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."

by Nishta J. Mehra

When Chris Shepherd first took the helm at Washington Avenue's Catalan, he kept his menu closely aligned with the region for which the restaurant was named, Spain's Catalonia. "I felt I needed to focus on doing Spanish-influenced items," he says. The decision earned him a lukewarm response from diners and critics. Sure, the dining room was lovely, the wine list from sommelier Antonio Gianola was outstanding and the food was good — Shepherd, formerly of Brennan's, certainly can cook — but things at Catalan just didn't click.

"After a certain point, it didn't make sense," says Shepherd. "I realized that what it really should be is a look into our city." And so Shepherd began to play around with the idea of what a distinctly Houston restaurant might look like.

That vision can now be seen rather clearly on the "Street Food" section of Catalan's menu, with its clear shout-outs to the ethnic groups that populate Houston: Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean, as well as hat tips to the restaurant's beginnings and geographic location, with Spanish street food and I-10 East street food, respectively. Oxtail spring rolls, sweetbread tacos — these aren't necessarily an easy sell, but Shepherd insists that pushing his diners out of the box is precisely the fun and challenge of his job.

"You keep pushing and pushing, and they'll go for it, they like it! Ten years ago, when I was at Brennan's, to put foie gras on something was hard — now look at things." The evolution of the Houston dining palate and vocabulary is reflected in one of the many quirks on Catalan's menu, the line item that reads, "add seared foie gras (to anything and we do mean anything)."

Shepherd has taken his knowledge of dishes commonly found far outside the Beltway and presents his interpretations of them to a crowd that may not often head out to taco trucks on Long Point or dim sum dives on Bellaire. "Maybe it gets them to go there," Shepherd muses. "Part of what I want to do is educate somebody — you have this in your own backyard, you can go find these things."

Catalan's transformation into a distinctly Houston restaurant has also meant a shift towards local farmers, growers and fishermen. "You have to look at what's available and go from there," Shepherd insists. He conceptualizes his menu from the ground up, with only 20 percent of what he offers going the other way. "It's not the easiest thing to do," he admits, "but as chefs, I think it's our responsibility to do it...I can give you food that was in the field yesterday, this morning, even."

When available, the restaurant's "Sandbox Tasting," at $80 a person, is a showcase of Houston-area meat, produce and seafood. On a spring visit, Gulf oysters, deep-fried snapper, Asian-style vegetables and various cuts of a heritage pig raised nearby did indeed make dinner feel like a playground.

And so does Catalan's new happy hour, with an irreverent menu that changes weekly — fried bologna sandwiches? Hand-battered hot dogs? A $5 bone marrow service with Galveston salt? "It's called happy hour, you know? I thought it should be fun."

If you ask Shepherd, he'll tell you that, from his view, the Houston dining scene is "going to blow up." With chefs like him, it seems that Houston is well on its way to becoming its own food city, with diverse influences, a laid-back vibe and an eager dining constituent, thrilled to be eating here and not New York, L.A. or Chicago.

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