Seafood is to mariscos as the Port of Houston is to Puerto Vallarta: You need seafood, but your liver and libido need mariscos. No joint in the city understands this better than Tampico, the perpetually packed, fluorescent-lit outpost of la vida loca on pockmarked Airline Drive. Here's the crazy concept: Supply fresh, locally caught shrimp and red snapper and let the patrons choose a fish straight off a bed of ice. Tampico is best with friends who will help you devour a whole snapper a la plancha -- a fish sizzling on a huge skillet, ideally accompanied with corn tortillas and fiery diablo sauce. Throw in some of the best margaritas, mojitos and pina coladas in the city, and suddenly you're on a completely different latitude, all for a price that won't crush the cartera.
Aries owner Scott Tycer has been recognized as one of the nation's top chefs. His crew shops and forages for ingredients that no other restaurant can offer, and Tycer hires farmers to grow things other restaurants have never heard of. But his restaurant suffered early on from the Houston dining scene's most notorious shortcoming: a lack of knowledgeable service staff. There is nothing more disappointing than eating in a restaurant where the ingredients are unique and unusual, the kitchen craftsmanship is brilliant, and the waitstaff is too clueless to explain any of it. Aries solved the problem by initiating a rigorous training program for its service personnel. The restaurant also has a captain on the floor to serve as a sort of uber-waiter, explaining the food and the details of its preparation in such detail that you're seldom left with any questions. Fine-dining restaurants in the rest of the city have a long way to go to live up to the level of service at Aries.
Giannotti's Italian-Argentinean Cafe
Once you've eaten the fresh pasta at Giannotti's Pasta Factory, you're spoiled for life. Not only can you buy it in bulk, but you can also enjoy it at the restaurant. Try Giannotti's simple, comforting red sauce over spaghetti or cheese ravioli. The place also has a passable pesto and a mean meat sauce. After a taste, you'll forever pass over the dry stuff in the grocery store and wonder if your refrigerator is large enough to store all the fresh pasta you'll need. With a cooking time of only three to five minutes, it's fast enough to help you kick your junk-food habit.
Readers' choice: The Olive Garden
Churrascos
Photo by Houston Press Staff
Self-taught, Nicaraguan-born chef Michael Cordua was the first to introduce Houston to South American cuisine when, in 1988, he opened his first Churrascos. This culinary pioneer showed us the flavors, aromas and dishes of lands such as Nicaragua, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil, expanding our vocabulary with words like plantains, ceviche, empanadas, churrasco, yuca, chimichurri and, of course, tres leches. The trail he blazed has inspired many other Latin cuisine concepts, broadening our culinary horizons far beyond Mexico. At Churrascos, Cordua's skill is not simply in re-creating authentic dishes from many different South American countries but in marrying them with European and American cooking methods, thereby giving them an extra-special feel. His signature smoked crab claws and beef tenderloin churrasco are unparalleled.
The pork chop at Niko Niko's comes on a disposable plate. It's not sitting atop braised leeks or next to candied carrots, and it's not even a thick cut of meat. But for flavor, it's the best in the city. It has been dusted in spices and cooked to moist perfection by a kitchen that, post-expansion, still manages to churn out top-quality food. A pork chop for the people, it comes with a simple Greek side salad and a pile of fries. The whole thing will cost less than the tip at fancier places. It's Houston's answer to bistro fare, but without the flatware or even the waiter.
Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse
Vic & Anthony's is a Houston steak house that doesn't bow to New York, Chicago or anyplace else. The food here is on a par with the very best in the country. The USDA Prime New York strips and porterhouses are cut two inches thick. The Maine lobster, which comes split and shelled with a bowl of drawn butter atop a candle-heated warmer, weighs three pounds. The iceberg wedges are huge and bargain-priced. And the newly revamped wine list features hard-to-get cult classics and limited-allocation wines you won't see in many other places. The exterior architecture is modeled on historic Union Station, and the baseball stadium is just a block away. The interior is decorated with historic photos of Houston and of owner Tilman Fertitta's colorful family. The cushy bar may be the best place in the city to people-watch.
Readers' choice: Saltgrass Steak House
Neptune Subs
Being bald sucks. The sun burns your scalp, women burn your phone number, co-workers burn holes in their sides laughing about how you look like Dr. Evil. And after 12 easy installments of $19.95, you will probably still be bald. But at least you won't be hungry. On the first Monday of every month, head to Neptune Subs, where the bald eat free. The bald owner, Vincent Schillaci, whose pate is immortalized in a painting on the wall, will charge you in inverse proportion to the population of your follicles. The half-bald eat at half-price; Bill White pays less than Governor Goodhair. The subs are not only free of hair, they're top-notch. Hey, call Schillaci an egghead, but he's got a heart of gold.
The word is out about the fabulous Vietnamese sandwiches they crank out of this small no-nonsense shop near Elgin. But the equally delicious -- and cheap -- tofu spring rolls ($2 for a pair) have a well-earned place among Houston's best as well. The key to their success is in the texture of the rice paper. Binding these cool, succulent torpedoes is the thinnest, springiest rice paper in town. The wrapper is so transparent you can identify all the fillings (vermicelli, bean sprouts, chopped lettuce and rectangular slices of bean curd) before even taking a bite. No tough corners to gnaw on here. The accompanying peanut sauce offers an extra burst of sweet flavor and sassy crunch.
Mi Luna
In a town rife with excellent Mexican food, it's almost too easy to overlook tapas. Well, ignore no more, because Mi Luna brings the Espana with panache to spare. Order a variety of the smaller, affordable dishes like the cheese plate or the pulpa a la vinagreta (marinated octopus in a sherry vinaigrette) and share them around your table for the fullest tapas experience. Or else get one of the elaborate larger entrees like the pasta con mariscos (angel-hair with shrimp, scallops and mussels in herb lemon olive oil) and let everyone else fend for themselves.
Los Tios Mexican Restaurant
The owner of Los Tios, one of the city's best-loved Tex-Mex chains, retired a couple of years ago. Gary Adair, who owns Skeeter's and a couple of other local restaurants, bought the chain and made some changes. And Los Tios's loyal clientele, which includes people who have been eating there for a quarter of a century, went loco. Of particular concern was a change in the chile con queso recipe. The new owners had made the controversial decision to use real cheese rather than the powdered stuff. Mayhem ensued. The new head chef, Roberto Ozaeta, is a Guatamelan-American who says he is just trying to make the old Los Tios menu items with the best ingredients available while adding a few modern specials. Adair, who has been eating at Los Tios for a couple of decades himself, calmed the old guard by vowing to stay true to the chain's original Tex-Mex taste. Outrage has slowly been replaced by the realization that the current owner kept the out-of-date Tex-Mex chain from disappearing completely. Or maybe the hotheads were cooled off with a couple of Los Tios's classic frozen margaritas.
Readers' choice: Taco Cabana

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