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
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.
There's an art to frying great catfish so that it's greaseless and crispy on the outside, and moist and juicy on the inside. It also should be mild in flavor with no swampy taste. At Soul on the Bayeaux, they use a Cajun-spiced cornmeal batter that gives the fish a nice little kick. When the catfish is this good, there's only one thing that could make it better: all-you-can-eat catfish. And for $11.95, Soul on the Bayeaux is more than happy to oblige.
Real Galvestonians don't give a damn about tourist restaurants in restored Victorians. They don't fret over finding a tabletop view of the beach. Their folk is bayou folk, and just about the last down-home, real Galveston spot left on this island ain't scenic. It's a red-and-white shack surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and a giant parking lot. And it serves kick-butt Cajun and Creole food. We're talking big Styrofoam takeout cups full of crawfish etouffee, gumbo and jambalaya, with all the spices. Braised short ribs and three kinds of boudin. Cheap and good. So good that the ordering counter -- in a room smaller than a River Oaks closet -- often spills out the front door with customers. None of them are tourists, but Leo's alone is enough reason to visit Galveston.
The owners of Lemon Tree are Peruvian, and ceviche -- raw seafood pickled in lemon juice -- is considered the national dish of Peru. And they know how to make it here. You can get either plain fish or a seafood mixture consisting of fish, shrimp, mussels and calamari served with thin slices of onion and finely chopped peppers known as ajis amarillo, as well as corn and sweet potatoes. The best part of the dish is the juice, which remains after all the seafood has been consumed. It's not considered rude to raise the plate to your mouth to drink it -- but please, no slurping.
Readers' choice: Goode Co. Seafood
Celebrity chef Noe Robert Gadsby made the big splash of the year with the opening of the Houston Noe, the sister restaurant of the original in Los Angeles, which is located in another Omni Hotel. Gadsby runs both of his playful, challenging restaurants with a whimsical touch. He defines his highly original cooking style as progressive American or Franco-Japanese, but neither label adequately captures his culinary pyrotechnics. Much of the food is astonishing. Some of it is transcendental. Sure, the menu reads like a list of culinary crossword-puzzle clues. But luckily for sybarites, you don't really need to get the chef's jokes to enjoy the succulent lobster in Asian-flavored broth or the inventive foie gras. The decor manages to be elegant yet semi-casual, with an Asian modern theme that features Japanese art, black lacquered chairs, a blue-and-rust carpet and lots of blue accent lighting. This is the place where serious foodies gather to see and be seen.
The jellyfish salad and the ducks' tongues whizzing by on the dim sum carts look exotic. But it's the dumplings at Fung's Kitchen that are extraordinary. Sure, the shrimp ones and the xiu mai are excellent, but how about dumplings filled with chopped snow-pea shoots and garnished with peas and carrot cubes? Owner and head chef Hoi Fung comes from a long line of chefs in Hong Kong, the dim sum capital of the world. The regular menu at Fung's Kitchen features more than 400 items, some of them available nowhere else in the city. When Fung set his sights on dim sum, he decided to do it in the same sort of haute Hong Kong style. Carts roll on weekends, but there's also a dim sum menu available at lunch.
Readers' choice: Kim Son

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