El Pupusodromo No. 1
Houston's Spanish-speaking community includes a great many people from El Salvador. If you need verification, just look for a pickup ftbol game at Hermann Park or hit a pupuseria, the Salvadoran answer to the taqueria. El Pupusdromo is easily the most successful Salvadoran chain in town, and with good reason: The pupusas, thick corn tortillas stuffed with refried beans, chicharrones (pork cracklings), cheese or any combination thereof, are made fresh and delicious. And at $1.50 each, all you need do is spoon on some cortido (spicy pickled cabbage and carrots) and you're in highly affordable heaven. The many and varied dishes offer an authentic taste of this Central American culture. Salcipon (diced beef stew with onions and mint), camarones a la criolla (shrimp with sauted onions and peppers), sopa de mondongo (beef foot and tripe soup) and tropical breakfasts with pltanos refritos y crema (fried plantains and a type of crme frache) will transport you far south of the border.
In the same strip center as a Conoco gas station, on a block full of car repair shops and import stores, Casablanca hides behind a narrow wall of shiny windows, reflecting southwest Houston's grunge. But step inside, and the bleak atmosphere gives way to cheerful walls of tangerine and lime. This is probably Houston's best-kept Mediterranean secret -- a redoubt of conviviality where well-dressed Moroccans quaff shot glasses of mint tea, speak French around tile-inlaid tables and watch Arab-language television. But, just as important, Casablanca serves as a bastion of cooking good enough to make an Atlas grandma weep. Everything is fresh -- so fresh, in fact, that by late evening the cook often scratches half the dishes off the menu. Try the lamb tagine with saffron sauce ($6.99), in which a rich broth infuses a perfectly roasted lamb shank and an apron of potatoes, peas, black olives and caramelized onions. Other dishes faithfully incorporate traditional green olives, pickled lemon halves, manioc and yams. The moist couscous, infused with meat stock, butter and cumin, is excellent. Try it with a marinated meat or the delightful merguez, the best Moroccan sausage you'll find in the city.
If the Goddess of Pimento Cheese does not sound like a glamorous title, then you've never had Janice Schindler's pimento cheese. The former food editor of The Houston Post and the Houston Chronicle whips up a concoction that will make you forever forget that pale, pinkish spread found in convenience-store sandwiches. It's a recipe partly developed with Elouise Adams Jones of Ouisie's Table, and it regularly brings devotees to the Bayou City Farmers Market hoping to score a serving before it runs out. The farmers market runs from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesdays and 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays on Eastside Avenue between Richmond and Alabama. But don't go there at quarter to seven or ten to 12 expecting to get the city's best pimento cheese. It'll be long gone by then.
Coco Crepes, Waffles & Coffee
Stephanie Meza
It used to be that crepes and Houston went together like tea parties and Hummers. Maybe that hasn't changed, but at least Houston now has an actual creperie -- and a good one at that. CoCo's Crepes & Coffee, which opened last year, serves a savory crepe that would make a San Franciscan or Parisian barista proud. The flour wrappers don't crack or obscure the contents with too much heaviness. The crepe made with goat cheese, spinach and roasted red peppers is simple, delicious and a great deal at $4.90. For a dollar more, try a crepe filled with caramelized onions and Moroccan sausage. It's plenty for a meal, whether it's for breakfast or, as is popular in San Francisco, lunch. Sweet dessert crepes include peach with vanilla gelato, raspberry crme and the ever-iconic Nutella. With free Wi-Fi, shaded tables on a brick sidewalk and great cakes and coffee, CoCo's is the kind of place you never want to leave.
The uninitiated, the experienced, the displaced natives and the seriously hungry alike all find solace in the wide array of offerings of this Middle Eastern/Mediterranean buffet. Diners looking for culinary standards are more than pleased with the falafels and kabobs, and heartier appetites are appeased by the shredded beef and lamb shanks. The heart-healthy do well with a variety of vegetables, including Dimassi's eggplant (baked in "pomegranate mosses," peppers and olive oil), spinach (an aromatic baked concoction with onion, garlic, cilantro and chickpeas), fatoosh (onion, tomatoes, lemon juice, olive oil and mint) and a choice of salads.
Kim Son
There's always a huge crowd on hand at Kim Son's Stafford location on Saturday and Sunday mornings, so you might have to sit outside and wait for a table. But it's worth it; the selection of dim sum there is the best in the city. But no matter how well you order at Kim Son, there's always one incredibly alluring item that rolls by on the cart after everybody is stuffed and you've closed out the bill. It might be the brown mushroom-capped meatballs, the eggplant stuffed with shrimp paste, the pork dumplings with quail eggs inside, or the clams in black bean sauce that leave you wishing you had been more selective. Relax. With more than 70 items available each week and a repertoire of more than 100 dim sum dishes, you'll probably never be able to sample everything. And that's what keeps you going back.
