If there is a little El Salvador in Houston, it's on Bissonnet. Hell, there's a "Little Everywhere" along that endless stretch of road. Several pupusarias coexist in the 6000s or so, but this one ranks the highest with its yummy little Salvadoran street snack, the pupusa. The hole-in-the-strip-mall El Cuscatleco serves pupusas hot and fresh off the griddle, stuffed with a white cheese that oozes when you bite into it. At $1.65 each, they're cheap, and they'll fill you up fast. If you spice them up with the large plastic jug of curtido (a spicy pickled cabbage condiment) on your table, make sure you have something cold to drink. And maybe a breath mint.

Best Neighborhood Spot in the Southwest

Java Cup

One of Houston's more intriguing shopping centers is located near West Bellfort and Chimney Rock, where Westbury Square tries, as it has for 30 years, to stay alive. The center's New Orleans feel -- brick paving, porches, a fountain -- is so strong that Infernal Bridegroom Productions once staged a Tennessee Williams play outdoors there. There's no better place to anchor a stroll around this odd little corner of Houston than the new Java Cup coffeehouse, which offers plenty of iced drinks, pastries from Three Brothers Bakery and all the joe you could want. The place is clean, cheery and sunny, with a friendly staff and outdoor seating for the autumn days. Go, and try to figure out just what the developers were thinking all those years ago.
Jarro Cafe
Batli Joselevitz
Salsa is like beer: Some people timidly nip it, and others suck in the buzz. If salsa to you means getting lit, then thank the devil for Jarro Cafe, the flame-licked answer to the icehouse. Here, you'll get a salsa six-pack. Each of six brightly colored bowls offers a different, painfully delicious temptation. Try the chopped purple onions mixed with Mexican oregano -- "Mayan salsa" -- or the sweet, oily, crushed chile arbol, which tastes almost like a more potent mole. A thick red-chile puree shoots pure fire. Two deep green sauces of tomatillos and cilantro slap the tongue with serranos and jalapenos. But for the most dangerous tortilla chip north of Matamoros, dip into the yellowish habanero sauce: brisk, sharp and 100 proof.
Readers' choice: Chuy's
Vieng Thai
The hot larb salad with lime-juice-drenched ground beef tossed with chopped chiles, scallions, onions, mint and cilantro is electrifying. The drunken noodles -- slick with lime juice, piquant with chiles and aromatic with purple basil -- are spectacular. The milky-looking tom kha gai is a seductively gentle-looking chicken soup that turns devilishly spicy on your palate with blazing chiles and sour lemongrass, lime juice and kaffir-lime accents. This is nothing like the sweet and sticky Americanized Thai food served at most Houston Thai restaurants. This is Thai food the way it tastes in Thailand. But authentic Thai restaurants don't last long in the United States. Almost all of them end up dumbing down the food to please the wimpy mainstream. Do Houston food lovers a favor: If you don't like your Thai food hot and spicy, go somewhere else!
At Hunan Village, you can order veggie substitutes so amazingly similar to the real deal, you'll swear you're being fooled with. Take the sesame "chicken." We defy you to bite into a big chunk of its sweet, dark, chewy mass and deny it's the same stuff Colonel Sanders is serving up the road. The "pork" fried rice will have you picking out pieces of faux pig for a closer look. This stuff could be in the Museum of Modern Science. Lucky for you, it can also be put in your belly.
Larry's Original Mexican Restaurant
You may think you prefer authentic Mexican enchiladas made with imported queso, but that's only because you haven't eaten at Larry's lately. Sure, the American cheese-filled enchiladas here are relics of the 1960s. But the truth is Larry's old-fashioned cheese enchiladas taste better than those earnest enchiladas made with real cheese. Only processed American cheese will melt into those viscous yellow swirls that mix so brilliantly with the dark brown chili gravy. And only processed American cheese keeps its oozy consistency after half an hour of beer-drinking. Keep your congealed authentic Mexican enchiladas sprinkled with salty, waxy queso. Vintage Tex-Mex cheese enchiladas, stuffed with processed American cheese, slathered with cumin-scented chili gravy and topped with generous clumps of grated raw onion rule! And Larry's makes them just like the good old days.
Madras Pavilion Indian Cuisine
Madras Pavilion is popular with Gujaratis, South Indians and other vegetarian denizens of the subcontinent, but never mind the wisdom of Lord Krishna -- the real reason to go is because the food is heavenly. The palak paneer is the most perfectly spiced in the city. Filled with onions and potatoes, many of the 13 varieties of dosai look less like crepes than architectural wonders; they're rolled into crispy tubes that seem to defy gravity. Each comes with a stellar assortment of dipping chutneys, including the unusual coconut- and tomato-based varieties. Madras also excels at creamy curries. The malai kofta and vegetable korma should destroy all stereotypes of vegetarian food as the grub of health nuts. Each bite is deliciously rich, and well worth it.
Barbecue Inn
Photo by Robb Walsh
Barbecue Inn is frozen in time. At this place, it's still 1946. Just take a look at the menu, and sample some of its old-fashioned East Texas diner cuisine. Some people come here just for the chunky french fries. Others adore the old-fashioned stainless-steel merry-go-round of sour cream, bacon bits, green onions and cheese that comes with every baked potato. The barbecue is good, but there's a lot of great barbecue in Houston. The chicken-fried steak, slathered in milky cream gravy, has a devoted following. But it's the fried chicken that takes you back. A visiting cooking expert once singled out Barbecue Inn's fried chicken as an outstanding example of the classic Southern style. Dipped in flour with a minimal hint of seasonings and then deep-fried, it's the crispy, crunchy, burn-your-mouth-because-you-can't-wait-another-minute chicken of Southern childhood memories.
Griff's Houston
Everyone is so darn picky. More Worcestershire, not enough Tabasco, blah, blah, blah. When it comes to making the perfect Bloody Mary, chances are you know your own tastes better than anyone else. That's what makes Griff's Sunday Bloody Sundays such a revolution. They pour a top shelf shot of vodka over ice for you just before sending you off to stand in stupefied wonder before the Bloody Mary bar. There it is -- every variety of mix, spice, pepper sauce, celery salt and celery stalk your tiny noodle can handle. At Griff's, you can finally answer that age-old question -- giant green bean or spear of asparagus -- yourself.
Readers' choice: Bennigan's
Hilton Houston Post Oak
This one wins for sheer variety. One of the last all-you-can-eat brunch buffets, it's a feast for the eyes and the belly. With well over 100 feet of offerings, the Hilton Post Oak brunch should satisfy even the pickiest of eaters. A good strategy is to bring the Sunday paper and linger over the bottomless champagne or mimosas. Salmon, stone crabs, jumbo shrimp, omelettes, eggs Benedict, prime rib, filet mignon, duck breast, veal and pork tenderloin are all available. And the dessert station includes cherries jubilee, bananas Foster, chocolate-covered strawberries and bread pudding. Overindulgers, beware.
Readers' choice: Le Peep

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