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.
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.
Designed by David Rockwell, the hottest restaurant designer in the country, the Strip House steak house makes a double entendre of the restaurant's name by using erotica as a theme. The banquettes are red leather. The ceiling is red. The sofas, carpets and throw pillows in the bar are red. Pretty much everything is red, except for the dozens and dozens of photos on the walls, which are black-and-white. They come from Studio Manasse, a Viennese photo studio of the 1920s and 1930s that attempted to capture the erotic spirit of the cabaret era in its dreamily retouched photographs of nude or partially clothed women. Together the ruby-red colors and nude photos create an ambience your parents might have called "French whorehouse." To modern sensibilities, the decor might be better described as "ironic, retro-1950s French whorehouse." Or as one male friend put it, "Steak and tits, what's not to like?"
Readers' choice: Vargo's
If the phrase "Gimme some tongue" flows freely from your lips, then you're gonna love Kenny & Ziggy's, where there's more than just tongue. Here you'll also find the tastiest corned beef, pastrami and chopped liver as well as some outstanding smoked fish, such as sturgeon, sable and whitefish, all sold by the pound. Two different kinds of pickles are available: one sour, the other half-sour. Too lazy to make your own sandwiches? Then let the counter staff oblige. Here, they have everything you would find in a typical New York deli, except one: attitude.
Readers' choice: Jason's Deli
Forty-two-year-old Philippe Schmit was born in Roanne, France, and apprenticed at several two-star restaurants in Paris before moving to New York in 1990 and taking a job as sous-chef at one of the best fish restaurants in the world, Le Bernardin. Schmit moved to Houston last year to open Bistro Moderne. The restaurant takes a playful approach to the French classics. Appetizers are dressed up in dessert shapes like bombes, napoleons and tartes. A lamb shank comes with the meat removed from and balanced on a big bare bone. Schmit has a way with French fish dishes. His bouillabaise is the best you will taste on this side of the Atlantic. Even the humble moules frites (mussels and french fries) on the lunch menu at Bistro Moderne take the street food of Belgium to a whole new level. The mussels are an ivory-colored, extra-fat variety, lovingly farm-raised in Washington State. You can get them in a white-wine broth or a chorizo cream sauce. Go for the chorizo. The sauce is cooked with the spicy Spanish sausage, which is then strained out. When you're done eating the mussels, you can soak up the chorizo-and-mussel-flavored cream with crusty French bread.
Japaneiro's is a fascinating fusion of Asian and Latino cuisines, with sushi, sashimi and tempura dishes living peacefully next to shrimp ajillo and churrasco steak. The tropical bar specializes in mojitos and caipirinhas but is equally stocked with sensational sakes, such as the raspberry-infused version. This is one high-energy spot, and the colorful, expansive interior can get noisy, especially because of the concrete floor and the brick walls and high ceiling. The chef's "nirvana platter" is the perfect way to sample the best and most creative sushi available on a given day. And we recommend the yuquitas, or crispy cassava chips, served with a roasted pepper sauce.
While the former shrimping town of Kemah has been converted to an amusement park, crusty Old Seabrook, right across the channel, is still the home port of a small fleet of shrimp boats. Seafood delivery trucks are parked along the streets, waiting to take the fresh catch to Houston. And the glistening, never-been-frozen, heads-on shrimp in the Vietnamese-owned markets along the waterfront are ridiculously cheap. That's why the shrimp dishes at Merlion, a few blocks away, are absolutely transcendental. Merlion is not an exceptional Thai restaurant -- it's a solid Thai restaurant with exceptional seafood dishes. The chef has the good sense not to overcook the shrimp and to buy it fresh every day. And when you combine perfectly cooked seafood with even average Thai curries and garlic chile sauces, you get something very special.
Located in the beautiful space formerly occupied by Ba Ky restaurant, Jasmine is in full flower. Stop by for lunch, but don't let the short list of $4 specials fool you. Sure, the noodles are excellent, but wait until you see the gigantic dinner menu. Seafood is the specialty at night, and among the "must try" dinners is the whole grilled catfish. Don't miss Jasmine's variation on the better-known "beef seven ways": "fish seven ways," which substitutes grouper for beef. The beef isn't bad either; in fact, the bo luc lac may be the best in the city. Its huge, tender pieces of filet mignon are cooked medium and served with savory sauteed onions over a big salad. This is the Asian restaurant of the moment in Houston -- check it out while the kitchen is at the top of its game.
Readers' choice: Mai's
Photo by Houston Press staff
Chef and owner Marco Wiles is Houston's answer to Mario Batali. He loves to surprise you. He'll start you off with his own freshly cured anchovies served over a cream-injected fresh mozzarella called burrata. And while you're trying to figure that one out, he'll blindside you with something like cold poached lamb tongue served with the spicy mustard-brined fruits called mostardo. Forget about Gulf seafood -- he'd rather introduce you to some unusual varieties of fish like branzino (Italian sea bass), which he flies in from Italy. Da Marco's wine list is equally cutting-edge. Instead of offering the usual bunch of overpriced Barolos and Amarones, Da Marco's sommelier, Antonio Gianola, goes looking for great deals from off-the-beaten-track Italian regions like Puglia and the Slovenian border. But don't be intimidated: You'll also find some of the best pizza and pasta dishes in the city at this unassuming little Montrose cottage. Try the raviolo with ricotta, egg and truffle, for instance. It's a single, giant pillow made of two loose sheets of pasta filled with a gently poached egg and napped with truffle oil -- and it will alter your mind.
Readers' choice: Carrabba's

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