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 Outrage has slowly been replaced by the realization that the current owner kept the out-of-date Tex-Mex chain from disappearing completely.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.
The wood parquet pattern on the linoleum floors is wearing off. The menu hanging on the wall has been slow-smoked to a light brown. Inside the old wall clock above the bar, the Budweiser Clydesdales have been frozen midstride since Reid's opened for business in 1968. Eddie Reid opened the place with her husband, James Reid, who passed away nine years ago. Eddie runs the place now, along with her son James, who learned to smoke meat from his father and has worked at the restaurant since the beginning. The brisket and ribs are smoked in the classic East Texas African-American style, so that the meats are moist and tender with a powerful, smoky aroma. And in keeping with the style, everything is drenched in a barbecue sauce that's a tad sweet (ask for it on the side). The mashed potato salad is homemade and seasoned with a little pickle juice. The pinto beans are plain. The "sandwich" is actually a generous pile of falling-apart brisket with a couple of slices of white bread on the side. You put it together when you get home. That way it doesn't get all soggy.
Grape Nuts, turtle cheesecake, orange-chocolate chip, mango madness and banana pudding are among the favorites at this vintage ice cream parlor on South Main. Hank and his wife make all the ice cream on site; they even roast their own pecans for their famous butter pecan. You can get yours in a cup or a cone or in pints, quarts and gallons packaged with dry ice to go. There's no gelato, mix-ins or any other gimmick, just old-fashioned homemade ice cream with lots of butterfat. Don't be surprised to see provocatively costumed members of the Houston Texans cheerleader squad buying cones here -- it's a popular after-practice hangout. There are also lots of pictures of football players on the wall, which is devoted to signed celebrity photos.
Readers' choice: Marble Slab
Lankford Grocery and Market
The eggs over easy at Lankford Grocery are cooked slowly so they stay tender -- the yolks are perfect, not too runny and not a bit hard. The patty-style sausage is a little spicy and a touch sweet. The home fries have lots of crisp corners. This place really was a grocery store when owner and head cook Eydie Prior was growing up here. Her parents opened the store in 1939. But it was the cooking that brought in the crowds, and so Lankford became a restaurant. And it may be the homiest one in the city. Eydie's grandkids often sit at the counter and watch cartoons while her daughter waits tables. The dining room seems to be located in what was once a garage. The smoking section is on a former driveway where two picnic tables are adorned with orange marigolds growing out of coffee cans. Every couple of months, Eydie goes on a decorating binge and decks the place out with a seasonal theme.
The malt shop doesn't sell malts anymore, but it goes through gallons of Kool-Aid every day. There is no sign on the building and no way to tell the address. In fact, the red building at the southwest corner of Lockwood and Mulvey looks abandoned. But if you pull into the two-car parking lot and push hard on the screen door, you will find perfection on a buttered bun. The old-fashioned burger is cooked on a hot griddle, so it has lots of dark, crinkly, crunchy edges yet it's still fat and juicy in the middle. Half a pound? Five-eighths of a pound? Who knows. They just grab a big handful of ground meat and make a burger out of it. The beef comes from a nearby meat market, fresh-ground every morning. "All the way" means tomatoes, lettuce, mustard and mayo, onion and pickles. When you get it to go, they wrap it up in wax paper. Now that's vintage.
When Felix Jr. announced that the city's most historic Tex-Mex restaurant would close its doors for lack of business, he set off a near-riot. People came from hundreds of miles to eat one last meal at the restaurant they grew up in. Families who had been eating there for more than 50 years slipped Polaroids of themselves under the glass tabletops. If the enchiladas at Felix, served in Spanish sauce or bland brown chili gravy, taste absurdly old-fashioned, it's because they're geared toward the Anglo palates of the late 1940s. And according to Geneva Harper, who has worked as a waitress at Felix from the day it opened in 1948, nothing has changed. Except that the Mexican Dinner went for 50 cents back then. So why eat there now? Besides the nostalgia rush, Felix Mexican Restaurant provides a glimpse back to our culinary roots. It is to modern Tex-Mex what a scratchy recording of the Delta blues is to rock and roll.
Brenner's Steak House
Photo by Houston Press Staff
German immigrant Lorene Brenner and her husband, Herman, opened the first Brenner's Cafe in 1936. When their original eatery was bulldozed to make way for the Katy Freeway, the Brenners relocated to a little house with a big garden and changed the format. From the beginning, Brenner's Steakhouse has served only USDA Prime beef. The 14-table main dining room was softly illuminated by antique light fixtures, and the woodwork was installed with the kind of craftsmanship you don't see much anymore. One wall is made of flagstone with a built-in fireplace, and the opposite one is a floor-to-ceiling window looking out over the enormous garden. The charming little cottage with the excellent steaks became a favorite of Houston's new western suburban set, who were building houses along Memorial in the 1950s and 1960s. Herman Brenner died in 1976, and Mrs. Brenner operated the restaurant alone for many years. When she retired, Tilman Fertitta's Landry's Restaurant Group bought the place. Fertitta spent over $1 million to restore Brenner's to its original state. He even brought Lorene Brenner back as a consultant. In a city that routinely razes its landmarks, Brenner's revitalization is nothing short of amazing.

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