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.
Call us purists, but we love enjoying a good mojito in distinctly South American environs. And when we want to sip on the pretty, minty cocktail and watch pretty people, we head to Arturo Boada's Beso (Spanish for "kiss"). Downtown scenesters, young professionals and hip South Americans flock to the restaurant, where the bubbly, effervescent Amy tends bar. With the efficiency of an assembly-line worker and the skill of a lab scientist (and the zeal of a cheerleader), she fills tall glasses with large fresh mint leaves and muddles them down. Then come the fresh lime juice, sugar, ice, light rum (Bacardi for a light refresher, or Meyers's Dark for a mellow sipper) and a splash of soda. For a fruitier spin, Amy whips up a berry mojito, featuring fresh raspberries and mint mixed with Citadel vodka. Want a little more sugar? Just ask Amy, who's got plenty herself. "I try not to touch the glass too much when I make them," she says with a giggle, "or they're too sweet to drink." Awwww.
Glass Wall, The Restaurant
Glass Wall is a great new American bistro just where we needed it most: in the restaurant-deprived Heights. Predictably, the eatery has been packed since it opened in early April. Lance Fegen, former co-owner of Zula and chef at Trevsio, has left behind the overwrought designs and menus of his previous ventures and found his own cleaner, simpler style. Fegen is a surfer, and "glass wall" is surfer slang for a big wave -- it's also the name of a 1965 Jim Freeman surfing movie. The restaurant's interior design, which is built around a wall of glass and black stones, is light and airy. The open kitchen, visible from anywhere in the restaurant, invites spectators. The menu is heavy on seafood, although, oddly, hardly any of it comes from the Gulf of Mexico. With meats garnished with butter, vegetables accented with bacon, and boldly flavored sauces, the food manages to be sophisticated and hearty at the same time. The wine list, though short, is composed of a spectacular array of hard-to-find bottles. The menu changes monthly, to take advantage of seasonal ingredients.
Greasy hamburgers, fries and chicken all have their devotees in this town, but if you want to try a place that has really earned its grease, look no further than Himalaya. At this Muslim-Indian joint, a massive dose of oil and meat fat carries off an equally massive dose of piquancy, perfectly blunting the sharper edges of a delicious bouquet of spices. Try the goat biryani; the rice glistens with tasty unctuousness, and the meat is so tender it falls off the bone. The saucy dishes (stick to the meat fare) carry off a vindaloo-like punch. This is no place for sissies. Plastic grease guards cover the wooden tables. Sweat and oil will stream from your pores. But when it comes to prospecting the heart-stopping outer limits of flavor, this place serves liquid gold.
The bass booms at the chic Zake Lounge, where Asian hipsters with asymmetrical hair mingle with Inner Loop hotties in halter tops and Montrose bohos in Birkenstocks. While amped-up dance versions of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" (huh?) and Paul Simon's "Call Me Al" (WTF?) throb overhead, regulars order chilled blue bottles of Moonstone Sake -- a sweet, smooth number with hints of peach -- and sip it from small, clear glasses. Others down Zipang, a sparkling, bubbly citrus sake that tastes like a fruity beer (or Sprite with a kick), from little black ceramic cups or straight from the bottle. High rollers nurse the more traditional (and way more expensive) Hakushika Chokara Dry, a full-bodied spirit. Can't let go of the brew? Try a Zake bomb. A colorful cup is filled with beer, and a cup within the cup is filled with sake. It's a great table shot, and a delicious way to learn sake with a chaser.
Griff's Houston
Much like a foamy pint of Guinness, a Bloody Mary is a drink that eats like a meal. And when you're faced with returning to the sober world on a Sunday morning -- but need a little help -- there are few better meals than a Bloody Mary. But the drink requires work: a dash of pepper, Tabasco, maybe some salt and the obligatory celery stick. Stagger into Griff's for Sunday Bloody Sundays, where the helpful folks will drop a generous helping of vodka in your glass and point you to the Bloody Mary bar. All you have to do is concoct. It's easy, what with the tomato juices, mix, Tabasco, celery salt and more. Garnish with pickles, asparagus, green beans, carrots and the good ol' celery stalk. Hell, it's basically an alcoholic salad. Bloody Sundays are only held during football season, so we suggest you show up early, mix your Mary and scream for the Texans.
Chinese Café
If the prospect of eating another bland box of Chinese-American takeout gives you a moo goo gai panic attack, then here's a fresh idea: real Chinese fast food in the heart of Chinatown. Near the long, spare counter, back-lit photos depict an assortment of dishes that are often vegetable-centric, well spiced and refreshingly free of glop. When the veggie's in season, the chicken with pea shoots -- a light, saucy dish with a hint of ginger -- is superb. The unique "eggplant with fish flavor" comes soft and bathed in chile oil. And the steamed whole tilapia fish with green herbs on top is an ever-popular favorite with the predominately Asian clientele; try it with tofu and a spicy sauce, if you want something heavier. The decor is clean and spare, the tea from a dispenser is free, and the service is brisk. It's a perfect spot for a quick meal, and well worth the drive to get there.
Khyber North Indian Grill
Jeff Balke
You can hear the slaps as soon as you walk in the door. The thuds emanate from behind the counter of Khyber North Indian Grill, where a chef painstakingly pounds dough into plate-size discs, which are then toasted in a tandoor oven. Out they come, steaming, delicately crisp on the surface and pillow-fluffy inside -- the perfect nan. By the time they arrive at your table wrapped in tissue and freshly buttered, they've completely stolen the show. Over the past decade, owner Mickey Kapoor's cuisine has been lauded for its "modern sensibility" and lambasted for being "Americanized." (In his defense, his restaurant is a favorite of British expats. And as any foodie can tell you, Brits know Indian food like we know Tex-Mex.) But the nan-- never greasy, soggy or too crispy -- has garnered universal praise. Whether stuffed with onions, pistachios or just served plain, Kapoor's breads -- like his kooky messages on Khyber's marquee ("Our karma will run over your dogma") -- are just plain addictive.
Tony's
Think you can't afford Tony's? Think again, for there's a bargain for the taking. Considering that the entres alone range from $12 to $32 for lunch, Tony's prix-fixe lunch (a.k.a. the Crescent Express) is quite the bargain. Just $17 gets you a three-course lunch with soup or salad (which change daily), a main course (which changes every two weeks or so) and dessert. A typical meal might include white bean and andouille sausage soup, Romano-crusted chicken breast over arugula and heirloom tomatoes, and a dessert of Valrhona chocolate ice cream and raspberry sorbet, which in itself is worth the price of admission.

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