The days of oil company executives spending a grand on lunch are over. Thanks to big auto execs taking private jets to big-bank bailout meetings and the whole Enron fiasco, downtown offices are spending more time at Café Express than places like The Coronado. To step inside this place is like stepping back into another era. Started in '56, The Coronado Club is still serving bacon-wrapped filet mignons and cobb salads. If the dress code doesn't keep you out, then not being a member will. But if you're an invited guest for, say, a Christmas party, then bask in the extravagant dining room. You'll be reminded that there was a day when the boss could take you out to lunch, drink three martinis and drop a bill just for a tip with — that's right — an expense account.

Photo by Houston Press Staff

When it's three o'clock in the morning and you have somehow managed to talk your designated driver into taking you to get something to eat to save your life, Chapultepec is your Tex-Mex ace in the hole, offering the cheapest breakfast in town. You can get huevos rancheros that may be some of the best in town and a cup of coffee for under three bucks. The bean and cheese enchiladas will do you right, too. Chapultepec is the real deal. You know you're going to get authentic Tex-Mex when you walk into a place at two in the morning and Latino disco is coming out of the jukebox.

As much as Houston loves barbecue, it's hard to find a consistently great spot for it. After all, it's fairly easy to mess it up. It's gotta be moist and tender with a smoky flavor, nice smoke ring and solid fat cap. Lose any of those components, and your smoker is sunk. Fortunately, Gatlin's BBQ is off the charts in every category. Housed in a tiny converted house on 19th Street in the Heights, Gatlin's is a Houston Proud kind of place. Owner Greg Gatlin is a graduate of St. Thomas High School, and he played football at Rice University. Now he mans the pits at Gatlin's, turning out incredible barbecue with gracious flair. The smoky brisket exudes flavor, gently pulling apart with the prodding of a plastic fork. It is meaty and moist, with a gorgeous smoke ring and obvious fat cap. But the ribs...Lord, the ribs. A lightly charred outside encases a tender, meaty interior. Sausage, too, is praiseworthy. Coleslaw and beans are standard fare, but the dirty rice is outstanding. And just to reinforce that homey feeling, be sure to get a hug from Mama Gatlin after your meal on your way out the door.

The 35 years that Sam's Deli Diner has been in business have only served to make this neighborhood burger joint more authentic and more beloved as time goes by. Since moving from its old location across the Katy Freeway a few years back, Sam's has spiffed up a bit but hasn't lost that scruffy charm that has always encouraged kids in wet bathing suits to ride their bikes over during the daily noon closure at the local swimming pools to get a scoop of ice cream, construction workers to take their lunch breaks in its booths or businessmen to tuck their tie into their shirts before digging into a greasy jalapeño cheeseburger. Grab a shake made from Blue Bell ice cream and crispy onion rings or marvelously crunchy seasoned fries to go with your burger. You can count calories at some other joint.

Not only does Zabak's serve some of the best Middle Eastern in town, the little Galleria-area restaurant also has some of the best service in the entire city. Run by the Zabak family, which originally hails from Lebanon, the restaurant specializes in the kind of light, crispy, savory falafel that will turn you from a falafel neophyte into a falafel snob in about six seconds flat. Also not to be missed is the brightly flavored spinach pie, the smoky baba ghanoush and the outstanding baklava. And if you can't decide what to order, don't worry: The helpful staff at the counter are always more than happy to suggest dishes they think you'd like...and they're usually right.

With a new executive chef at the helm, Cavour has become the place where Houstonians can experience a true Italian meal without dusting off our passports. With its ingredients shipped directly from Italy in the hands of Chef Renato De Pirro, Cavour offers diners meals typically found in Italy. This place offers great food, lovely decor and impeccable service.

Ginger Thai

The collection of old houses and other charmingly rag-tag buildings that lie hidden off a road near the Katy Freeway and Highway 6 is a surprising enough find in and of itself if you aren't a veteran west-sider. But the discovery of some of the city's best Thai food in the midst of all this is equally surprising. The young Ginger Thai, which opened earlier this year, does serve sushi in addition to the Thai food, but it's the latter that truly shines. Pad Thai isn't overly sweet or dumbed down for American palates, while the som tam is a vivid tangle of shredded green papaya, carrots and green beans in a citrusy-peanut sauce with just a hint of salty, sea-tinted brine that makes it one of the most alluring dishes in Houston on a hot day.

