Sommeliers are often judged by how much profit they bring in. And the way to turn a big profit is to sell expensive wines. So the average Houston sommelier loads up the wine list with overpriced bottles and then tries to sell them with snob appeal. Italian wines are the worst. To hear the service staff at some Houston restaurants explain things, stratospherically priced Barolos and Barbarescos are the only Italian wines worth drinking. That's what makes Da Marco's sommelier, Antonio Gianola, such a hero. He seems to be in the business solely because of his passion for Italian wine. And he is delighted to share his discoveries, which often include inexpensive and unusual wines from little-known regions. He will make you an expert on affordable Proseccos and turn you on to red wines from the Slovenian border that you can afford to drink every night. If only we could clone him.
Mockingbird Bistro
Award-winning chef and owner John Sheely is back behind the stove of his self-dubbed American-Provencal bistro. Despite a gothic interior left over from the previous owners that doesn't give the place a bistro feel, the food is innovative and always superb. He is turning out such bistro staples as steak frites, a fabulous foie gras, mussels, croque monsieurs and a charcuterie platter with homemade pate. At the same time, by offering dishes like sweetbreads, Sheely courageously expands our culinary horizons. His modestly priced wine list comprises many sensational selections by the glass.
While the average itinerant tamale peddler charges five or six bucks a dozen, Dona Tere's go for $1 apiece. It only sounds expensive -- the tamales at Dona Tere are Mexico City-style tamales that are around four times as big as Tex-Mex tamales. They're also more imaginatively stuffed. The tamales filled with pork and green chile sauce are outstanding. So are the ones stuffed with chicken and mole. The dark, sweet mole sauce is as thick as Hershey's syrup and nearly as rich. The green sauce is an eye-opener -- tart and very hot. To make each one of these excellent tamales even better, you can buy an extra cup of sauce for dipping. For a hearty breakfast, order everything on the menu, which consists of four kinds of tamales, two sauces and one beverage, the hot corn drink called atole. On the weekends, this humble little stand produces a thousand tamales a day.
Readers' choice: Berryhill Baja Grill
Fung's Kitchen
When Asian dignitaries visit Houston, they are most often entertained at our finest Chinese restaurant, Fung's Kitchen. The palatial red-and-gold dining room can expand to accommodate over a thousand diners. The 400-item menu includes such exotica as thousand-year-old eggs, seaweed salad and pork-blood squares. And when it comes to Cantonese seafood, you can't beat the place. The whole ling cod are alive in the aquarium until the moment you order them, and so are the fresh scallops and oysters -- it doesn't get any fresher than that. Sure, the prices are higher here than they are at the noodle shops and dumpling houses a few miles farther down Bellaire. But Fung's Kitchen is different. It's an elegant Chinese restaurant, not a quick stop for take-out dinners. Take your own visiting dignitaries here -- you won't be disappointed.
Readers' choice: P.F. Chang's China Bistro
Cafe Lili
Photo by Houston Press Staff
Three different kebabs are available here: beef, chicken and kafta. The beef and kafta are the best. All are served with a rice pilaf, pita bread and hummus or a salad. The skewered beef kebab has small cubes of prime filet interspersed with onion. The chopped raw onions and cilantro, which sit on top of the kebab, add additional tastes, but the real flavor comes from the flame charbroiling the meat undergoes. The meat is so tender, there's hardly a need to chew it. The kafta kebab consists of minced beef mixed with parsley and onion, which imparts a wonderful flavor. The combination is then hand-formed around the skewer. Flame charbroiling creates a crispy exterior and a soft and tender interior.
Pappas Bros. Steakhouse
If you're into testosterone-induced bragging of the "mine is bigger than yours" sort -- referring, of course, to expense accounts -- then this is the perfect place to show what you've got. In a wonderful atmosphere reminiscent of the art deco era, you can impress that important client and easily drop a C-note per person with dishes including the jumbo lump crabcakes, the prime beef, the dry-aged 26-ounce porterhouse, sides such as creamed spinach or sauteed mushrooms, and the unequaled gooey pecan cake. However, it is with the beverages that you can really do some damage. How about a preprandial single-malt Macallan '46 at $350 a glass? Follow this with a bottle of 1899 Chateau d'Yquem for $30,000, and end the meal with a '63 Delaforce port for $400 a glass. Now, how big did you say yours was?
Close your nose and open your eyes. Served atop a flame on a silver platter, the "double spicy stinky bean curd" at China Gourmet is beautiful. A steaming tofu mountain flowers with mustard leaves, leeks, jalapenos and garlic slices, all surrounded by a red moat of pepper sauce. It's almost enough to make you forget that it smells just like a sweaty sock. And tastes pretty much the same. This is not a dish for denizens of the Whole Foods hippie section. But fans of stinky tofu, which is flavored with fermented mustard, will find plenty to choose from: "Fried stinky bean curd" and "steam stinky bean curd" also meet the exacting olfactory standards of die-hard Chinese and Cambodian foodies, who pack the place. For other adventures, try the snails with basil or the mysterious "four things soup."
P.F. Chang's China Bistro
What exactly is an Asian pear? We're not sure, but we'll take Asian pears over the regular garden-variety any day if they taste as good as they do in the mojitos at P.F. Chang's. This twist on the popular cocktail will make you want to dig poor Papa Hemingway's body up out of the ground so he can get a taste of what he's missing. Sexy rum dances on the palate with lime and sugar, as faint aromas of pear waft all up in your olfactory. This drink is like a breezy summer day.
Readers' choice: Beso
Just Oxtails Soul Food
Just Oxtails Soul Food is modestly named and modestly situated in a corrugated metal building next to a church and a biker bar. It easily lives up to its name, offering divine oxtails, which are tender and drenched in an addictive, slightly sweet gravy. But that's not the only reason the line inside stretches ten deep late into the afternoon. The menu also features smothered chicken, smothered pork chops, meat loaf and meatballs, as well as eight sides. Every plate is delicious. The thick chicken gravy -- "30 weight," as one soul food veteran describes it -- is spiked with ample black pepper. The mustard greens are perfectly salted, the green beans balanced with just enough bacon, and the yams simple and delicious. The iced tea comes regular or super-sweet. For a scene, come on Sunday. Oxtails may not save souls, but they feed a flock of loyal congregations.
Lupe Tortilla
Kids can run rampant at this family-friendly Tex-Mex joint located in an old house just off the Katy Freeway, with a large outside seating area and open-air bar. Since the wait can be excessive, the owners built a sandbox for the little ones to play in, and they invariably bring the sand, toys and anything else they can get their hands on into the restaurant. This doesn't bother the owners or the parents, who seem content sipping margs while they wait for their tables. Typical family-pleasing Tex-Mex fare such as nachos, chile con queso, enchiladas and fajitas keep the little ones and the big ones satisfied.

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