fryer.
Readers' choice: Popeyes
It's late, and you're shit-canned. You need something to soak up all the booze in your belly so you can get home. Do yourself a favor and skip the drunken lovefest at "House of Guys." Instead, head to this seedy Montrose eatery. We love Late Nite Pie for the simple fact that the menu lists a pizza called the Stanky Whore covered in roasted garlic, anchovies and goat cheese. The garlic bread is to die for, and even traditional fare like the pepperoni and veggie pizzas are top-notch. You can also get a cold pitcher of Shiner. Here's a tip, though: Be extra-nice to the employees, and they won't be extra-rude to you. Some of those slackers think it's freakin' New York in there. If your pizza is taking too long, you can wax poetic with a Sharpie on the bathroom wall.
Readers' choice: Katz's Deli & Bar
Laredo Taco Place isn't much to look at from the outside, but the inside is decorated with metates and colorful pinatas. The waitress will scoop out cups of red and green salsas for you from two large ceramic bowls. Order from a substantial, cafeteria-style spread of Tex-Mex taco fillings, which includes a half-dozen styles of eggs in the morning, and for lunch, chicken fajita with onion, tomato and bell pepper and large, tender pieces of meat. The carne de res is stewlike and rich in cumin. But the best things about Laredo Taco Place are the lesser-known specialties. Try the pork with Mexican squash and corn. Drizzled with tomatillo salsa, it's a delicious mix of sweet, spicy and savory, and it costs less than $2.
The French consider Mornay to be a mother sauce for a reason: It's darn good. People used to the powdered, boxed macaroni and cheese may not understand, but one forkful of 17's delicious truffled variety makes us moan. Fat chunks of blue cheese, a hearty handful of real Parmigiano-Reggiano, notes of Gruyere and hints of regular old cheddar blend nicely together with white truffle oil and coat each piece of elbow macaroni with silken efficiency. Served in the tiniest, cutest little cast-iron skillet you've ever seen in your life and topped with crispy, toasted Japanese panko bread crumbs, it makes you wonder how Mom ever got away with serving Kraft. And the thinly shaved black truffles flopped generously on top will just make you plain mad at her.
The fabled pizzerias of the East Coast -- the tiny smoky places with aged ovens and dusty pictures of wrestler Bruno Sammartino on the walls -- are nowhere to be found in Houston. But if you take away the bright, airy feel -- and, please, the "Take-Ah De Order Here" pidgin-Italian signs -- Romano's comes pretty darn close. The thin-crust pizza doesn't come with a hundred goofy toppings, but it does come with the genuine taste of a New York pie. The standard dinner dishes -- lasagna, ziti, chicken provolone -- are cheap, filling and as good as you're likely to get outside of a fancy sit-down place. The owner and the guys doing the cooking have a bit of an attitude, too, which only helps with the ambience. Since this is Houston, Romano's is tucked into a strip mall, but if you close your eyes and breathe deep, you could swear you were in Jersey or Brooklyn.
Readers' choice: Star Pizza
Teotihuacan Mexican Cafe
On a blazingly hot afternoon when you were but a wee Houstonian, nothing could satisfy like the one and only ICEE. Fast-forward 20 years, and the grown-up Texan's frozen treat of choice has to be the margarita. We've found the perfect place to satisfy your craving: Teotihuacan ("tay-o-tee-hwa-KAHN"). The price is nice ($2 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Mondays through Fridays), and the service even better. Frozen ritas come in six tempting flavors and are always just this side of frozen solid, preventing premature melting (don't you hate it when that happens?). And don't be fooled by the cheap price -- these margaritas pack a punch. The breezy patio has picnic-style tables that are perfect for large, raucous parties. A fun suggestion: After each round, discover how much easier it's become to pronounce the name.
Readers' choice: Cafe Adobe
While Houstonians are lucky to have lots of high-end authentic Italian restaurants, we are equally blessed to have the free garlic bread and large Caesar salads at family-friendly little nooks like Nick's. The Italian-American cuisine here doesn't aim very high, but it seldom misses. The linguine pescatore, a huge bowl of pasta with shrimp, squid, chopped clams and mussels in their shells, all tossed in a well-made tomato sauce, ranks right up there with the seafood pasta found in the inexpensive red-checkered-tablecloth restaurants of Boston's North End. Nick's also offers such kid-pleasers as spaghetti and meatballs and baked lasagna, which probably accounts for the high percentage of tables occupied by parents and their children. The portions are so enormous, you end up taking as much food home as you consume at the table. You've gotta love a restaurant that sends you home from dinner with tomorrow's lunch.

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