In the heart of old Bellaire lies one of the city's best restaurants, for Tex-Mex and for interior and coastal Mexican as well. Although Pico's, headed up by the venerated Arnaldo Richards, has been serving the neighborhood since 1984, the restaurant has always managed to fly just under the radar. It's never too full or too empty, the food is reliably delicious and Richards still pulls a few surprises out of his toque every now and then, like the soft-shell crab tacos that took the city by storm this past summer. With the weather cooling, it's the perfect time to grab a bowl of hot menudo — one dish that Pico's does better than any other in Houston — and relax with a margarita under the palapa-covered patio outside.

Best Pre- or Post-Theater Restaurant

The Grove

If there was ever a restaurant more fitted to a beautiful night out than The Grove, Houston hasn't built it yet. The rustic yet modern restaurant — in both design and menu — from Robert Del Grande and Lonnie Schiller, is the crown jewel of downtown's Discovery Green, with immense windows that overlook the verdant park and grand, cathedral-like ceilings. The Grove, headed by the talented young Ryan Pera, offers a three-course pre-theater menu for those dining out before a play at the Alley or an opera at the Wortham. And the menu doesn't skimp on food: The restaurant's Texas organic chicken, roasted with Yukon potatoes that are cooked with the chicken's drippings, is one of the best meals to be had anywhere in the city.

Jeff Balke
by Katharine Shilcutt

The bacalao y mofongo on my plate at Tex-Chick is a brilliant jumble of fall colors: ruby red, auburn, burnt orange and bright gold. A dish originating in Portugal, the bacalao — chipped pieces of salted and dried codfish — ring the mound of mofongo like Matisse's colorful dancers. And the sturdy mofongo, that pile of yellow plantains and crumbs of bacon, rises from between them with the promise of a transporting experience ahead.

Where do you want to go? Puerto Rico? Cuba? Portugal? Spain? China? West Africa? No need to board a plane away from Houston. At Tex-Chick, like so many Puerto Rican restaurants, the marriage of dishes and flavors will fly you headlong from one country to another.

"We have always been a mixture," owner Carlos Pérez laughs about his native Puerto Rico. "We party with everybody."

The San Juan native came to Houston in 1986 to study hotel management. He found some friends and a girlfriend here, but began to get homesick for his native food. An old high school friend took him to Tex-Chick, one of the only Puerto Rican restaurants in town, and Pérez quickly fell in love.

"The former owners were like grandparents to me," he says. "I came every week, ordered the same thing each time. I brought my girlfriend, who then became my wife, and then we started bringing our kids. Every week."

Tex-Chick wasn't always a Puerto Rican restaurant, however. Back in the 1940s, it was a drive-thru-only stand on Montrose, where burger joint Little Bigs is now located. The owner, from Oklahoma, served old-school American food.

After he retired, in 1982, Tex-Chick was sold to Teo Gonzales and his wife, Carmen. The couple began serving Puerto Rican food, their native cuisine, at the same time they moved the restaurant to its current location on Fairview.

Incongruously located across the street from Black Hawk Leather and Video, in a tiny storefront that houses four tables and a small kitchen, Tex-Chick has become a second home for Houston's small Puerto Rican community. It's endlessly jovial and welcoming inside, with tables full of other Puerto Rican ex-pats and neighborhood residents.

A few years ago, the Gonzaleses decided that it was time for them to retire, too, and decided to close Tex-Chick for good. Pérez was horrified.

"I told them, 'You can't close it!'" he recalls. "'Then you keep it!'" Teo said.

Pérez simply couldn't let his beloved restaurant close, so he worked out an agreement with Teo and Carmen Gonzales: "He stayed on with me and helped me run the place. He was like an uncle to me."

These days, Tex-Chick has had a bit of a facelift. A cheerful blue awning welcomes people into the small restaurant, which is only open each day until 5 p.m. Pérez says that it's because Puerto Rican food is so filling that you won't need to eat again "for a day and a half."

His favorite item on the small menu is the bistec empanizado, breaded steak that he fixes up with a pile of the sweet, vegetal, garlic-tinged mofongo. The mofongo itself has a long history; it was first imported to the island of Puerto Rico by West African slaves. In its native lands, mofongo is called fufu and is made with boiled, mashed green plantains.

Although there are an estimated 7,000 Puerto Rican people in Houston, there are a disproportionately small number of Puerto Rican restaurants. Tex-Chick is one of only two, since Isla Coqui closed a few years ago. Pérez chalks this up to a dining attitude in his countrymen that Houstonians should find familiar: "We mix so well with so many cultures that we'll eat anything. Chinese one day, Mexican the next. It doesn't matter to us."

Pérez keeps the place running now much as the Gonzaleses did, and it's clear that Tex-Chick has retained its immense popularity in Pérez's capable hands.

"I still don't know why I did it," laughs Pérez. "I just love the food."

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