Shri Balaji Bhavan Pure Vegetarian Restaurant
Jeff Balke
Bang doesn't really do it justice. It's more like kaboom! An explosion of sambar masala piquancy attracts crowds to Balaji Bhavan faster than moths to a blaze. Devotees of a good chole (chick peas in tomato sauce), rasam (a thin soup with tamarind) and rava masala dhosa (a crepe stuffed with seasoned tomatoes and onions) will find the heat complemented with a full bouquet of spices, usually for less than the price of an Extra Value Meal at McDonald's. Almost everything on the menu at this South Indian joint is under $5. The excellent dal fry with chapati -- a dal mixed with aromatic ajwain spice cooked in oil -- is only $2.99. The breads are always freshly made, and they come free with many dishes. The ever-popular Madras thali, a plate of seven delicious items served on a stainless-steel platter, is $4.99, probably the best lunch deal in the city.
Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (BAPS)
Indian desserts are harder to find than Indian curries, but they're no less important to Indians. Anyone who has seen Deepa Mehta's film Water knows that a saccharine gulab jamun can be transcendent. And no place makes better dessert for the soul than one of the area's authorities on matters of the soul: the Swaminarayan temple. "We always use very pure ingredients," explains temple volunteer Naresh Gadhiya, "because it is the order of our spirituality." It's also the best way to ensure that the anjir bahar you're ordering explodes with nutty, fruity, milky goodness. Houston Gujaratis (North Indians known for their sweet tooth) say it's hard to go wrong with the temple's offerings, which can be catered. Classic favorites from the subcontinent include buttery magas, barfi (it tastes much better than it sounds) and shrikhand -- sweetened, condensed yogurt liberally flavored with saffron and ground pistachio. Eat some in view of the ornately hand-carved granite temple; you could just as well be in the heart of India.
Zydeco Louisiana Diner
Hosting a group of Katrina evacuees last year, Zydeco quickly won them over with its stellar gumbo and red beans and rice. This joint can hang with most any Cajun place on the Gulf Coast. But what really packs in the business crowd every day are the divided plates heaped, cafeteria-style, with meat and sides. Aside from the excellent smothered pork chops and fried chicken, "meat" is construed in the liberal Cajun sense -- crawfish touffe and chicken-and-sausage jambalaya, to be sure, but also cosmopolitan inventions such as a sweet, tomato-based salmon Creole. Everything delivers. The sides can wipe out all but the most ravenous patrons. The mashed potatoes are fresh, the green beans creamy, the okra stewed and savory. Top it all off with a moist slice of corn bread -- regular, or jalapeo. With so much goodness, one wonders if Zydeco could be one reason so many New Orleans expatriates are staying put in Houston.
There are margarita lovers, and then there are margarita borachos. A truly great margarita bar appeals to both. And by that measure -- as well as its (literally) mind-numbing selection -- El Palenque is the best margarita joint in town. Before 8 p.m., $5.50 will buy you a frozen margarita big enough to drown a small child. The 16-ounce goblet is chilled, perfectly salted and filled with fresh and flawlessly proportioned green goodness. One will have you dancing on the bar. Two will have you in jail. Three -- well, don't go there. But do try some of the other flavors, especially the blue Curaao, the sangria and the mango. If you're hiking way out Westheimer to get there, order some virgins for the driver -- unless you want to spend your incredible savings on incredible cab fare.
Nothing is simpler and more satisfying than a slice of bread and butter, and for sheer variety, you won't beat the fresh bread at eatZi's. Long or round, soft or crispy, regular or whole wheat, plain or flavored, savory or sweet, sliced or whole -- any way you like your bread, you're bound to find it at eatZi's, where they bake more than 20 different kinds of loaves every day. Their best seller is the multigrain boule, a round, crusty, heavy, healthy loaf with lots of grains to get in between your teeth.
Cali Sandwich, which has won several Best of Houston awards over the years, is the kind of place that makes owning a restaurant look easy. But its path to Midtown fame was riddled with disaster. Nga Chong, who runs the place with her sister, her daughter and her mom, fled political repression as a teenager in Vietnam. She and her husband operated a gas station in Houston during the '80s, until they separated. She went into business on her own and opened the famous Les Givral's sandwich shop on Travis in 1993. She lost $70,000 in her first three years. Then business turned around and she began selling hundreds of sandwiches a day. Profits mounted, but in 1999 the restaurant went up in flames. She plowed her profits into stocks, which tanked. Then, in 2003, she used her last bit of money to open Cali Sandwich. It's been phenomenally successful, based in part on Chong's friendly banter and smile -- proof that being a good person really does pay off. "If I'm not there," Chong points out, "the customers ask where I am."
Indika
Succumbing to the easy pitfalls of "fusion," modern Indian cuisine often sheds thousands of years of culinary tradition simply to appeal to timid Western palates. Indika adroitly avoids these hazards. Since it moved from west Houston to Montrose, it has been turning out some of the most unforgettably delicious food -- Indian or otherwise -- in the city. No true sampling of the restaurant's treasures is complete without the crab samosas. Loaded with lump crabmeat, spiced to perfection with fresh herbs and deep-fried with a delicate hand, their succulent crunch will make you eschew regular old samosas and crab cakes. The grilled lamb chops are perfect: mildly charred on the outside, tender in the middle and bathed in an authentically piquant Kashmiri curry. A bed of fresh greens offsets the heaviness. The seafood biryani jazzes up an Indian staple to great tropical effect with coconut milk, dried fruits and a spicy cilantro pesto. The breads, chutneys and dals are all excellent -- the brilliance of Indika's creativity lies in its faithfulness to Indian-cuisine fundamentals.
Maggiano's Little Italy
If two is better than one, then three is definitely better than two. All of the dishes at Maggiano's are served family-style, and when you order their wonderful veal Marsala, you get three large slices of meat -- plus enough mushrooms to cover the entire platter -- for scarcely more than what other restaurants charge for a single small slice of veal. The Marsala sauce that covers the veal is not overly sweet, and the meat is incredibly tender. Served over your favorite pasta, it's enough to make you wanna cry, "Mama mia!"
Prince's Hamburgers
A pioneer in curb service, the old Prince's Drive-in on Main Street was the place where Houstonians went to hang out in their cars. The new Prince's doesn't have carhops, but the retro burger-joint decor pays homage to the original with displays of historic photos, old menus, vinyl booths and classic Formica. It also features some nostalgic menu items such as the chocolate malted and the Original, a hamburger doused with Prince's sauce, which looks like a slurry of pureed fresh tomatoes. Big eaters will want to try the King's Favorite -- a half-pound patty with chili, cheese and grilled onion on the top, and lettuce, tomato, pickles, mustard and mayo on the bottom.
Mambo Seafood
Ceviche has to be the simplest way to prepare fish. All you do is marinate it in lime or lemon juice with some hot peppers and salt, and the result is fish that's both chewy and tender. At Mambo,
they are true to the tradition of serving ceviche made with only white fish, uncomplicated by any other kind
of seafood. (Otherwise it becomes
a seafood salad.) They do, however,
add avocado, onion, cilantro and tomato, creating interest and a sublime fresh flavor.

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