Dawn McGee
The Kelley's Grand Slam breakfast is spread out over three plates -- there's a monster chicken-fried steak on the first, three eggs and your choice of grits or hash browns on the second, and an oversize biscuit with a bowl of gravy on the third. Those looking for lighter fare might opt for the Country Boy breakfast, which comes in a cast-iron skillet containing a whole pound of country ham. The extensive breakfast menu also includes such Texas classics as chili and eggs and huevos rancheros. Order the pancakes and take home the leftovers -- the short stack will feed a family of three for a week. The best seats in the huge high-ceilinged restaurant are in the "bikers only" dining room up front. Bikers, cops and seniors all get special treatment at Kelley's, perhaps because owner Jim Kelley is a retired motorcycle cop.
Robert Z. Easley
What sets apart the nachos at El Tiempo are the toppings: You can choose from brisket, chorizo, veggies, carnitas, fajitas, crabmeat and shrimp. The waitstaff is very accommodating, so if you want to mix it up, they're happy to combine ingredients, add stuff or go half and half -- perfect for those who have issues with decision-making. The shrimp-and-crabmeat nachos are excellent, especially after the addition of bacon. But be sure you have plenty of help eating them, or you'll never make it to the entre.
Jeff Balke
It's called mofongo; that's Puerto Rican for a great plantain dish. Don't go looking for a "heart-healthy" sign on the menu for this one, and once you read the list of ingredients, you'll understand why. A mortar is filled with garlic, chicharrn (the fatty, crispy kind, not pork rinds), olive oil and plantains, then the ingredients are ground together with a pestle until they're well incorporated. The resulting mass is shaped into a ball, which is then fried. The result is a crispy, heavy, pork-flavored mash resembling mashed potatoes. It can be an appetizer or a side dish, but whenever you eat it, the memory will linger for a long time.
If you have trouble thinking of Hooters, that steamy hotbed of sexual titillation, as a family restaurant, odds are you aren't a regular. Poke your head inside the front door of a Houston Hooters location, and you're likely to see quite a few kids -- and a lot of hot waitresses doting on them. What are kids doing at Hooters? Well, it's not their moms who're bringing them -- it's their dads, especially the divorced ones. The restaurant features guy foods like wings, burgers and ribs, and lots of television sets all tuned to sports. There's a full bar with great drink specials, and then there are the Hooter girls, the best-looking baby-sitters in town. A few months of the year, Hooters runs a "kids eat free on Wednesdays" promotion. It's probably just a coincidence that the standard visitation times for divorced dads are Wednesday nights and every other weekend.
Photo by J.C. Reid
Darband Shish Kabob specializes in -- what else? -- kebabs. So it should come as no surprise that they offer a large selection, ranging from $5 to $7 per plate. Choose from among the kubdeh (ground beef), chengeh (lamb), shish (beef chunks), barg (beef sirloin strips) or chello (ground lamb). It's no coincidence that the chello, the national dish of Iran, is their best-seller. The well-seasoned lamb is formed around the skewer, then grilled over charcoal. When served, it looks like a foot-long sausage. An order consists of two skewers, along with basmati rice and two grilled tomatoes. The trick is to break the tomatoes over the rice to moisten it, then cut up the meat and enjoy the wonderful blending of flavors. A nice cup of tea is offered to all guests at the end of the meal.
In a sprawling city of international cuisines, Cafe Malay offers the best choice for Malayasian food. The roti canai (nan-like fried dough) with curry chicken dipping sauce is particularly good, as is the Malaysian eggplant. The satay, chicken Hainan and chicken sambal are flavorful, too, but the real strong suit of this place is the fish. Steamed or fried and served on the bone, on most nights the fish is on every table. For dessert, the fresh whole coconut is a popular and dexterously challenging choice. In fact, many dishes here are delivered via coconut -- and what's more fun than that?
Handmade, one-inch-wide ribbon pasta, handmade fennel-laced, spicy sausage (made by "Mr. C," Johnny Carrabba's father), sweet red peppers, onions, tomatoes, a big slice of goat cheese that slowly melts as you eat the dish, creamy sauce, lots of Parmesan cheese...Need we say more about the Pappardelle Campagnolo? This fettuccine's name comes from the Italian word pappare, which means "to gobble up." And that's precisely what you'll do with this entre. It comes in a huge bowl, with enough to share. Assuming, of course, that you'd consider such a thing.
Tasty tapas, an award-winning paella, an affordable wine list, the use of many homemade and imported ingredients and unparalleled European hospitality from the Spanish chef and owner make this the best in town. Homemade ingredients include a delicious, soft cow's-milk cheese, sweet quince jelly and a wonderful chorizo. From Spain they import the rice, white asparagus, Serrano ham, all their cheeses, anchovies, olives, oil and sardines, among other things. And if you like what you taste, load up: They sell 'em all by the pound. Live music on weekends and a nice outdoor dining area add to the delightful atmosphere. The gambas al ajillo and empanadas are among the best hot tapas, while the pate de salmon and queso de burgos are the best of the cold offerings. The restaurant's pera rioja, a pear soaked in Rioja wine, is legendary.
Photo by Houston Press Staff
Nothing says "big spender" like a big hunk of meat, a big, expensive wine and a big cigar. There's no place better to blow a couple of Gs on two people than at The Capital Grille, that clubby bastion of the expense account crowd, the ultimate meat market. Start out at the bar by sipping some Auchentoshan 21-year-old single malt ($24 a shot). Move to your table and order a magnum of Joseph Phelps Insignia 2001/2002 champagne ($505) followed by a bottle of Chteau Mouton-Rothschild, Pauillac, 1995 ($640). For your appetizer, a cold shellfish platter ($44), and for the main course, a dry-aged, hand-sculpted, steak lover's dream -- a 24-ounce porterhouse with both the filet and sirloin ($48) along with some au gratin potatoes ($9), creamed spinach ($7) and roasted mushrooms ($10). For a final flourish, a flourless chocolate espresso cake ($6.50), a snifter of Rmy Martin Louis XIII cognac ($195) and, of course, a Padrn Aniversario cigar ($45). Just don't forget your credit card.
The coconut almond cream cheese tart at Tart Cafe contains almost everything people love, with the exception of chocolate. The dessert has a thick pastry shell, giving it the appearance of a mini-quiche at least an inch thick and four inches in diameter. The moist coconut cream cheese is mixed with a delicious almond paste in such a way that each of the flavors is distinguishable. Get one early in the morning, and you won't be able to stop thinking about it all day long.

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