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
About a hundred years ago, a French-Canadian carpenter built a log cabin on White Oak Bayou. Various residents since have expanded the building using logs and other rough-hewn materials. Today, that old building houses the French restaurant called La Tour d'Argent. The name means "tower of silver" in French; it's also the name of one of the most famous restaurants in Paris. The Paris original is a legendary haute cuisine restaurant with posh dining rooms overlooking the Seine. The Houston Tour d'Argent overlooks a ravine in White Oak Bayou and recalls the hardscrabble lifestyle of this city's pioneers. The original hundred-year-old log cabin serves as the central dining room; it's decorated with an unbelievable number of antlers, horns and other hunting and fishing souvenirs. The restaurant also houses a large collection of antiques. This dense accumulation of taxidermy and old furniture in a rustic building gives the restaurant the atmosphere of an ancient hunting lodge. It's a remarkable slice of Houston history, but whether you love it or hate it depends on how you feel about old hunting lodges.
The Fifth Ward's original giant hamburger was served at a bar and restaurant called Vivian's Lounge on Market Street not far from Wheatley High School. Forty years later, Vivian's grandson, Adrian Cooper, re-creates that vintage burger at his own place, Adrian's Burger Bar, in the same neighborhood. Each hand-formed patty contains one pound of freshly ground meat. And if you're really hungry, you can get a double. Adrian's preserves a social tradition as well. Vivian's was a hangout for returning Wheatley graduates, many of whom went on to become famous musicians. These days, former Wheatley students check into Adrian's Burger Bar to see what's going on in the Nickel.
Taydo
In the Gulf of Mexico, they sting; on a plate at Tay Do, you get revenge. It is a sugary sweet revenge, tempered with the warmth of roasted garlic and the bite of fresh red onion. If you've never tried chilled jellyfish salad -- or Summer Delight, as they call it here -- you will be surprised at the tastiness of Tay Do's. If you have, well, ditto. The translucent jellyfish strands look like thick rice noodles and offer up a slight, pleasant crunch. Their flavor is mild, more of a conduit for spicy-sweet fish sauce. The strands are tossed in a salad of sliced shrimp, pork, cucumber and shredded carrot. Try it atop one of the shrimp chips served on the side. On a hot summer night, it goes perfectly with a chilled glass of beer.

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