Under The Volcano
Let's hope the new management of the Cotton Exchange Bar brings back their once-legendary mint julep. Offering premium spirits, elephant ear-sized mint leaves and a special silver tumbler, the club served the best in town. Until that happens, we'll stick with the mixmasters at Under the Volcano. Every barkeep at the hut-looking lounge in Rice Village is adept at perfectly muddling the mint leaves and blending the oh-so-right mix of Maker's Mark, ice, soda or water (if that's your thing) and a sift of sugar. All that's missing from this Southern experience is the expensive seersucker suit and a certain annual horse race.
Barnaby's Cafe
Photo by Houston Press Staff
Not many salads can last for three meals, but Barnaby's chicken Mediterranean salad does it consistently. The whole affair starts with a massive plate of shredded lettuce. Then come the thin, crunchy red onions, slices of roma tomatoes, some plump black olives and a mound of seasoned chicken, thinly shredded. The dome of salad is topped with a generous helping of feta and served with a side of zesty, zingy and creamy vinaigrette. The perfect dish for a heath-conscious diet, it's hearty, light and refreshing and makes for a great next-day lunch -- and dinner.
Taqueria El Charro
Dawn M Simmons
El Charro's flagship location on Harrisburg is seconds away from the center of downtown, making it a popular destination for those in need of breakfast tacos. But what puts this full-service taqueria head and shoulders above the rest is an extensive menu that also includes barbacoa, lengua, fajitas, carne guisada, pork al pastor and chicken -- all hot off the grill and not getting soggy in a steam table. Get your choice of fillings in soft tacos, burritos, gorditas or tortas (sandwiches). Take them to go, or sit down in a dining room decorated with cowboys and horses. (Charro means "cowboy" in Spanish.) A larger El Charro location at 6700 Harrisburg has eclipsed the old place in popularity at lunchtime, but there's new management at the original location and, judging by the fresh, sizzling taquitos they're now turning out, the new jefe is making good on his promise to return the old taco stand to its former glory.
Few portable breakfasts can rival the chorizo-and-egg breakfast taco. Problem is, you're likely to suffer a coronary after the second one, they're so drenched with oil and grease. Not so with the version at Brothers Taco House. The venerable little East End stand offers a version of this breakfast staple that's not weighed down with fat. The tortillas are massive, the eggs are fluffy, and you won't need heart meds after eating the sausage. Other offerings, such as the eggs with bacon or potato, also satisfy without constricting your valves. Owner Jesus Alejandro watches the lines form at his eatery just after it opens at 5 a.m. Downtown regulars from every social, ethnic and fiscal background chat while they line up to place their orders, sit at the outdoor patio and enjoy one of the best breakfasts in the city. We're proud to have these Brothers in the family.
Kenny & Ziggy's Delicatessen Restaurant
At Kenny and Ziggy's, it's not just about the sandwiches -- although a certain sense of accomplishment follows packing away a pound of corned beef. It's really about the comfort food. The chicken soup with kreplach is the best way to make it through flu season, and the chopped liver is classic. From blintzes to potato latkes with applesauce, all of the traditional deli fare appears on the menu. If you make it to dessert, cheesecake is the obvious choice. But if you're too full to move, grab a loaf of the chocolate babka or a dozen rugelach for the road.
The Original Marini's Empanada House
The Marini family started their storefront shop in the early '70s, and they've been a Houston favorite ever since. Three generations of this Argentine family have been serving up fresh, flaky dough with authentic, traditional fillings. And some not-so-traditional fillings (nacho empanadas, anyone?). Looking for dinner? Try the ground beef with olives and onions. Want some dessert? Try the sweet bananas with nuts and raisins. And the outdoor patio is a great place to people-watch while you chow down.

Best Place to Skip Dinner and Have Dessert

Ruggles Cafe Bakery

The rows of cakes, tarts, pies and puddings displayed at Ruggles might look modest at first, but they're some of the best desserts Houston has to offer. This substance-over-style approach is commendable, especially since not one of their 20 or so offerings has ever been a disappointment. The white chocolate bread pudding and Reese's pie are exceptional, and most of the desserts are so large and rich that they're difficult to finish without help. The staff here is friendly and efficient, so although the line out the door might look discouraging, it moves quickly. Another great thing about these desserts is that if you order them to go, the sauces and garnishes are packaged separately, so you can explore your inner artist at home.
Dolce Vita Pizzeria & Enoteca
The pies at Dolce Vita are a thing of beauty: The toppings are unusual, generous and full of flavor, and the superb quality of the meats, cheeses and produce makes it hard to go wrong. Sauce is used sparingly, and the crust is thin and crispy and a little chewy -- a wood-burning oven makes all the difference here. Some combinations, such as the Taleggio, arugula, pear and truffle oil, are so memorable that we sometimes discuss them at length with total strangers. The margherita pizza, covered with buffalo mozzarella and basil, makes you think you're sitting in a pizzeria in Florence. And you'll wish you never had to leave.
Cafe Piquet
Photo by Houston Press Staff
Legendary salsa star Celia Cruz made her way to Cafe Piquet every time she visited Houston, and it's easy to understand why. Made-from-scratch food, a stylish atmosphere and attentive service -- all staples here -- have made this a haven for Cuban-Americans in search of a taste of home. Don't let the strip-mall exterior fool you; inside, it's all low-key sophistication, kid-friendly without sacrificing a grown-up atmosphere. For starters, try the croquetas or yucca frita. The empanadas are also a favorite with regulars. For hearty appetites, try the masitas fritas or the ropa vieja. And don't forget to leave room for a little Cuban coffee or a serving of tres leches for dessert.
There's so much to do at the Rainbow Lodge that lunch might be an afterthought. Stroll through the lush grounds overlooking Buffalo Bayou. Visit the pond and gazebo, where many have celebrated their nuptials. Smell the herbs in the garden. Then enter the old lodge, examine the stuffed hunting trophies on the wall or check out the collection of antique outboard motors. Linger in the Tied-Fly lounge, closely examining the hand-carved bar, which resembles a busy trout stream. Sneak a peek in the wine steward's room, which is the finest place in town to enjoy a private, intimate dinner for up to six. Examine the wines. Take a look at the rotisserie, where meats are roasted on the spit. Examine the many levels of the restaurant with its nooks and crannies. Then, and only then, focus on the menu, which leans toward wild game and Texas Gulf Coast cuisine. By the time you've enjoyed your tour and meal, you will have passed an enjoyable afternoon.

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