Open for dinner Thursday through Saturday nights only, this red-checkered-tablecloth Italian restaurant caters to theater and concert hall patrons eating a pre-performance meal. The prices are reasonable, the food can be good, and the atmosphere is friendly and fun. Order fresh-tasting dishes off the daily special board -- grilled salmon and spinach salad or gnocchi in blue cheese sauce -- rather than more mundane menu items such as baked lasagna and cannelloni. At lunchtime, Perbacco switches to counter service and serves up fast, tasty and inexpensive lunches to the downtown crowd. Best Drive-Thru If the world had a clue, KFC would not be colonizing Latin American plazas, Chinese malls and Parisian boulevards. Instead, everyone would bow down to Frenchy's, and the Third Ward institution would consummate its global chicken empire with a gleaming skyscraper in downtown Houston. Alas, we live in a world of fools, a place where Frenchy's is consigned to a dingy shack plagued by flies and homeless people, a place where white kids from the adjacent University of Houston are too scared to walk up to the stainless-steel counter and order the three-piece "college special." (With red beans and rice, a biscuit, a jalapeo, a strawberry drink and a peach cobbler, it's doubtless one of the best meals money can buy anywhere.) The birds are crunchy and juicy and Creole-spiced in a way that makes Popeyes look like a Bourbon Street tourist trap. Fortunately, the Frenchy's drive-thru window spreads the gospel. Patrons posting to the foodie Web site B4-U-EAT.com talk of bringing home 50 to 75 wings at a time. With a drive-thru wait that can stretch upwards of 45 minutes, you'd best stock up when you can.
Shri Balaji Bhavan Pure Vegetarian Restaurant
Jeff Balke
Bang doesn't really do it justice. It's more like kaboom! An explosion of sambar masala piquancy attracts crowds to Balaji Bhavan faster than moths to a blaze. Devotees of a good chole (chick peas in tomato sauce), rasam (a thin soup with tamarind) and rava masala dhosa (a crepe stuffed with seasoned tomatoes and onions) will find the heat complemented with a full bouquet of spices, usually for less than the price of an Extra Value Meal at McDonald's. Almost everything on the menu at this South Indian joint is under $5. The excellent dal fry with chapati -- a dal mixed with aromatic ajwain spice cooked in oil -- is only $2.99. The breads are always freshly made, and they come free with many dishes. The ever-popular Madras thali, a plate of seven delicious items served on a stainless-steel platter, is $4.99, probably the best lunch deal in the city.
Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (BAPS)
Indian desserts are harder to find than Indian curries, but they're no less important to Indians. Anyone who has seen Deepa Mehta's film Water knows that a saccharine gulab jamun can be transcendent. And no place makes better dessert for the soul than one of the area's authorities on matters of the soul: the Swaminarayan temple. "We always use very pure ingredients," explains temple volunteer Naresh Gadhiya, "because it is the order of our spirituality." It's also the best way to ensure that the anjir bahar you're ordering explodes with nutty, fruity, milky goodness. Houston Gujaratis (North Indians known for their sweet tooth) say it's hard to go wrong with the temple's offerings, which can be catered. Classic favorites from the subcontinent include buttery magas, barfi (it tastes much better than it sounds) and shrikhand -- sweetened, condensed yogurt liberally flavored with saffron and ground pistachio. Eat some in view of the ornately hand-carved granite temple; you could just as well be in the heart of India.
Zydeco Louisiana Diner
Hosting a group of Katrina evacuees last year, Zydeco quickly won them over with its stellar gumbo and red beans and rice. This joint can hang with most any Cajun place on the Gulf Coast. But what really packs in the business crowd every day are the divided plates heaped, cafeteria-style, with meat and sides. Aside from the excellent smothered pork chops and fried chicken, "meat" is construed in the liberal Cajun sense -- crawfish touffe and chicken-and-sausage jambalaya, to be sure, but also cosmopolitan inventions such as a sweet, tomato-based salmon Creole. Everything delivers. The sides can wipe out all but the most ravenous patrons. The mashed potatoes are fresh, the green beans creamy, the okra stewed and savory. Top it all off with a moist slice of corn bread -- regular, or jalapeo. With so much goodness, one wonders if Zydeco could be one reason so many New Orleans expatriates are staying put in Houston.

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