Phoenicia Specialty Foods

At Phoenicia's grill counter, there are five varieties of fresh-cooked kabobs available. As an American, you will probably want to order the big beef cubes, lamb chunks or chicken pieces. But the best choice here is the nasty-looking, gray, ground-meat kabobs. The highly seasoned minced meat on the lamb kofte and beef kofte kabobs comes out tasting like spicy sausage. Get one on a pita sandwich for $4.95 and don't forget to ask for extra garlic mayo. You can pay in the "food court" or at the front registers. If you're getting your kabob to go, pay up front — that way you can also hit the olive bar, which offers 99 kinds of olives plus artichoke hearts, hummus, tabouli, baba ganoush, tapenade, walnut and pomegranate spread, and countless other treats. And everything is several dollars a pound cheaper than at Whole Foods.

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You wouldn't think of going to a restaurant called Tofu Village for the barbecue — but in fact Korean barbecue is a specialty here. The Korean approach to tofu is nothing short of astonishing. Like the soft and comforting potatoes in the middle of a bowl of fiery curry, or the neutral tortilla that holds the picante taco meat, the soon tofu (fresh tofu) at Tofu Village is a deliciously bland counterpoint to a host of enticing hot and spicy flavors. The fact that there are so few tofu dishes made without meat makes this tofu restaurant a poor choice for vegetarian diners, but it's a great place for everybody else. The Asian-modern interior design is pretty impressive, compared to the hokey happy-kitty decor you often see in Korean joints. The walls are decorated with oversize posters of young Korean movie stars and pop singers. Get a barbecue and soon tofu combination, and you'll agree that Tofu Village is raising the bar for Korean food in this town.

Spanish Flower Mexican Restaurant
Jeff Balke

Often, late-night dining comes down to sheer convenience: Where can you find a place that's open at 3 a.m. to head that hangover off at the pass or keep you going as you pull an all-nighter? And more often than not, convenience completely trumps taste. At Spanish Flowers, however, neither is sacrificed. Spanish Flowers is that rare late-night restaurant where patrons also line up for food during the day. Open 24 hours, the place serves consistently delicious food no matter when you drag yourself in. Piping hot, freshly made tortillas and bright, kicky salsa will go a long way toward perking up the evening, while the thick, creamy queso del mar or dusky enchiladas mole will soak up all the evening's alcohol left in your stomach while tasting amazing at the same time.

Big Star Bar

According to the Press's own clubs guide, "Chances are if you can clearly remember leaving Big Star at the end of the night, you didn't actually have a good time at Big Star." And chances are if you can't clearly remember leaving Big Star — or remember leaving at all — you may have been indulging in one of the Heights hot spot's custom shots. UK visitors are welcome to throw back all the Billy Idols or Rebel Yells they (or their friends) can stand, but we'll take the Houston Oiler, because after a few of these Columbia blue kamikazes, we start dancing like Billy "White Shoes" Johnson. Careful with the similarly colored Marvin Zindlers, though — one too many and you will be feeling like slime in the ice machine the next day.

Beaver's
Photo by Houston Press Staff

It's difficult to pick a favorite from the small menu at Beaver's ever since Jonathan Jones took over as head chef, which is truly a sign of an extraordinary kitchen. But it's the unassuming macaroni and cheese which shines, and which makes every other macaroni and cheese dish in Houston tremble in its ramekins. A generous serving is enough for two people, but you won't want to share. The corkscrew pasta isn't your typical elbow macaroni style, all the better to hold the thick, creamy parmesan and cheddar sauce in its nooks and crannies. The icing on the cake, so to speak, is the crunchy sprinkling of toasted bread crumbs on top, giving a subtle bite to the mac 'n' cheese and giving you something extra to savor along the way.

Bodegas Taco Shop
Photo by Houston Press Staff

An unlikely location on the ground floor of a medical building in the Museum District hasn't stopped the young Bodega's Taco Shop from making a splash in the already crowded Tex-Mex market. The food itself (think upscale Chipotle) is good, but people flock here for the dazzling array of delicious fresh-fruit margaritas. All the margaritas (the ones on the rocks, that is) are made to order with only three ingredients: a freshly squeezed orange, two freshly squeezed limes and your choice of more than 80 different tequilas. And while the margaritas are amazing on their own, adding one of a dozen other available fruit juices for only 20 cents more pushes Bodega's to the top of the list. Although the mango and guava margaritas are easy choices, the surprisingly good tamarind flavor is not to be missed.

Tampico Seafood and Cocina Mexicana
Jeff Balke

There are a lot of Mexican restaurants in Texas, but there aren't a lot of ostionerías, or Mexican oyster bars, outside of Houston. And since seafood is what makes the food in Houston great, we figured it was about time to recognize our favorite ostionería, Tampico on Airline. Named after the seaside city on the Gulf Coast, this oyster bar and grill has brought the best of Mexico's seafood traditions to the North side. You never have to wonder what kind of fish you are eating here — you buy a whole fish from the bed of ice and pay for it by the pound. The cocteles are schooners full of shrimp, octopus and raw oysters mixed up with lime juice, onions, tomatoes, avocado pieces and cilantro in a ketchup-based cocktail sauce. To eat them Mexican style, add hot pepper sauce, then scoop some seafood onto a saltine cracker. Great with a michelada.

Fadi's Mediterranean Grill

The food here may be served cafeteria-style, but it tastes gourmet. Diners line up along a sea of troughs stretching along two walls of the restaurant, each brimming with Middle Eastern delights. Pile your plate high with dolmas (grape leaves stuffed with rice, onions and tomatoes), tabouli and baba ghanoush, the dip made of roasted eggplant, tahini, lemon juice and olive oil. Then head to the meat counter and grab a kebab — beef, lamb or chicken — and a broiled lamb shank that's fall-off-the-bone tender and served in a gravy of carrots, red peppers and mushrooms. Top it all off with a piece of baklava, and you'll see why Fadi's is a local favorite.

Cheeburger Cheeburger

Cheeburger, Cheeburger makes a big production out of its milk shakes. There are something like 75 flavors of ice cream, and every milk shake comes with two straws and a spoon. Get the large size and ask for the double chocolate flavor — malted. Then be prepared to have your milk shake stolen by the rest of your dining companions. If you remember chocolate malts, this one will make tears of nostalgia well up in your eyes. If you have never tried one, you are in for a treat. Cheeburger, Cheeburger takes its name from the Saturday Night Live routine. "They said 'No Coke, Pepsi' all the time, and that's why we have no Coke, only Pepsi products," the teen-age waiters chirp with big phony smiles. Located in the Vintage Park Shopping Center at the Louetta exit off Highway 249, this outpost of a Florida-based gourmet hamburger franchise is decorated in pink neon and stainless steel to mimic a vintage neighborhood joint of the 1950s. John Belushi would have hated the place.

Cafe Rita

The spicy Middle Eastern food at Cafe Rita is spectacular — eating here is like going over to your Armenian grandparents' house for lunch. George Sarikhanian, the gregarious cashier/owner, is a friendly bear with a bald head and spectacles. His wife, Rita, is a smiling matron in an apron who never comes out of the kitchen. There are pictures of grandkids stuck all over the sides of the deli case, which is stuffed to overflowing with goodies. Rita prepares traditional breakfast foul — the ancient fava bean soup with lots of lemon and garlic. The foul is replaced in the afternoon by a peppery bean soup. George and Rita always have something cooking that's not on the menu. "Taste this, we don't make it all the time, you better get some while you can," George will say, stuffing your mouth with something wonderful as you stand in line. How can you say no?

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