Darband Shish Kabob
Photo by Houston Press staff
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.
Cafe Malay
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.
The Capital Grille
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.
Da Marco
Photo by Houston Press staff
A recent expansion means more tables and more room to move at Da Marco -- which is a welcome change, since the dining room was sometimes a little too intimate. But whatever the seating plan, Houston is lucky to have an Italian restaurant this good. Chef Marco Wiles has adapted Mario Batali's cutting-edge concepts to the ingredients and sensibilities of the Gulf Coast. We get fig compote and fig gelato when the local fruit is in season. And we get fresh area treats such as Gulf shrimp alongside rare imported ingredients like branzini, flown in from Italy. We also get a wine list with both big-dollar Barolos and inexpensive discoveries from Slovenia. It all adds up to a world-class restaurant experience. Even better, Da Marco practices true democracy at the reservations desk. The restaurant once refused to stay open late to accommodate Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. So you know that River Oaks riffraff waving fifties won't be seated before folks with legitimate reservations.
Jazzie Cafe
"Jazzie Cafe Famous Hot Wings and Po-Boys," reads the sign on top of the newly painted red, blue and yellow building on 19th Street near Beall. And if they're not famous yet, maybe they will be someday. Jazzie's sweet-hot chile chicken wings are coated with a thick sauce that tastes like a combination of oranges, hoisin and Vietnamese ground chiles. They aren't served with celery and blue cheese dressing, and with these Asian flavors, fried rice would probably be a better accompaniment, anyway. And the staff can fix you up with all the fried rice you need: There are three kinds on the menu, along with poor boys, gumbo and boudin. This sort of Cajun-Asian fusion comes naturally to owner Beth Nguyen, a Louisiana Vietnamese-American who opened Jazzie Cafe after she realized she wasn't going back to New Orleans anytime soon. There are two tables and a walk-up counter inside the tiny establishment, but mostly people stop by and pick up their wings and poor boys to go.
Taqueria Tacambaro
There are two salsas available at this taco truck located behind Canino Produce on Airline. One is iridescent green with a tart tomatillo base and the fiery flavor of fresh serranos; it's superb on chicken gorditas and on the sublime tacos de tripita (tripe). The other sauce is a deep, dark chocolate-colored salsa that looks like it's going to be hellishly hot, but turns out to be astonishingly rich and mellow. Head chef Maria Rojas says it's made with nothing more than cascabel chiles. The dried cascabels are soaked until soft, pureed and lightly seasoned with salt, pepper and maybe a touch of garlic. It's a purist's salsa with a simple but deep chile flavor. Try it on the fabulous sweetbread tacos for a gourmet taco-truck treat.
Churrascos
The signature dish there is, what else, churrasco, a charcoal-grilled, center-beef tenderloin steak. From a petite six-ounce serving to a platter-sized 16-ounce slab, these are some of the best steaks in town. But there are plenty of other tasty delights to be sampled at Churrascos as well, including doblones (chargrilled salmon with an achiote-shrimp salsa) and the "owner's cut" (filet mignon served with fire-roasted pasilla sauce and goat cheese salsa). The side dishes are just as delicious -- grilled lobster tail, jalapeos and onions flambed tableside, and yucca empanadas with cilantro dressing. The restaurant also serves Sunday brunch and hosts a series of special wine dinners, during which a different wine accompanies each of four courses. All this in a sophisticated but low-key atmosphere with excellent service.

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