When you order barbecued crabs at Sartin's, the top shells and the messy innards are removed in the kitchen. What's left are spicy, meaty crab bodies (with two claws attached) that taste like a cross between barbecue and Cajun deep-fried seafood. The dish was invented in Sabine Pass, the corner of Texas that borders Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico, but Sartin's Seafood restaurants made it famous. There have been 14 Sartin's restaurants over the years; currently, only three are open for business -- two in Beaumont and one in Houston. Kelli Sartin, daughter of the founders, opened the Houston Sartin's across the street from NASA after her parents' Beaumont restaurant was destroyed by Hurricane Rita. The Houston eatery is the last to offer all-you-can-eat crabs.
Opened in 1911 in Murdoch's bathhouse at the 21st Street pier, Gaido's is a fourth-generation family heirloom. They don't serve crabs in the winter, and they don't serve oysters in the summer -- they buy what's in season. Like Antoine's in New Orleans, Gaido's is as much a museum as it is a restaurant. Photos on the walls document the restaurant's history through menus, newspaper clippings and photos of celebrity patrons. The food isn't trendy, but some of the dishes invented there, such as Wade's shrimp bisque, have been on the menu for decades. Be forewarned: Gaido's can be great if you stick to the local seafood and avoid anything fried. But the service is glacial when the place is crowded, just like at those old classic restaurants in the Big Easy.
You judge a barbecue joint by its smoked meat. And the best comes from a real pit. The old cinder-block pit in Thelma's on Live Oak ought to be declared a historic landmark. The design was brought to Houston by the legendary Joe Burney of Beaumont back in the '20s. Harry Green, and other Houston barbecue legends who learned the trade from Burney, built pits like this in several Third Ward locations. When Harlon's bought Green's old location on Almeda this past summer, the first thing they did was to take a sledgehammer to the cinder-block barbecue pit. In its place, they installed a stainless-steel contraption. Drexler's on Dowling did the same thing a couple of years ago. The new stainless-steel barbecue ovens, with their gas and electric heating and automatic operation, are convenient for restaurant owners, but the virtual barbecue they produce doesn't measure up to the old-fashioned pit 'cue at honest-to-God joints like Thelma's.
Doozo Dumplings and Noodles
There are many opinions as to what makes Doozo's dumplings so good. "It's the dough," one source says. "The dough is handmade." "Definitely the sauce," says another. "You don't have to bother with the spicy one, because the regular is so good." Really, Doozo has hit on a combination of all good things. The dough is substantial without being chewy, and the sauces -- regular and spicy -- are a welcome change from the create-your-own variety at most dumpling places. The pork version is flavorful, and the vegetable dumplings are the best of their kind. The atmosphere and location (a food court in the middle of downtown) can be an obstacle unless you work nearby, but Doozo is definitely worth the trip. Make sure that trip is on the early side of lunch, though, because when the dumplings are gone, you're out of luck.
Sangria, although simple to make, can be a tricky thing; it's often too sweet or tastes too much like a glass of cheap red wine. Bossa's sangria is fruity and just sweet enough without going over the top, and it's served in a pint glass with crushed ice and wedges of orange and lime. Although not traditional sangria (there's pineapple juice in it), it's refreshing and a great deal. (A very honorable mention goes to RA Sushi for its multicultural approach to this classic drink. After a few glasses of the fusion beverage that is Sake Sangria, you'll feel one step closer to world peace.)
We always remember to bring our own beer to Vieng Thai, because food this hot doesn't taste right without it. If only we could bring our own air conditioner! The restaurant, a former Asian grocery store with scuffed concrete floors and a malfunctioning a/c, is short on ambience and long on authentic Thai flavors. The green papaya slaw is the best you'll ever have. (Try the Laotian version with purple crab sauce if you're feeling daring.) The tom kha gai chicken soup with lemongrass, lime juice and kaffir lime is very sour and extremely piquant. If you don't like exotic dishes, extremely hot peppers and really pungent fish sauce, then do the rest of us a favor and go eat somewhere else -- you can get sweet and sticky Americanized Thai food all over town. We hope Vieng Thai never compromises.
Lee's Sandwiches
Lee's is a sandwich mecca, bread factory and dessert carnival, all under one roof. Open 24 hours every day, Lee's serves up a large variety of Vietnamese and traditional American sandwiches for $1.85 to $2.15. If that's not enough to get you sprinting to this Chinatown spectacle, they also bake their baguettes behind a wall of glass in a Willy Wonka-esque contraption that seems to be in perpetual use. With all the money you save on your sandwich, you can indulge in some killer Vietnamese iced coffee or tiny custard-filled snacks called delimanjoo, which are also baked on the premises. If you're in a hurry, there are drive-thru and walk-up windows to get you on your way, but we recommend sticking around and taking in the neon-studded scenery.
Bodard Bistro
Photo by Houston Press Staff
Bodard Bistro is a 24-hour fast-food joint that serves pho, mi, all kinds of noodles and Vietnamese sandwiches. (The sandwiches are an incredible deal -- buy two and get one free.) The restaurant is usually packed at lunch and dinnertime, and people wait in line for a table here while a half-dozen other Asian restaurants in the same center sit empty. Try the fabulous stir-fried flat rice noodles, broad white rice noodles folded over each other and then fried into a thick, crusty oval and topped with your choice of chicken, beef or shrimp. The noodle portions are extremely generous, so there are always leftovers. We love the big plate of steaming hot lo mein, but we also like to eat it cold, right out of a Styrofoam box while standing in front of the refrigerator.
Cafe Montrose
They're not curly, they're not seasoned, not wedged, not shoestring, not waffled, but they are some damn good fries. Crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, Cafe Montrose's french fries actually taste like the potatoes whence they came. In the Belgian tradition, these fries are meant to accompany the wide variety of mussels on the menu. They're served with white vinegar, mayo and ketchup, but taste best when dipped in the sauce that came with your mussels. (We recommend the escargot butter.) Or go straight for fries and one of their exceptional desserts.
Pappas Bros. Steakhouse
There are only a handful of steak houses in the city that offer dry-aged USDA Prime, and Pappas Bros. Steakhouse has more of them than anybody else. Granted, the dark-paneled men's-club atmosphere is getting a little dated, as is the whole cigar-lounge thing. Newer steak houses such as the Strip House offer much more imaginative side dishes. And the gender-neutral Fleming's has a much better deal on wines. But in the category of old-school chop houses, Pappas Bros. is tops -- as long as you're willing to spend the money. There's no point in going here on the cheap: Try to spend less than $100 on a bottle of wine and you can expect to be sneered at while you slurp it down warm. To really enjoy the place, you've got to pop for $80 on two good steaks, $20 for a couple of sides and desserts, and at least $150 for a wine they actually keep in the wine cellar. With the tip, a first-class dinner with no appetizers will run you a minimum of $300. If you still feel flush after that, they have Louis XIII cognac at $500 a glass.

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